Malapportionment in GE14
GE14 was an unexpected development for many Malaysians – many of us are still immersed in its after effects: elation; joy; vindication. In this celebratory atmosphere, however, it is equally important to keep our eyes on the prize: institutional reform for strengthening our democracy, particularly the reform of our electoral system.
Large and small
In this post, I analyze the effects of malapportionment in GE14. Malapportionment is the creation of electoral constituencies with very different ratios of voters to a representative. For example, if both a large constituency of 100,000 voters and a small constituency of 10,000 voters elect a single representative each, each voter in the small constituency has 10 times the influence of a voter in the large constituency. This results in great disparities in how valuable different peoples' votes are depending on their geographical location, which violates the spirit of equality.
Malaysia's Election Commission and government pushed forward a redelineation of the electoral boundaries in early 2018. This was widely expected to tilt the electoral map in favor of the ruling coalition.
In GE14, in general, the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) won larger parliamentary seats, while Barisan Nasional (BN) won smaller seats – as you can see from the graph below, displaying all 222 constituencies ranked by size, based on the number of registered voters.
Malapportionment meant that the 179,000 voters in the largest constituency, Bangi (Selangor) elected a single member of parliament, the same as the 20,000 voters in the smallest constituency, Igan (Sarawak). In other words, a voter in Bangi had about 1/10th the influence of a voter in Igan in electing their member of parliament. The following figures zoom in on the 50 largest and smallest constituencies – see if yours falls in either of these groups!
The average GE14 constituency contained 67,000 voters, but the average size of constituencies won by each party/coalition diverged significantly. The average winning PH candidate won in a larger-than-average seat with around 78,000 voters, while the average winning BN candidate won in a smaller-than-average seat of about 47,000 voters.
It took significantly more votes to elect a PH member of parliament than a BN member of parliament. In other words, the vote of someone in a constituency won by PH was worth less (in terms of how much it contributed to electing a single representative) than the vote of someone in a constituency won by BN.
Uneven playing field
A fascinating development is that BN lost in almost all "large" parliamentary seats. Out of the 100 largest seats, BN only won in 9. Out of BN's 79 wins, 70 of them came from the 122 smallest parliamentary constituencies in the country.
PAS was perhaps the biggest loser from malapportionment – winning 16 out of its 18 seats from the 100 largest Parliamentary constituencies, but only 2 out of 122 small seats. PAS voters were "packed" together in the 2003 redelineation exercise after the 1999 Reformasi, when the Malay vote swung against BN. The Islamist party's voters are still suffering from this disenfranchisement at the national level (although their geographical compactness means PAS performs well on the East coast).
On average, PH won their seats more convincingly than either BN or PAS, with an average majority of around 21,000. PH super-majorities, for example in Damansara (107,000) and Subang (92,000) contributed to this high average. The following graph shows the majorities won by each party/coalition. It's obvious that PH wins more convincingly than BN or PAS.
However, this also means that many PH votes were "wasted", or didn't directly influence the winner of their constituencies. Voters in large districts were effectively disenfranchised, as these super-majorities are larger than even the average constituency size (67,300). In other words, PH could have elected many more members of parliament solely from their majorities (if the sizes of constituencies were all closer to each other).
The establishment of a Committee on Institutional Reforms under the Council of Eminent Persons is a right step forward. The current structural unfairness in our electoral system needs to be addressed to entrench our nascent but vibrant culture of democracy. This begins with ensuring voting constituencies do not differ so extremely in size, to ensure each person's vote is worth roughly the same.
An earlier version of this post appeared in Malaysiakini.