Feature

Change is needed for a system that few people managed to grasp.

On the Front Lines of Taiwan's Chaotic Referendums

2018/11/25 , Opinion
Cat Thomas
Credit: Cat Thomas
Cat Thomas
Cat Thomas is a freelance journalist based in Taipei. She covers anything from culture to tech to travel, and sometimes all of those combined if she can swing it.

Yesterday, I spent the day bobbing around a few polling stations in Taipei city. I spoke to around 30 exiting voters at various locations, a number of election officials and specially assigned police officers. I wasn’t taking notes or keeping count. I identified myself as a journalist, but feared that recording or noting responses would squander the goodwill of people who were prepared to open up to me.

Initially, I wanted to get a sense of how people were voting in the referendums, but it quickly became clear that this ad-hoc field research was uncovering deeper structural issues and flaws in the voting process. I spoke to friends outside the capital about their experience of going to the polls, and found that their experiences echoed my observations in Taipei.

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Credit: Cat Thomas
Voters queue around the block to vote at a primary school polling station in Taipei City.

The electorate in Taiwan voted on 10 referendum questions. This is the first time Taiwan has run so many referendum questions concurrently, due to changes to the Referendum Act which took effect in December 2017. Outside the polling stations I visited in Taipei, many people complained that the referendum questions had not only increased the time it took to vote, with waits of two hours being par for the course in Taipei, especially in the afternoon, but also that the process of completing the referendum ballots was confusing.

The questions fell into three categories: Five questions on same-sex marriage and education (some of which were conflicting), three on the government’s green energy policy (one of which takes immediate effect), one on maintaining current restrictions on food imports from areas of Japan affected by the nuclear disaster of 2011, and one on applying to the Olympic committee to use the name Taiwan, rather than Chinese Taipei, for the Olympic team.

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Credit: Hsu Shaolin
A typical scene from polling day, with a school in Taipei's Songshan District packed with voters.
The voting process

Taiwan has a highly regarded voting process. Run entirely on paper ballots and hand counted in strict conditions, voting is usually a matter of popping down to your assigned polling station, presenting your ID and completing a few familiar ballot papers. Most people would expect to done in 20-30 minutes. The system is well-established, the officials experienced. In general, it all runs smoothly. This was not the case yesterday.

Upon arriving at the first polling station I was immediately met with comments from exiting voters that the number of booths were inadequate (most polling stations in Taipei have only four or five booths, in small towns down south, for example, often only two). The Central Election Commission stipulated in advance that voters must first complete their local election ballots, then be given the referendum ballots (if they chose to take part in the referendum), and enter the assigned booth to complete them. The local election ballots were quickly completed. However, the referendum questions were printed on 10 separate ballots. Not only that, but the wording on several of the questions was felt to be unclear at best. As people struggled to navigate the referendum papers, a bottleneck began to form.

On several occasions in the course of our post-participation conversation voters realized they had inadvertently voted the ‘wrong way’ when they looked at the question again in the light of day.

Some people expressed concern that they had felt they were holding up the people behind them by taking too long to complete the referendum ballots, adding to pressure as they tried to ensure their opinion was reflected in answers to questions that were hard to understand due to complicated wording (the wording is assigned by the proposer of the question). Referendums on conflicting issues added to the confusion. On several occasions in the course of our post-participation conversation voters realized they had inadvertently voted the ‘wrong way’ when they looked at the question again in the light of day. In short, many felt bamboozled by the process.

This is perhaps unsurprising given the wording of Referendum No. 12: "Do you agree to types of unions, other than those stated in the Civil Code, to protect the rights of same-sex couples who live together permanently." This was proposed by conservative groups but easily misreads as a pro-civil union question.

Further complicating matters was that for the first time, 18-19 year olds were eligible to vote in the referendums, while the local election voting age remains at 20. This is the first time the polling stations have had this situation and it undoubtably added to the confusion. As far as I could ascertain, the younger voters had to queue in the general queue, although to be fair I didn’t see that many of them. In fact, young people in general seemed to be underrepresented, though this may simply have been the area I was in.

