Must maintain credibility of elections

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 October, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 October, 1995, 12:00am

THE wanton allegation in your editorial of October 18, that 'the ban on the publication of exit poll results before voting has finished has less to do with clean elections than with nannying a population the commission chairman . . . seems not to trust to think for itself', and your assumed conclusion, 'Instead of censuring broadcasters for putting these results out early, the commission should be concentrating on why the election vote count was so chaotic and so late', raise disquiet in me.

The polls for the functional constituency (FC) and the geographical constituency (GC) elections closed simultaneously at 10.30 pm on the polling day of September 17, but the election committee constituency (ECC) poll closed at midnight.

The Boundary and Election Commission feared that the publication of exit poll results before the close of poll might affect voter behaviour. The guideline against such publication, with a warning of censure, has been in existence since June, 1994. Since then, there have been three consultation periods - the District Board elections (September, 1994), Municipal Council elections (March, 1995) Legco elections (September of this year). At no time, did any member of the electronic or print media, including your newspaper, raise any objection; not even a whimper. The continuous silence of the media must be taken to mean that they agreed with or acquiesced in the principle involved, especially when copies of the guideline had been given to them.

I quote from your editorial, 'Voters choose their candidates according to many criteria. Exit polls will be a very minor factor' and, exit polls, 'are a legitimate source of news for voters who wish to make an informed choice'. These quotes show that even your newspaper accepts that knowledge of exit poll results may have a certain influence on voter behaviour, however slight it may be.

The guideline was made exactly for avoiding that influence. It is disingenuous of your editorial to say that actual influence is not supported by evidence, particularly when there is no election petition to challenge the election results, and fortunately there is none for the time being. The vote is secret and nobody ever seems to gainsay that. Why should a voter, a late-comer, be entitled to have been known? This knowledge is unlike that about the candidates' background or services or platforms, which the voter will certainly consider in making his choice.

The commission and I have never entertained any distrust in the voter's choice, let alone trying to 'nanny' him as to how to make such a choice. If your newspaper is seriously saying that the voter requires to know exit poll results to make 'an informed choice', why is it that not a single member of the media made any representation to the commission throughout the three consultation periods I have already referred to? Your editorial pointed out rightly that the commission feared that exit poll results might be misleading. If a certain exit poll result was unreliable, vote behaviour would not only be affected, but affected in a very distorted way.

While there were only 18 GC seats in the 1991 Legco election, the election results were announced by about 11am on the day after the polling day. With an ECC, 20 contested FCs and 20 GCs in the Legco election on September 17 of this year, the counts were concluded at about 1.20pm on September 18. The evidence therefore is contrary to the unwarranted comment that the vote count was 'so late'.

All the counts in respect of the 20 FCs and 20 GCs were conducted at one single counting station. This was the first time ever in Hong Kong that the vote counts of many different constituencies were centralised, for the convenience of all, including candidates, their supporters who might support various candidates in different constituencies, and, not least, members of the media.

The building used was newly built and the centralised set-up for the count was also new. Though various facilities and procedures may need improvement, it is not apt to describe the vote count as 'chaotic'. Bearing in mind all the circumstances, the commission is fully satisfied that the count was conducted in the most orderly manner humanly possible. Thanks are due to the conscientious and dedicated way the 2,000 strong counting staff performed their duties.

About three weeks before the election, the three censured organisations and others in their field requested the commission for the first time to allow them to announce exit poll results before the ECC poll closed at midnight on September 17. We conducted a questionnaire survey with the ECC electors and candidates, and the majority of those who expressed a view were against publication before midnight.

We therefore reiterated the guideline, informed the electronic media of the survey result, and warned it against early publication. The early publication by the three broadcasters not only blatantly disregarded the guideline, but demonstrated scant respect for the majority wishes of the ECC electors and candidates.

I well appreciate that some members of the media would not see the commission's censure in a proper perspective, for their own interests and powers are involved. It is necessary to maintain credibility of elections in Hong Kong and anything which may have a possible undue effect on voter behaviour and therefore election results must be avoided.

K. H. WOO Chairman Boundary and Election Commission