The voters need action on election weaknesses

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 May, 2005, 12:00am

The independent investigation into the administrative blunders which marred September's Legislative Council election has painted a disturbing picture. A report released by the panel last week highlights serious weaknesses in Hong Kong's ability to hold well-organised and efficient elections. It should be taken seriously.

The panel, appointed by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, stressed that the many problems which arose did not impair the integrity of the poll. It concluded the vote was open, fair and honest. This was never seriously in doubt.

But the catalogue of errors by election officials set out in the report shook the public's confidence in the election. Many of them were basic mistakes which could easily have been avoided.

The systemic weaknesses highlighted by the committee suggest that if lessons are not learned, similar problems are likely to arise again in the future. There is a need for action.

There was a failure to properly prepare for the election, to sufficiently monitor its progress, to put in place effective contingency plans or to ensure staff were adequately trained.

The Electoral Affairs Commission and government departments involved failed to communicate properly with each other - or with the public. It is a sorry state of affairs.

Much of what the committee repeatedly - and accurately - described as 'chaos' resulted from the flawed design of new ballot papers and the boxes into which they were inserted.

The papers were bigger, thicker and heavier than usual. The boxes were smaller than in the past. It does not take a genius to work out that problems were likely to ensue.

Tests were conducted before the election which suggested the new equipment would work well. But the papers used were lighter and thinner than those produced for polling day. The results of the tests were therefore grossly inaccurate - and they led to huge problems.

Ballot boxes filled up much quicker than expected - and polling stations began to run out. Many boxes even had to be opened during polling in order to deal with the difficulties. In two stations, cardboard boxes were used as a stop-gap. The committee took a rather flexible view of the law in concluding that, under the circumstances, it had not been breached.

These are the sorts of abnormalities which can undermine an election. The committee did not hold any individuals responsible for the chaos, stating that this was not one of its terms of reference.

It instead focused on making recommendations for the future. These should be carefully followed. Some of them should not need pointing out to the government. Recommendation No1, for example, says: 'The composition of the [commission] should be strengthened by including people with related expertise.'

Some initial steps have been taken to broaden the expertise of the commission, but more needs to be done.

Serious questions should be asked about the performance of commission chief Mr Justice Woo Kwok-hing. Anyone with a dash of humility and sense of responsibility would be considering his position. But the official response to the report has been disappointing.

Both the Constitutional Affairs Bureau and Electoral Affairs Commission chose to highlight the positive parts of the report and gloss over the much longer list of failings. There have been the usual promises to follow up the committee's recommendations.

The report has not prompted an apology to voters, an expression of regret or even a recognition of how serious these problems are.

The committee rightly warns that the existing arrangements no longer meet the public's needs or expectations. Changes must be introduced to prevent chaos occurring again in the future.