Hong Kong government scraps plan to shorten voting hours after overwhelming public opposition
Some 99.7 per cent of 15,400 submissions to consultation say voters’ rights ‘should not be sacrificed for administrative convenience’
A government suggestion of shortening polling times for Hong Kong elections has been shelved after an overwhelming number of objections from people fearing the measure would strip shift workers of their voting rights.
The development came on Tuesday as the administration submitted to the Legislative Council a report which wrapped up the results of a seven-week public consultation last year on three issues related to elections.
While the government had said it was open to shortening polling hours – which normally last from 7.30am to 10.30pm – it suggested in the consultation paper that the move would help alleviate the fatigue suffered by candidates and electoral staff and ease the booking of venues.
The plan was lauded by the pro-establishment parties, but strongly opposed by pan-democrats, who accused the government of trying to cut their chances in polls, as a lot of their supporters tend to vote in the final hours.
Long queues formed in Taikoo Shing – a middle-class private housing estate and pan-democrat stronghold – in the 2016 Legco elections, the last vote being cast at 2.30am, four hours after polls were scheduled to close.
The government on Tuesday announced it would not push the change after receiving an overwhelming response from members of the public – 99.7 per cent of the 15,400 submissions – who argued the rights of voters “should not be sacrificed for administrative convenience”.
Pro-Beijing candidate Bill Tang spent HK$2.24 million on failed Legislative Council by-election campaign – with most being spent on adverts and meals for assistants
“Having critically examined all the views received during the consultation period, we consider that there is a need to take into account … whether alternative arrangements could be provided for electors who are unable to go to the polling stations in person on the polling day owing to a change in polling hours,” the report read.
“We propose that the present polling hours of Legco and district council elections should be maintained for the time being before the government reviews these issues related to polling hours, and before a consensus is reached by the community.”
Chinese University political scientist Dr Ma Ngok said the reasons for shortening the polling time had been fairly weak and argued that the city’s long working hours made it necessary to keep stations open late.
“The polling day takes place on Tuesday in the United States and it is an unspoken rule for the employees to leave the office in the afternoon – yet that is something that the employers in Hong Kong would not allow,” he said. “The voting time lasts from 7.30am to 10.30pm in Hong Kong because we would assume no one would have to work for 15 hours a day.”
Ma also noted the turnouts in the final hours were particularly high in the new towns in the New Territories, arguing a number of voters might not be able to make it if the polling time at night was cut short.
Meanwhile, the government proposed introducing a targeted exemption from criminal liability for those who merely incur electricity and internet access charges when expressing support for an election candidate on social media.
Under current rules, only candidates and their expense agents are allowed to run election adverts, and any third party who promotes or prejudices a candidate online could be charged for illegally incurring election expenses. The proposed change would be implemented through an amendment bill to be introduced into the legislature this year.
The administration also decided not to regulate election surveys conducted before polling day in the absence of consensus after most respondents, including the Bar Association and the Law Society, expressed concerns that it would affect the public’s right to know about the latest electoral situation, academic freedom and press freedom.
The Beijing-friendly parties have called for tougher regulations after legal academic Benny Tai Yiu-ting, who co-founded the pro-democracy Occupy movement, launched the strategic voting scheme “Thunder Go” for the 2016 Legco elections in a bid to maximise pro-democracy candidates’ chances.