What's wrong with Taiwan’s current electoral system
A lesson for Taiwan's swing voters about the importance of legislative elections
Many people in Taiwan believe that as long as they have right to vote, then they live in a democratic society. Few people would further examine whether they are actually able to go to the polls under fair rules. Fair rules give election results that protect democracy while unfair rules put it in jeopardy.
This post refers to a published academic paper and to the current ROC Constitution in order to demonstrate to readers some problems with the current electoral system in Taiwan, one which actually gives permanent advantages to the pan-blue coalition in elections for the Legislative Yuan (LY). Unless corrective measures are taken, Taiwan's political institution is heading towards an unhealthy direction, i.e. it either selects a KMT president with a "rubber-stamp" Legislative Yuan -- which allows unchecked KMT executive power -- or ensures a DPP lame duck president who cannot carry out policies s/he wishes to implement.
For Taiwan's Legislative Election results see the links here.
For info on how the 2008 Legislative Yuan electoral districts were determined, read "Central Election Commission reclassifies electoral districts."
Many western countries conduct national census on population every 5 or 10 years (such as the census short form of the US or Canada) and through census it forms the basis for electoral district divisions. However, electoral district divisions in Taiwan are not based on a census, leaving room for problems such as votes of unequal value (over representation and under representation), and gerrymandering.
For how the new LY seat distribution rule was changed in 2008, see Note 1 under the "References" section below.
For data on voter turnout rates, see this link.
After the most recent legislative election in January 2008 in which the KMT won seats by a landslide majority (following the first implementation of the 2005 reforms, see Note 1), no one studied the most important reason behind the DPP's disappointing outcome in details better than a scholar named Daniel C. O'Neill. He presented a paper at the 2009 Midwest Political Science Association Conference in which he carefully observed the effect of electoral rules on the Democratic Progressive Party's performance in the 2004 and 2008 Legislative Elections in Taiwan.
In brief, the description about the DPP's poor performance in the 2008 LY election can be read starting from p.14 of the paper with illustration of table 4 and 5 on the percentages of vote share and seat share by the DPP and the pan-green coalition respectively. A slight drop of approximately 3 to 4 percentage points in vote share (from 43.5% in 2004 to 39.1% in 2008) for the pan-green coalition translates into a huge drop of 21 percentage-point share of legislative seats (from 44.9% in 2004 to 23.9% in 2008.)
On p.19 of the paper, O'Neill observed that in the 2004 LY election held under an SNTV (single non-transferable vote) electoral system, the DPP won 42% of the district seats with 36% of the vote (note: the figures used here are slightly different from the tables mentioned in the immediately preceding paragraph because it excludes the aboriginal districts from calculation per his note 8). In contrast, in 2008 under the MMM (mixed member majoritarian) system , the DPP's district vote share of over 38.7% earned the party fewer than 24% of the legislative seats. In other words, the DPP had a slightly larger vote share in 2008 than in 2004, but it resulted in an approximately 17 percentage-point drop in its share of legislative seats.
The KMT has a strong organizational base dating to the days of its authoritarian one-party rule of the island. Under the new MMM system, this organizational advantage has helped the party to achieve the plurality needed to win district elections. There are other "advantages" -- such as the KMT's asset-rich vote buying tactics and its connection to local criminal factions -- that facilitate KMT dominance in local elections.
For a study of vote buying in Taiwan's elections, see "Weighing a Shadow: Toward a Technique for Estimating the Effects of Vote-buying in Taiwan."
Seat determination in the LY is most troubled by the problem that each vote does not carry the same weight, meaning some districts are over-represented while other districts are under-represented. This is shown in table 6 on p. 22 of O'Neill's paper for the one-seat districts.
For population in each county see this link.
At the over representation extreme, Lienchiang County -- with a population of only 9,786 -- elects one legislator. Kinmen County and Penghu County, with populations of 79,884 and 91,942 respectively, also have one seat each. These low-density population districts -- i.e. offshore islands and east coast of Taiwan's mainland (Taitung County) -- traditionally KMT strongholds -- can elect legislators into the LY. On the other hand, the four one-seat districts with the greatest populations in Taiwan -- Hsinchu County, Yilan County, Hsinchu City, and Keelung City (475,928; 445,811; 395,239 and, 382,109 respectively) -- are examples of underrepresentation. There are also districts with the smallest population among the cities and counties with multiple seat representation, an example is Nantou County District 1 with 240,511 people, just 50.5% of the Hsinchu County district's population but with equal representation.
Historically, in early 19th century England and Wales, we saw the representation problem of the "rotten boroughs" after the industrial revolution moved the cluster of residents into the booming industrial towns, but the Reform Act of 1832 with later Reform Acts and Representation of the People Acts corrected some of the problems.
The six points of the People's Charter from a handbill handed out in the streets of Britain in 1838. Pay special attention to point five.
(From Think History!: Modern Times 1750-1990, by Caroline Beechener, Clive Griffiths, Amanda Jacob, ©2004, Pearson Education)
Now in the 21st century, Taiwan's democracy faces a similar issue of unequal representation. Isn't it time for a national census to determine the electoral districts? Drawing the electoral district borders should not be left until the last moment when strategic party planning for winning votes are hidden agenda for drawing the borders. Isn't it time for an effective delimitation to take place, one that is suitable for Taiwan's democracy to strive, before we even think about any elections and potential candidates and their policies?
The ROC Constitution on presidential recall and impeachment affecting election outcome
The DPP's presidential candidate in 2008, Frank Hsieh, did not even stand a chance against the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou because of the KMT's overwhelming majority in the LY election outcome two months earlier and the ROC Constitution for the impeachment of president practically eliminated Hsieh's chances. If Frank Hsieh had won the presidential election, he would have faced a hostile KMT majority in the LY that could initiate an impeachment shortly after his inauguration.