When I arrived at the first polling station at 9.30 a.m. the line was fairly normal, with a wait of around 35 minutes to complete the process. As the day went on, I circled around three or four polling stations intermittently. By 10.00 a.m. the wait was an hour, by midday around an hour and a half. As people stood in the hot midday sun, they were stoic. Some plastic stools appeared for the elderly at one station. The British owner of the local pizza shop popped out of his shop and offered free slices of pizza to the unfortunate souls caught out in the snaking line around his shop. He reasoned that it was lunchtime, they probably had another hour to wait, and had been caught unawares. He observed that the morning crowd had seemed on the older side, though people in their twenties had started to appear.

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Credit: Cat Thomas
Waiting voters chow down on free pizza handed out by the local pizza shop.

As the day went on, officials adjusted the assignment of the booths as they tried to make the system more efficient. They reassured people that provided they were in line by 4 p.m., they would be permitted to vote, they should go ahead and join the end of the line. A minute past four though, they warned, and you won’t be able to join.

A voter from Xinbei told me that he had witnessed people just throw their hands up in despair as they realized that the second queue for the referendum meant they were far from done, despite waiting for two hours to enter the polling station. Some simply gave up and left without taking part in the referendum.

At a minute or two after 4 p.m., I observed a couple of latecomers being politely turned away from the station. As I looked at the final line with an exiting voter, now circling the block, I suggested that this station would be polling until 6 p.m. She demurred. She had waited two hours from a closer point. She suggested polling might be done by 7 p.m.

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Police turn away a latecomer at a polling station in Zhongzheng district.
The electorate’s understanding of the implications of the referendums.

Besides the issues with mechanics of voting, my exit chats uncovered another worry. I spoke to one person alone who recognized that one (and only one) of the questions was binding. People in general were surprised when I suggested that there were four categories of referendum question under the referendum law. Rather, they believed that all the questions would result in further consideration by the government at a minimum, and were unaware one mandates almost immediate change.

Article 30 of the Referendum Act defines four categories of referendum questions, three of which were in play on Nov. 24. Each category calls for a different process should the referendum be adopted. Broadly speaking, the first type, Article 30.1, relates to changes to specific existing laws and is binding, with the vetoed law losing its force within three days of the referendum. There is no further debate. Only the referendum on Taiwan abolishing the commitment to cease using nuclear power past 2025, as detailed in the Electricity Act, is binding under this classification.

The second type (Article 30.2), relating to proposals of or for law, is advisory: it mandates a proposal from the government for ‘further deliberation’ at the Legislative Yuan level (parliament) within three months. Four of the LGBT-rights-related referendums fall into this category, three of which passed.

The third type (Article 30.3) relates to proposals of "important policy," and if passed requires that "the President or the authority shall take necessary disposition to realize the content of the proposal of referendum." The questions relating to not teaching homosexual education in schools, the commitment to cutting thermal coat use by 1 percent each year, and the commitment not to expand or construct coal power plants, as well as the Japanese food import question, and the Team Taiwan question fall under this provision.

There is no penalty for the government if they do not enforce the result of the referendums falling under 3.2 and 3.3. They are merely advisory, the government may not ignore them, but no firm action is required.

Referendum lessons

Not only are the electorate ill-informed about the Referendum law, the opportunity to clarify this and state the government’s position on the ballots was squandered. The Executive Yuan missed the deadline for submitting information relating to the the marriage equality and gender education questions by two days. The anti-equality camp promptly took the government to court to block the publication. They won.

While this is the first time Taiwan has run referendums on such a scale, the failure of the government to provide proper civic education in this area, as well as the efforts of certain groups to mislead the public, even if technically legal, is not acceptable.

This suggests that troubling times are ahead as public expectations clash with the rule of law. As was witnessed in the UK referendum in 2016 on leaving the European Union (Brexit), public confusion over the implications of a vote can easily lead to anger and outrage. The electorate may feel cheated no matter which side they fall on.

Just after this piece went to press, news was released that the Chairman of the CEC, Chen In-chin (陳英鈐), has had his resignation accepted by the Executive Yuan. Perhaps that's for the best.

Read Next: 5 Questions for After Taiwan's Election

Editor David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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