How it all went wrong in counting votes for key Hong Kong Election Committee poll

·6-min read

From document delivery and cross-checking of ballots to paper jams in vote-counting machines – whatever could go wrong in Hong Kong’s first poll under the Beijing-decreed electoral overhaul went wrong, leading to a 14-hour wait for the results.

It took nine hours for electoral authorities overseeing the poll for the powerful Election Committee to announce the results for the first of 13 subsectors, one that involved just 55 votes. Another five hours lapsed before counting of all 4,380 ballot papers in the 13 subsectors was completed.

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Beijing has hailed it as a “symbolic” election, with a spokesman from the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office highlighting the community’s recognition of the revamped system, and the central government’s liaison office saying it helped lay down the new political ground rules.

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But the marathon vote count drew the ire of candidates, placed the administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in an embarrassing position, and puzzled many who had been proud of civil servants’ famed efficiency.

While Electoral Affairs Commission chairman Barnabas Fung Wah apologised for the “unreasonable” delay, attributing it to the first-time use of an electronic voter register and inflexibility of counting staff, the Post uncovered other issues that also marred the “patriots-only” poll.

They ranged from questionable votes to poor communications on site, according to candidates and electoral officials who had kept a close watch on the process at the central counting station in the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai

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After voting to pick some 400 representatives for a 1,500-strong committee tasked with choosing the city’s leader closed at 6pm, hundreds of candidates, their agents and members of the public gradually filled up a giant hall of the centre where winners were to be called. Five polling stations had been set up across the city.

The first delay soon ensued. The traditional emptying of the first ballot box by Fung and other senior officials was expected at 8pm but was delayed by over an hour.

Few candidates were around when the results were announced. Photo: Sam Tsang
Few candidates were around when the results were announced. Photo: Sam Tsang

Fung revealed that some documents related to votes cast in the Wan Chai polling station – located on a different level of the exhibition centre – had been left behind. Collecting them and cross-checking took extra time.

“The presiding officer, who is usually a senior government official, at each polling station has a responsibility to make sure ballot boxes and relevant verification documents are delivered to the counting station in one go,” an electoral official said on condition of anonymity.

Although the authorities issued ballot papers using an electronic voter register for the first time, “many inconsistencies were found” between digital and handwritten records, Fung admitted, resulting in station staff cross-checking statistics manually.

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“[Some staff] might have lacked practical experience, but they could have dealt with situations in a more flexible manner … Unfortunately, some waited for a long time before raising the problems with us,” Fung said on Monday morning.

Asked whether he or any of his staff should be held accountable for the inconsistencies, Fung said he did not want to pinpoint anyone but pledged a thorough review of the problems.

Before the ballot papers could be counted by machine, 260 staff were tasked with sorting them into the 13 subsectors and determining if they were valid.

Barnabas Fung (second from right) helps empty the first opened ballot box. Photo: Sam Tsang
Barnabas Fung (second from right) helps empty the first opened ballot box. Photo: Sam Tsang

But the sorting was not finished until well after midnight. By that time, the main hall, where hundreds had earlier waited, was largely empty. They had either left for home or were invited by returning officers to witness how they determined the validity of questionable ballots.

Voters were required to fill in small ovals opposite the names of their preferred candidates, but from images projected on screen by returning officers, dozens left marks outside the ovals, circled names or crossed them out on their ballot papers. Officials showed the papers to candidates and explained their rulings on each.

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One annoyed candidate told the Post: “I was so surprised that many voters had no concept of how to fill in the blanks. I thought it was common sense.”

At least three ballots cast for the education subsector were left blank. The subsector recorded the lowest turnout of 84 per cent.

The Post has asked the Registration and Electoral Office for the total number of questionable and invalid votes.

Ballot papers are separated into the relevant subsectors. Photo: Sam Tsang
Ballot papers are separated into the relevant subsectors. Photo: Sam Tsang

At 4am, rumours circulated that the count could drag on until noon due to “system failure”, prompting dozens of candidates in the area committees subsector to seek clarification.

They wandered around the counting centre, looking in vain for electoral officials.

“I won’t say I’m disappointed as the system is new,” candidate Clement Woo Kin-man, chairman of Tai Po South Area Committee, said. “But some of us will have to leave now, as we have things to do in the morning.”

Among the handful of candidates in the subsector who stayed on was Deng Kai-rong. “Our insistence to wait in the counting station for almost 10 hours without eating and sleeping shows our staunch support for our electoral system,” he said.

Fung later explained that paper jams occurred at some Optical Mark Recognition machines which resulted in three recounts of some ballots.

“The problem involved the preparation of putting all those ballots into the machines,” he said at 6am.

Eventually, after 14 hours, the authorities announced the results of all 13 subsectors – although few candidates were around to hear them.

Ballot boxes are brought to the central counting station in Wan Chai. Photo: Sam Tsang
Ballot boxes are brought to the central counting station in Wan Chai. Photo: Sam Tsang

The delays left pro-Beijing scholars less than impressed. Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies think tank, said the authorities should have counted votes manually rather than using machines.

“It was unwise to try out new technology in an election where a limited number of voters cast ballots,” he said.

Tian Feilong, an associate professor at Beihang University’s law school in Beijing, said: “The Hong Kong government has done a good job in ensuring a safe environment for the poll, but was not efficient enough in the vote-counting process.”

But political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung of Chinese University said he believed the vote-counting fiasco – despite embarrassing the government – would not affect Beijing’s trust in the Lam administration.

“After all, only the election turnout and outcome matter,” he said, adding that the recent Legislative Assembly election in Macau drew a record low turnout of 42.4 per cent, embarrassing Beijing.

“The Hong Kong government has played its part in securing a high turnout of 90 per cent. There also wasn’t any unexpected result.”

Additional reporting by Jeffie Lam and Gary Cheung

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