Voting in Hong Kong’s first District Council elections since an overhaul that slashed democratically elected seats will start an hour later than previous polls, election authorities have announced.
Around 600 polling stations will be set up across Hong Kong on December 10, when around 4.33 million registered voters are eligible to cast their ballots for 88 of 470 seats, the Electoral Affairs Commission (EAC) said on Thursday.
The voting period will last from 8.30 am to 10.30 pm, an hour shorter than the last District Council elections in 2019. EAC chairman David Lok told the press that the delayed start was to give time to check the electronic poll register equipment.
A special queue will be set up at each polling station for those aged 70 or over, people with disabilities, and pregnant women.
The elections will be the first since Hong Kong revised how the councils were formed and their composition in July to ensure only “patriots” could run. The last time the city went to the ballot to elect District Council members in 2019, pro-democracy candidates won a landslide victory amid widespread protests triggered by the since-axed extradition bill.
Only 88 of the 470 seats in the 18 new District Councils will be returned through geographical constituencies, a sharp drop compared to 452 democratically elected seats previously.
Special polling stations will be set up for the District Committees constituencies, which will elect 176 members. The three committees are the Area Committees, District Fight Crime Committees and District Fire Safety Committees, all packed with members appointed by the director of home affairs and known to have pro-government backgrounds.
Voting hours for the District Committees constituencies will be from 8.30 am to 2.30 pm, the EAC said, as there were only around 2,500 registered voters in this group.
The remaining spots on the councils will be taken up by 179 members appointed by the city’s leader and 27 ex-officio members, filled by 27 chairmen of Rural Committees, which advocate for indigenous residents.
The number of seats chosen democratically by the public were slashed from 452 to 88 – reducing the power of public votes to a fifth. The rest are to be chosen by the city’s leader and government-appointed committees.
Constituency boundaries were redrawn, the opposition were shut out, voting hours were slashed by an hour, and each local council is to be chaired by a government official, similar to colonial-era arrangements. All candidates undergo national security vetting to ensure patriotism.
Asked why the voting period was not shortened further despite calls from some political groups to do so, Lok said on Thursday that authorities could not ignore the long working hours of some voters, who may find it difficult to cast their ballot after work.
If major changes were to be made to the voting time, consultation must be conducted, the EAC chair said. A comprehensive consultation could not be conducted for this year’s election, as the preparation time was short due to the overhaul, he said.
“Without a comprehensive consultation, it may not be appropriate to make big changes to the voting time,” Lok said.
He added voters already had to adapt to recent electoral changes, and significantly shortening the voting time would amount to introducing another major change to the election.
The EAC on Thursday relaxed the deadline for candidates to submit election advertisements and consent of support forms from within one working day after publication to within three days.
The extension was to allow the election hopefuls to conduct electioneering activities and give them more time to provide copies of their advertisements and other relevant documents.
Lok was asked if the amendment was made after the city’s leader John Lee failed to submit documents regarding advertisements on time when he was running unopposed in the city’s Chief Executive race in 2021.
He said the new measure was implemented as there may be new candidates who wished to enter the overhauled election, adding the arrangement was “appropriate.”
“We have reviewed a lot of past cases and many of them may be careless mistakes. They did not fail to submit the documents on purpose,” he said.
Community care teams
Last week, the Home and Youth Affairs Bureau issued a set of election period guidelines to the District Services and Community Care Teams, introduced in Lee’s first Policy Address last year with an aim to support the government’s local-level work.
According to the document, the government-appointed community care teams must remain neutral in elections and must not support candidates in the capacity of a member or leader of the care team.
They must also refrain from using the care team’s resources to take part in any election-related activities, the bureau warned.
Any community care team member who decided to throw their hat in the ring in the District Council race must stop all of their work related to the team until the end of the polling day, the bureau added.
The EAC chairman said on Thursday that many different groups had entered the city’s elections previously and there was no laws barring members of the community care team from joining the race in December.
The current 18 councils will be suspended starting from October 17 to facilitate the holding of the upcoming election, the government announced on Thursday.
Voter registration data released on Monday showed that the number of registered voters in Hong Kong had declined by nearly 80,000 compared to last year, marking an annual decrease for the second consecutive year.
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