The Office of the Ombudsman released an investigative report in early April regarding FactWire’s complaint on October 5 last year about the Registration and Electoral Office (REO)’s denial of information disclosure.
The REO refused to publicize information concerning the 2016 Legislative Council (LegCo) General Election.
The Ombudsman classified FactWire’s complaint as “partially substantiated” and urged the REO to provide as much information as possible when dealing with requests, instead of refusing to disclose information on the mere basis that “the disclosure could be misleading”.
The REO refused to disclose five types of information, which include:
The total number of invalid ballot papers in Hong Kong according to their types (tendered, spoilt, unused, unmarked, etc);
The number of invalid and tendered ballot papers from each polling station;
The number of complaints received by the Electoral Affairs Commission (EAC) on the basis that “someone else had previously been issued with the ballot papers using their identity when electors tried to claim their entitled ballot papers in the polling stations”;
The hourly cumulative voter turnout from each polling station (P15 form record); and
The voter turnout and number of invalid ballot papers announced by the presiding officer on the spot at each polling station.
The outcomes of the investigation are as follows:
Concerning the first, second and third type of information, the Ombudsman stated that “the reason why the REO refused to disclose the relevant information, which was that the disclosure could be misleading, is lacking. The REO cannot concretely explain how the disclosure may lead to misunderstanding, and what misunderstanding it may cause… Therefore, we disagree with the REO’s provisions of point 2.13 (a) of the ‘Code on Access to Information’”. However, the Ombudsman accepted the REO’s reasons to not publicize the information before the release of the election report, that it deprives “the department or any other person of priority of publication or commercial value” and that the information could “only be made available by unreasonable diversion of a department’s resources”.
Concerning the fourth and fifth type of information, the Ombudsman stated that the information requested is the voter turnout and number of invalid ballot papers “announced on the day of the election by the REO”, so that the REO’s refusal to disclose the information is “unreasonable” on the basis that the disclosure “could be misleading”, “deprive the department or any other person of priority of publication or commercial value” and that the information could “only be made available by unreasonable diversion of a department’s resources”.
The Ombudsman therefore concluded that the complaint is “partially substantiated”, and urged the REO to “consider each request carefully and provide as much information as possible, instead of easily refusing to disclose information based on part 2 of the ‘Code on Access to Information’”.
The 2016 LegCo General Election raised awareness on electoral integrity. Some identity of electors were suspected to be allegedly used by others, and the number of ballot papers outnumbered the voter turnout in at least five polling stations.
FactWire followed the cases closely. Starting from the next day after the election (5 September 2016), FactWire had been requesting relevant information from the REO to probe into the case. From September 5 to October 4, it was almost a month until FactWire received an official rejection from the REO on October 4 to disclose most of the relevant information. FactWire then filed a complaint on October 5 to the Ombudsman.
The REO released the Electoral Affairs Commission Report on the 2016 LegCo General Election on January 10, which only included the first type of information. The REO then provided the second, third and fourth type of information to FactWire on February 3.
Refusing to disclose the fifth type of information, the REO quoted the operational manual, stating that since the information should be made available to every candidate, election agent and polling agent during the counting of ballot papers, it is therefore “not legally required to made these numbers available to the public”.
FactWire welcomes the outcome of the Ombudsman’s investigative report. We believe that by providing electoral information in an open and transparent manner, it could facilitate the public to monitor the election and safeguard electoral integrity. The elections involve great public interest, so we hope the REO would be open and honest about information disclosure.
Related details concerning the complaint:
FactWire filed complaint to the Ombudsman for REO’s denial of information disclosure