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A week ago, the constituency of Shau Kei Wan, a neighbourhood in the East of Hong Kong Island with some 13,000 residents, represented a potential problem for the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB).

The DAB’s incumbent district councillor Lo Tip-chun had held the seat since 1994. She had run unopposed until 2007, when she defeated an independent candidate by a margin of 523 votes. Four years later, the gap had narrowed to 153. This year, she nominated her protégé Lam Sum-lim, who was challenged by local secondary school teacher Jenny Leung. It was poised to be a tight election.

Enter a third candidate: Vannie Poon. Poon’s election flyers called for “real universal suffrage” and bore the yellow ribbon, a symbol of the Umbrella Movement. Yet that is essentially all we know about Poon. She has never given an interview. The Facebook account printed on her flyers is private. The flyers contain the phrase “Shau Kei Wan Democratic Concern”, strangely similar in Chinese to Leung’s “Shau Kei Wan Livelihood Concern Group”.

Vannie Poon
Vannie Poon (right). Photo: Umbrella Unity via Facebook.

Last Sunday Poon received a paltry 107 votes. But had Poon not run in Shau Kei Wan, these votes might – or might not – have gone to Jenny Leung, who ultimately lost to the DAB’s Lam Sum-lim by a mere 15 votes.

The New Youth Group

Poon is one of several people alleged to be associated with the mysterious New Youth Group (NYG). In October, spokesperson Li Chak-sum claimed that the group would field eight candidates in the District Council elections. This claim cannot be verified, however, because no candidates have officially declared themselves to be affiliated with the NYG with the Electoral Affairs Commission. Li has also refused to disclose their names.

The suspected NYG candidates ran in constituencies contested by at least one pan-democrat and one pro-establishment candidate, often where results in 2011 were close. They shared similarly-designed flyers donned with yellow ribbons. Several provided the same contact number.

Among them, Daniel Lau received 94 votes in Southern District’s Wah Kwai constituency, where the Democratic Party’s Yeung Siu-pik lost to the DAB’s Ada Mak-Tse by only 47. Like Vannie Poon, Lau received a greater number of votes than the margin by which the local pan-democrat lost. Stand News therefore concluded that the NYG had succeeded in tilting the election in favour of the pro-establishment candidates in at least two constituencies.

Campaign flyers with identical contact
Campaign flyers with identical contact numbers. Photo: InmediaHK.

As such, they have been accused by netizens of being “fake umbrella soldiers”: operatives from the pro-establishment camp who aim to dilute the pan-democrat vote by running on a similar electoral platform.

There is certainly some suggestion that this is the case. In October, Next Magazine succeeded in speaking to Li Chak-sum’s grandmother, who claimed that he was politically apathetic, but “received around HK$10,000 per month for handing out pamphlets”. The Democratic and Civic parties then lodged a complaint against him with the Independent Commission Against Corruption, though it appears no action has yet been taken.

Just this week, former League of Social Democrats member Remzi Wu disclosed to Stand News that he had been requested by “someone in the pro-establishment camp” to run in Tai Hang, Wanchai. Also contesting in Tai Hang was Clarisse Yeung from Good Day Wanchai, a post-Umbrella Movement group. Wu refused this request.

Facebook page of NYG
Facebook page of NYG (note that nothing has been posted since 6 November).

Not Very Creative After All?

Among the various allegations of (legal or illegal) electoral fraud in Hong Kong, the practice of “vote-snatching” using fake candidates certainly stands out, having received unprecedented media attention. It is not part of traditional repertoire, such as recruiting elderly voters from retirement homes, or providing material benefits. But it would be wrong to believe that we are witnessing anything new or particularly innovative.

In 2011, Russell Pearce, the Arizona State senator for the district of Mesa West, was presented with 18,000 “recall” signatures from disgruntled citizens, forcing new elections to be held for his district. It was expected that Pearce, known for his anti-immigration policies, would lose much of the Mexican-American vote to his challenger. Out of nowhere, a retired semiconductor worker of Mexican origin named Olivia Cortes entered her candidacy, appealing to Spanish-speaking voters with the slogan “Si Se Puede!” (Yes We Can). Although she eventually withdrew, citizens filed a lawsuit against Cortes – alongside several members of Pearce’s entourage – for attempting to deceive voters.

A New York Times feature on electoral fraud from 2004 documented deception techniques that seem even more bizarre. That year, a former dockworker named Jose Serrano was asked to run against incumbent Congressman José E. Serrano, allegedly to confuse his voters for the benefit of a third candidate. The previous year, John C. Liu ran against Jay C. Liu for a seat in the New York City Council.

Advocacy groups
Advocacy groups called for better protection of elderly voters in October.

Implications for the Electoral System

This practice poses a problem for the democratic system. In an election with many constituencies, it is unrealistic to expect the media to spend so much time and effort on exposing the background and intentions of every newcomer candidate. So how do you design an election, so as to prevent Party A from sending out a fake third “Independent Candidate” C, with the exact same electoral programme as Party B, in order to dilute Party B’s votes?

  • Perhaps the masterminds behind the “fake umbrella soldiers” – if the accusations are true – were incentivised by low nomination barriers. According to the Electoral Affairs Commission, candidates need only receive nominations from 10 registered voters and pay a deposit of HK$3,000 to run for the District Council. However, raising the nomination barriers would risk excluding genuine candidates without financial backing. The non-affiliated Chui Chi-kin might have thought twice before deciding to run against – and eventually defeating – legislator Christopher Chung Shu-kun on nomination deadline day.
  • To limit the number of candidates, we could also introduce a second round of voting. The two candidates with the highest number of votes in the first round would progress to a run-off election, and electors would be asked to choose one or the other. However, it is a massive strain on societal resources to implement this system in hundreds of constituencies.
  • Perhaps the answer lies not in the design of the election, but in better enforcement by the authorities against “fake candidates”. But like any fraud case in court, this could take months or years to prove. If the authorities were to vigorously investigate every allegation, Party B might be encouraged to make frivolous complaints against Party A and Candidate C, in order to disrupt both their campaigns. Running in an already-crowded constituency in order to dilute votes is not necessarily fraud; some localist candidates have adopted this strategy to oust moderate pan-democrats.
Chui Chi-kin
Chui Chi-kin, who defeated Christopher Chung in Yue Wan constituency.

Of course, not all attempts at voter dilution are effective. Theoretically, the unknown Candidate C would only be able to “snatch” a significant number of votes from Party B if the latter’s electorate were divided on certain issues and/or dissatisfied with the status quo. But this is exactly the case in Hong Kong after the Umbrella Movement, where some believe that the traditional pan-democrats are no longer appropriate spokespeople for the city’s democratic movement.

It appears, therefore, that there might not be any immediate solution. Interviewed by RTHK the morning after the elections, Sung Lap-kung, a political analyst at City University, forecasted that “vote-snatching” would become a regular strategy in the future.

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.