Ambassadors come knocking for voters

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 December, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 December, 1997, 12:00am

If they didn't knock on your door today, they will tomorrow. That was the pledge of Deputy Director of Home Affairs Augustine Cheng Luk-san this week, making final preparations to send grandly-titled voter registration ambassadors to every single home in the SAR by 10pm tomorrow tonight.

In fact, even if you don't have a door, you can expect a visit, Mr Cheng said.

About 290 cars have been hired to carry the 'ambassadors' to the remotest villages in the New Territories and boats rented so they can paddle around typhoon shelters to register those living aboard sampans and junks.

And next week, as the ambassadors fan out each evening until Friday going back to homes where no one was in this weekend, street-sleepers, old-age shelter residents and hospital patients will begin to be asked for their details.

The campaign, which aims to make the electoral roll as complete as possible in time for next May's Legislative Council elections, has a budget of $61 million out of nearly $170 million approved by the provisional legislature last month for election-related expenses.

With more than two million households across Hong Kong, it is a formidable task, Mr Cheng said, but more than a third of the estimated 3.9 million people qualified to vote in the geographical constituencies are unregistered. And, of the 2.5 million people who had added their names to the roll in the past, many are expected to have moved and not told the Registration and Electoral Office.

'Hong Kong people tend to change their addresses rather frequently,' said Mr Cheng, 'so we will also be updating information on electors.' In past campaigns, voter registration forms were simply handed out in shopping centres, MTR stations and other busy places, Mr Cheng said. But this year's drive will be more 'pro-active'.

'Most people are a bit lazy,' Mr Cheng said. 'Even if you give them a form and they only have to fill in a little information they will not do it, and if they do they will not take it to the post office - even though the postage is free.

'This time we will visit households and fill in the forms for them. All they will have to do is to put their signature on the bottom line. Everything will be completed at their doorstep.' About 30,000 teenagers from schools across Hong Kong were recruited for the job after letters were sent to school heads.

'They were encouraged by teachers and the principals,' said Mr Cheng.

'It's very good civic education for them. They can participate in a way in the running of Hong Kong affairs and learn something about the electoral system.' They were also lured by payment of $1,000 for the two days' work from 10am to 10pm - about $42 an hour and considered competitive, Mr Cheng said.

About 2,000 voter registration supervisors - mainly teachers but also a handful of civil servants - will oversee the work of the ambassadors. They will each be paid $1,500.

This weekend's action is the climax of a month of intensive planning, Mr Cheng said.

Based on data from the 1991 census, the 1996 by-census and the current electoral roll, officials estimated how many households were in each of the SAR's 18 districts.

Each district office has a master plan, splitting their area into manageable chunks, with about 16 ambassadors in each unit patrolling villages and estates armed with lists of addresses and clipboards loaded with hundreds of registration forms.

Later, the electoral roll will to be split into the five geographical constituencies - New Territories East, New Territories West, Kowloon East, Kowloon West, and Hong Kong Island.

Most ambassadors will visit homes in their own neighbourhoods. But in Central, Western and Wan Chai, where there are few secondary schools, students from the Eastern District of Hong Kong Island, where there is an ambassador surplus, will be bussed in.

The ambassadors will wear distinctive turquoise waistcoats complete with the registration drive logo - an outsize SAR flag flying over a stylised drawing of the Legislative Council building.

It remains to be seen whether the real-life ambassadors will be as clean-cut as the two featured on the television promotion which has been running for weeks - perhaps not, after trudging around an average of 150 households each.

For safety, the ambassadors are forbidden to enter any home, Mr Cheng said, confining their work to the doorstep.

'The students must work in pairs, and there will be a lot of their peers in the same building.' This weekend's campaign is set to dwarf the geographical constituency effort before the last Legislative Council elections, when a $25 million drive added about 114,000 people to the electoral roll for geographical constituencies.

Ousted legislator Emily Lau Wai-hing said she approved of any campaign to encourage voting, but to her the extra money and concentration on the geographical constituencies was part of a fig-leaf to hide the reduced electorate of the other 40 seats.

'One way of making (the election) look legitimate is to have a very high registration rate and a very high turnout rate,' Ms Lau said.

'The Government has said publicly: 'Forget about the 40 seats which are elected by limited franchise, just concentrate on the 20 directly elected seats.' That's why they're bending over backwards.' Mr Cheng would not be drawn into that argument, saying merely that it was the duty of the Government to register as many voters as possible.

He also refused to set a target for this week's drive.

'We simply ask (the ambassadors) to do their best,' said Mr Cheng, 'and hope that the hard work will be repaid handsomely.' For would-be voters missed by the drive, the final deadline for registration is January 16.