Instead of sleeping on Sunday night after the LegCo election, 33-year-old AM730 columnist William Chan instead volunteered to watch people count ballots, which ended up lasting until 8am in the morning due to a recount.

Chan was one of the organisers of a Facebook event called Monitor Your Own Polling Stations, which called on Hong Kong people to witness the vote count at their local polling stations. Despite the fact that the page was set up only a couple days before the election, 190 people confirmed their attendance.

vote counting agents
William Chan and Mo Chan. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Mo Chan, another organiser, said the event was necessary because people have no confidence in the election process.

“Since the beginning of the LegCo election, since the nomination process, we have seen a lot of things that were done in a very weird way. We think that – as residents – we should use our own eyes to watch this thing carefully.” He mentioned the disqualification of candidates, reports of people arriving at polling stations to find their ballots had already been cast by someone else, and reports of people telling senior citizens who to vote for by writing it on their hands as odd happenings that unfolded during the voting process.

vote counting agent
Photo: Facebook/William Chan.

“If we can’t do anything in legal terms we have to use [the government’s] own weird administrative measures to contend with them,” he said.

He actually registered as a vote counting agent a few weeks ago, Chan said. To be an official vote counting agent, volunteers had to have registered in advance as a voting agent representing a candidate in the constituency. But civilians can also watch the counting process from public seats in polling stations without registering.

One small step

Describing themselves as anti-establishment, William Chan and Mo Chan organised the event at the last minute under the Facebook group One Small Step For You, One Big Step for Hong Kong. The group is not a real organisation, they said.

vote counting
Photo: Facebook/Monitor your own voting stations.

“It started as just a bunch of our friends talking nonsense,” said William Chan. “It was like: are you chicken, are you chicken? I’m not scared of you – let’s do it!”

“We didn’t expect so many people to be interested,” said William Chan.

They started receiving a lot of enquiries: “Some people asked if they could wear slippers… if there were chairs, if they could bring snacks.”

Possible situations they were watching for are situations like counters rejecting slightly damaged ballots because the vote wasn’t for their camp, said Mo Chan. “As long as the tick is in the right place, they have to count it,” he said.

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Voters read about candidates before going into the polls. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

When vote counting began at the Wong Yiu Nam Primary School polling station in Sha Tin, William Chan’s station, the 20-30 seats that had been set up for the public and for counting agents were full. Chan said six or seven of these observers stayed until the very end.

Mr. Mo, a voter who went back to watch the count afterwards, said he wouldn’t have done so if his daughter hadn’t registered as a counting agent. “It’s not that I’m not interested,” he said. “It’s that I wouldn’t have known you could do that.”

When asked what he thought at the start of the count, he said: “it’s fresh. I didn’t know that they would show you that the boxes are really empty.”

vote counting
The polling station director briefs counting agents and members of the public before the counting starts. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Little things, big difference

William Chan and Mo Chan said they didn’t so much organise an event as provide information for people.

“We see that lots of our friends feel discontent… but for lots of Hongkongers going out on the streets is too dangerous,” said Mo Chan.

“We try to find shortcuts for people, to show what little things they can do to make a big difference. We are also too lazy to take big steps, so we thought about what we could do and what we like to do – that’s why there’s the [One Small Step] page.”

They had been thinking about what they could do to improve the situation in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, said Mo Chan.

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Voters line up to cast their ballots. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

“We’ve held it in for two years, so everyone wants to speak out now,” their friend who was listening in on the interview interjected.

“This time around the sense of civic responsibility is much greater,” he continued, “because this is the first large scale general election since the occupy movement.” William Chan said he heard from many people who voted for the first time this election, including his friends’ parents, who were already in their seventies.

Voter turnout was the highest this year since 2004, with 58 per cent, or 2.2 million voters, casting their votes on Sunday.

legco elections
Police officers outside the polling station. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

“I foresee that there will be more and more people like ourselves organising grassroots activities in the next few years,” said Mo Chan.

Problem polling stations

Another public observer at the Sha Tin polling station was Thompson Shun, a 19-year-old student. He said this year was the first year he was able to vote since he was in the UK last year. He felt good after casting his ballot, he said, until he heard about incidents such as people being able to vote using photocopied IDs and people who were unable to vote because their ballots had already seemingly been cast. “But all I can do is cast my vote and see what happens,” he said.

voting legco
Thompson Shun. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

He said he wanted to see for himself what the process was like after hearing of the incidents. He read online that it was possible to attend the count, but he did not make special preparations to spot counting malpractices.

Despite the vigilance of the counting agents, problems still surfaced during the counting process. Although William Chan’s counting station was only off by one vote – there was one more person who voted than ballots counted. A recount was called, which delivered the same result. “Apart from making verbal complaints, there’s nothing I can do,” Chan wrote on his Facebook page on Monday morning.

More significant differences were found at the Lee Heng Kwei Secondary School counting station in Tai Po and at the Sheung Tak Community Hall polling station. In Tai Po, there were around 289 more ballots than people who voted, reported HK01. At Sheung Tak, the number of people who voted suddenly increased by 300, a Youngspiration representative told Now TV.

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The polling station director talks with staff while setting up for vote counting. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Although William Chan only managed to get an hour of sleep on Monday afternoon, he headed to the Tai Po polling station to support his fellow counting agents after hearing about a conflict between the station director and the counting agents.

When asked whether they would organise the Monitor Your Own Polling Station event in the next election, they said: “we’d rather go out and drink.”

legco election polling
Voters wait for their family members and friends outside the polling station. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

“The best thing that would happen would be if next time we wouldn’t be compulsed to supervise the count, if we could trust the govt’s administrative measures,” said Mo Chan. “I would rather go out to play than waste my time here.”

“But honestly speaking, for the foreseeable future, in the next election we will be forced out here again,” said William.

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.