During the recent U.S. elections, absentee voting has been a subject of controversy, with many worrying that the surge in mail-in ballots would lead to widespread fraud. Over 65 million Americans cast their votes by mail this year, double that of 2016.

While most democratic countries provide certain forms of external voting for their legislative or presidential elections, Taiwan is catching up to make voting more accessible to its citizens no matter where they live.

In August, the Central Election Commission (CEC) pushed forward a draft bill that allows voters living in Taiwan to cast ballots in referendums outside of their electoral districts.

The bill has been submitted to the Executive Yuan for approval before being reviewed by the parliament. The CEC said it hopes the new rule will take effect before the next referendum on August 28, 2021.

If so, all domestic voters will be able to request an absentee ballot no less than 60 days before the referendum, and cast it in the polling site of the district they register to vote in. The bill does not apply to overseas voters, but will benefit those who live outside of their hometown for work or study.

學團募資返鄉列車 助青年學子回家投票(2)

Photo Credit: CNA

Taiwanese students travel home from Taipei to vote for this year’s presidential election, January 10, 2020.

In Taiwan, due to the lack of absentee voting system, candidates often call for voters to “return to their hometown” for elections. In the past few years, young voters have launched crowdfunding campaigns to rent buses in order to take college students home to vote for presidential elections.

This legislative attempt is so far experimental, but it can be a prelude to a comprehensive reform of Taiwan’s electoral systems. Chen Chao-chien (陳朝建), deputy chairman of the CEC, said implementing absentee voting in general elections involves amending existing legislation, namely, the Election and Recall Laws for the president and civil servants, and requires trust in the new method among local voters.

A matter of trust

Prior to the 2020 U.S. election, Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank that promotes bipartisanship, asked three election officials what the most common myths about absentee voting were. They mentioned that many people tend to believe mail-in voting is more prone to voter fraud than in-person voting. In the United States, absentee voting is often synonymous with mail-in voting, as most citizens living outside their registered district can vote by mail.


Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

An election worker looks at a ballot during a hand recount of Presidential votes on Sunday, Nov.15, 2020, Marietta, Georgia.

In a similar vein, Taiwan has seen a flurry of debate about the reliability of absentee ballots over the past two decades. “With every single ballot, from being received to counted, in the public eye, almost no one questions the legitimacy of vote counts in Taiwan,” said Kuan Bi-ling (管碧玲), a lawmaker of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), during an internal affairs committee meeting last October.

But mail-in voting or electronic voting can damage trust in election results, Kuan added, showing skepticism toward votes that are not directly cast into the ballot box by the hands of voters.

Chao Tien-lin (趙天麟), a DPP legislator, noted while he favors absentee voting, it is too early for Taiwan to follow Western democracies to implement such a mechanism. It may be more realistic to run a trial in Taiwan, allowing domestic voters to vote outside their electoral districts, before offering the option to vote from overseas.

The CEC has found that most Taiwanese citizens prefer starting with allowing domestic voters to apply for a switch of voting locations. Currently, only election workers are given the opportunity to do so.


Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

A woman casts her ballots at a polling station during local elections and referendum on same-sex marriage, in Kaohsiung, Taiwan November 24, 2018.

As early as 2002, then-prime minister You Si-kun (游錫堃), now speaker of the parliament, has voiced support for absentee voting. However, Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁), Kaohsiung mayor, said the sticking point is the skepticism over the privacy and independence of absentee voting.

When elections are approaching, the voting method always come up as a matter of debate, said Lee Chun-yi (李俊俋), the deputy secretary-general of the presidential office. “The problem is there is no trust in politics in Taiwan.”

Concerns over overseas voters

In addition to the issue of trust in vote counts, many Taiwanese are concerned about how allowing voters residing overseas to vote by mail or electronically will affect election results.

The diaspora population includes more than a million Taiwanese citizens living and working in China, who are widely believed to support the Kuomintang (KMT), the main opposition party that favors stronger economic ties with China.

In April, Wen Yu-hsia (溫玉霞), a KMT lawmaker and a former businesswoman in China, proposed a bill to allow this group to vote absentee for all types of elections, including presidential and legislative elections, and referendums. The draft has been submitted to the internal affairs committee for review, but it is unlikely to pass through the DPP-controlled parliament.

In the past years, the KMT often insisted that the DPP support such a proposal if the party sought to lower the legal age for voting from 20 to 18. This move would likely benefit the DPP, who is vastly more popular among young voters for its stances in Taiwan’s autonomy. In 2018, the voting age for referendums was first lowered to 18.

Public fear over the influence of Taiwanese voters in China has also played a major role in excluding them from Taiwan’s elections. Some legislators argue that allowing Taiwanese in China to cast absentee votes would embolden Beijing to interfere with Taiwan’s elections.


Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Supporters of the KMT celebrate the victory of mayoral candidate Han Kuo-yu in local elections, Kaohsiung, Taiwan November 24, 2018.

Early this year, Taiwan Affairs Office, China’s state agency responsible for Taiwan policy, publicly mobilized Taiwanese workers in China to return to Taiwan to vote for the pro-China candidate in the presidential election. A business association for Taiwanese in Shenzhen went so far as to subsidize voters if they exercised their civil rights at home.

These efforts were greeted with anxiety in Taiwan, where citizens have a long history of fearing Beijing’s subversion of their democracy.

However, limiting the voting rights of any overseas Taiwanese, whether they reside in China or not, violates the protection of universal suffrage enshrined in Taiwan’s constitution. Making voting accessible to overseas voters is a long-standing issue that the government cannot look away from.

Besides those living in China, there are much more eligible voters residing outside Taiwan for various reasons. Each year, approximately 700,000 and 70,000 Taiwanese citizens travel abroad to study and work, respectively. They should be given a say in the future of the county they might one day return to.

Voting is one of the most fundamental rights for citizens, and Taiwan should step up efforts to allow absentee voting as it keeps possible Chinese interference out of elections.

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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