People who “openly incite” voters to cast blank or invalid ballots in an election could face legal action, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced on Tuesday, as the government unveiled more details of a Beijing-led overhaul of the city’s elections.

Carrie Lam (middle) at a press conference on April 13, 2021. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

A new bill due to come before the city’s Legislative Council (Legco) later this week will outline plans to make it illegal for anyone to encourage people not to vote and spoil or leave their ballot paper blank. Also, those who “wilfully obstruct and prevent” others from voting in an election will be considered to have engaged in “corrupt conduct”.

However, Lam said the right of individuals to cast a blank vote or spoil their ballot paper in the privacy of the voting booth will remain protected.

Introducing the Improving Electoral System Bill 2021, which will be submitted to the LegCo for its first and second reading on Wednesday, Lam said the authorities will propose a number of amendments as part of a significant revamp of the current electoral system.

Constitutional and Mainland Affairs minister Erick Tsang added people who incite others to cast a blank or invalid vote may have an intention to “damage the credibility” of the polls: “Such disruptive behaviour needs to be regulated.”

A raft of changes to the Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance will include moves to “regulate acts that manipulate or undermine elections” , which will criminalise inciting people not to vote or cast blank or spoiled ballots. Under the proposals in the bill it will also become an offence to “wilfully obstruct and prevent” others from voting. Violators face up to three years behind bars.

The government cited an online appeal to take away the identity cards of elderly voters to prevent them from voting during the 2019 District Council election. The authorities said that, while the act involved obstructing others from casting a vote, such calls on social media did not necessarily involve the element of “deception” and hence there was insufficient evidence to constitute an offence under the Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance.

The new offences were therefore introduced “in view of the community’s grave concern about irresponsible conduct on the Internet inciting others to prejudice the conduct of the 2019 [election.]”

‘Election advertisement’

When asked whether it will be illegal for voters to ask their friends not to support any candidate, Permanent Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Roy Tang said that would be “perfectly legal.”

Tang said that, under existing laws, any efforts to promote the election of a candidate or prevent a candidate from being elected would be deemed as an “election advertisement.” He said such promotions should be counted as part of the candidate’s election expenses, and if anyone is campaigning for the candidate without his or her consent, they are “probably committing an offence.”

election overhaul revamp
Photo: RTHK screenshot.

“Without the permission of the candidate, and then incurring expenses on his behalf, [this] is an offence under the existing law,” Tang said.

Vetting committee

In introducing the 765-page bill, Lam said she will appoint principal officials to chair and be members of a vetting committee, which will screen the qualifications of candidates of the Election Committee, the chief executive election and LegCo election.

She said the government will make further amendments to the review committee later, as they heard opinions saying the current composition “does not have enough credibility.”

election overhaul revamp
Photo: RTHK screenshot.

“There were some voices [saying the review] is all done by our own people… so, later, we will propose an amendment to add some representatives from society,” Lam said, without specifying who – and how many – people will be added.

New constituency boundaries

The draft bill also detailed the redrawing of the current five geographical constituencies for the legislative polls. The city will now be divided into ten geographical constituencies, with two on Hong Kong Island, three in Kowloon and five in the New Territories.

electoral overhaul election
Photo: GovHK.

Each constituency will elect two candidates with the highest number of votes into the legislature, making up 20 of the 90 seats in the restructured LegCo.

The ratio of these directly-elected candidates have been reduced under the electoral overhaul, as 40 seats will go to candidates elected by a 1,500-person Election Committee, while 30 will be returned by the special interest groups in the functional constituency.

Election dates

Other proposed amendments included a suggestion to add a “special queue” for voters in need during an election, including electors aged 70 or above and pregnant women. The government also has plans to launch an electronic poll register to “enhance efficiency and accuracy in the ballot paper issuance process.”

“[The] paper recording process is no longer necessary,” a government summary of the bill published on Tuesday read.

Lam also revealed on Tuesday that the 2021 legislative poll, which was delayed last July because of Covid-19 concerns, will be postponed again to December 19.

The election for the powerful new Election Committee will be held on September 19, while the chief executive election will take place on March 27, 2022.

More to follow.

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.