Hong Kong vote shows high turnout

Advocates push democratic referendum

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HONG KONG -- An unofficial referendum on making the selection of Hong Kong's chief executive more democratic has attracted votes equal to more than a fifth of the city's electorate, organizers said Sunday, the referendum's final day. They voiced hopes that the higher-than-anticipated participation would, along with a protest march scheduled for Tuesday, increase the pressure on the mainland Chinese government to give ground on the issue.

Democracy advocates organized the 10-day vote as a political battering ram, seeking to force Hong Kong politicians and Chinese Communist Party officials to heed demands that the election of the chief executive, the city's top leader, be opened to greater public participation with fewer procedural barriers set in place by Beijing.

When voting closed, the poll had recorded votes from just under 800,000 Hong Kong residents, who used a cell phone app, a website or polling booths to choose among three proposals, according to the university polling unit that oversaw the vote. That count did not include some paper ballots, and referendum results were not announced on Sunday night.

The vote lacked the safeguards of an official election, but the number was equal to 23 percent of Hong Kong's 3.51 million registered voters. In the last election for Hong Kong's Legislative Council, in 2012, about half the registered voters cast a ballot. Benny Tai, a legal scholar who has led the referendum effort, said he was encouraged, although the final tally may go down once double votes -- people voting twice on phone apps and the website -- are weeded out.

"That is a figure much higher than anyone could have expected, including us and the government," said Mr. Tai, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong who is a leader of Occupy Central with Love and Peace, the group that started the referendum.

"I think we're seeing some signs that the Chinese government understands that the civil referendum, even though unofficial, is an expression of public opinion that needs to be considered seriously," Mr. Tai said, citing comments from Chinese academics and Hong Kong officials.

The Occupy organizers have said that if electoral changes fall short of genuine universal suffrage, they will hold civil disobedience protests in Central, a district dense with banks and other businesses. But there were no signs of compromise from the Chinese central government or the Hong Kong government in the immediate aftermath of the unofficial poll. The Chinese government has repeatedly condemned Occupy Central and dismissed the referendum as illegal.

After the vote closed, a spokesman for the Hong Kong government said that a core demand in all three proposals -- allowing voters to nominate candidates directly through write-ins or similar grass-roots initiatives, without seeking the nod of a nominating committee -- was unlikely to ever win official backing.

China has promised to allow voting changes for Hong Kong so that from 2017, the chief executive is chosen through universal suffrage, a step provided for in the basic legal framework for the city. But democracy activists believe the changes could preserve Beijing's power to engineer the outcome it wants.


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