Poll chief should carry the can for blunders

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 September, 2004, 12:00am

The full extent of the administrative blunders that marred Sunday's Legislative Council election is still not known. But the picture that has emerged so far is disturbing. A multitude of problems that call into question the credibility of the polls has come to light. Doubts have been raised about the fairness of the process, and there is evidence that some potential electors were deterred from casting their vote.

This is unacceptable. The election was one of the most important in our city's history. The campaign had been dominated by smears and beset by allegations of attempts to manipulate the vote. The need for a scrupulously fair election was paramount. There is no excuse for the muddle that ensued.

Even before voting began, problems had arisen. There was an embarrassing mix-up over the official publication of candidates' platforms. The views of some were wrongly attributed to others. It was an error that could have confused and misled voters. On election day, some polling stations opened late, while others had no access for disabled voters. These were relatively minor problems, but worse was to follow.

The biggest blunder concerned the flawed design of ballot boxes and ballot papers. This led to the boxes filling up much more quickly than expected. A comedy of errors resulted. There were reports of some officials trying to press ballot papers down with barbecue forks and rulers to make more room. Some ballot boxes were opened during the voting process as an emergency measure. Extra ballot boxes had to be rushed in by taxi. And in the meantime, voting in affected polling stations was delayed by as much as an hour.

This combination of events has serious implications. It has damaged confidence in the secure handling of the ballots that had, by then, been cast. And we will never know how many potential voters decided not to bother as a result of the delays.

Electoral affairs chief Mr Justice Woo Kwok-hing said he did not believe voters were deterred. But anecdotal evidence and the complaints of callers to radio talk shows suggest otherwise. So does common sense.

This problem arose as a result of poor preparation. It should have been foreseen. Mr Justice Woo has argued that the difficulty arose as a result of voters not folding their ballot papers properly. This is an insult to the electorate.

Regrettably, the problems did not end there. Complaints have been made that several agents representing candidates were barred from a polling station during the count. If this happened, an important safeguard intended to ensure fair play was removed.

The counting of votes was held up for several hours because of computer problems. And, in some functional constituencies, there were discrepancies between the initial turnout announced and the final count of votes.

Thankfully, the candidates have reacted responsibly to this series of blunders. There have been no suggestions of dishonesty or foul play - and, as yet, no attempt to force a re-election in any constituency. This is to their credit.

But the reaction of the officials responsible for organising the election has been disappointing. There appears to be a reluctance to accept just how serious these errors were.

The Electoral Affairs Commission is to conduct a review. We hope this will be thorough and that the conclusions reached will be frank. Lessons must be learned to avoid a repetition of this fiasco in future.

Officials should be prepared to take responsibility. Asked whether or not he would resign, Mr Justice Woo responded with a pertinent question. Who, he said, would clear up this mess if he were to step down?

We have an answer for him. That responsibility should lie with someone else - someone who is capable of doing a better job.