For details on presidential recall and impeachment read the excerpt in the "References" section below.
This important ROC Constitution governing presidential impeachment factor that had indeed affected the outcome of the 2008 presidential election was not mentioned by any of the foreign press at all. The mainstream media easily attributed Ma's win to Taiwanese welcoming his conciliatory China policy and to his promise to improve the economy. The media failed to observe that, on the contrary, Ma actually won the presidential campaign with the help of the LY election outcome earlier plus Ma's pre-election tactics of pretending to be a "true Taiwanese" -- growing up eating Taiwanese rice and speaking some Taiwanese to voters -- ready to defend Taiwan's interests and promising "no unification" during his term if elected. I believe the low turnout rate in the presidential election in 2008 can be attributed to this factor -- many pan green supporters simply didn't bother to vote because they thought if Hsieh could be impeached by the LY after winning, why should they bother to vote?
Without the backing of a majority in the legislature, a DPP (or pan-green) president will face a hostile LY that blocks any policies that he wishes to execute. (Remember which party's fault it was for not passing the arms purchase bill and for consequently weakening Taiwan's defense capabilities?) And worse, s/he would be facing the constant threat of impeachment by the LY, not to mention how an elected president could carry out his day-to-day duties. He would be spending all his time dealing with a hostile legislature that could initiate countless impeachment proceedings anytime it sees an opportunity (since the 2005 reform package did not set a limit on how many times such proceedings can take place).
The rules for impeachment of the ROC president say that it can only be initiated by the LY -- not by the people through a referendum. So even if half of the electorate in Taiwan wanted Ma to leave office after police mishandled protesters during Chen Yunlin's first visit to Taiwan and for his refusal of immediate foreign assistance during typhoon Morakot, as long as his party members occupied two-thirds of the LY seats, he'd be there to stay.
Do you think it is fair for the KMT party to receive about 56% of the popular votes but gain about 75% of the legislative seats? Do you think it is fair for a president that receives about 58% of the votes to have a 75% rubber-stamping legislative army to back his unchecked policies?
Isn't it time for the electoral system to undergo scrutiny so the supposedly democratic elections will one day become truly democratic?
I would like to offer a tentative electoral system that may be improved further with an objective of achieving a ratio of vote share to seat share to be as near as possible to 1:1. I believe that the indigenous people should be autonomous, and there should be no non-resident foreign representation in the LY.
1. Counties and cities are not to be divided into very small districts; the LY seats should be determined by proration according to the county or the city's population over the total population of Taiwan. And let the total number of legislators be 115 (just to be used for calculations in the following examples)
2. Very dense areas are to be subdivided while very low density areas should be combined as one district.
3. Multiple member first-past-the-post ballot should be implemented, the first number of candidates, in order of highest vote, corresponding to the number of positions to be filled are elected. If there are six vacancies in a district then the first six candidates with the highest vote are elected. A multiple selection ballot where more than one candidate can be voted for in which voters are allowed to cast a vote for as many candidates as there are vacant positions; the candidate(s) with the highest number of votes is elected.
4. Here are a few examples to illustrate the points above.
Changhua county electoral district
1,312,491 / 23,164,457 x 115 = 6.51 rounding off to 7
So the county of Changhua will elect 7 legislators.
Voters in the Changhua county will have a multiple selection ballot where they can select any candidates they wish to represent Changhu in the LY up a maximum of 7.
The first 7 candidates receiving the highest ballots will be elected.
Penghu, Kinmen, Lienchiang combined into 1 electoral district.
200,549 / 23,164,457 x 115 = 0.996 rounding off to 1 (since the population is 96,387 + 94,205 + 10,002 = 200,549)
So these 3 areas combined will elect 1 legislator.
Voters in these 3 areas will have a ballot where they can select only 1 candidate they wish to represent them in the LY.
The candidate receiving the highest ballot will be elected.
New Taipei City will elect 3,876,070 / 23,164,457 x 115 = 19.243 rounding off to 19 legislators.
New Taipei City can be subdivided into three electoral districts. Two of the districts can elect six legislators per district, and the other district can elect seven legislators as long as the division of the district is such that the ratio of the population to the number of legislators in each district is kept nearly the same.
The division of districts in high density areas gives us the incentive that a simple-questionnaire population census every 10 years is crucial to the success of district divisions, and Taiwan should do it for itself, not "China tries to do it for us."
Two factors comprise the main obstacles to our attempt to correct our problematic electoral system. One is the KMT's deliberate ignorance for revamping the electoral system after the 2008 election -- wanting to stay as permanent majority in the LY-- and second is the erroneous belief by politicians around the globe that a new constitution in Taiwan (for the sake of Taiwan's democracy, Taiwan does need a new constitution) is a challenge to the "status quo," thus indirectly restricting the people in Taiwan to voting under a flawed ROC system.
If I have an old car that needs frequent maintenance and change of parts, I may as well dump the old car and buy a new one that works. This is the way I feel about what's wrong with our system after so many attempts to reform the ROC constitution that were initially imposed upon the Taiwanese people and continuously needs reviews and reforms but will never be amended well enough by the non-representative parliament. A parliament in which the KMT always held a majority cannot correctly amend the constitution -- they just go in circles! Our referendum law is but one example.
Voter turnout for LY election must improve
Unless the pan-green wins a majority in the legislative election next year, any talk about a DPP candidate winning the presidential election is futile if the KMT retains its majority in the LY to control the passing of bad laws and delaying the passage of good laws. Voters must realize the importance of exercising their voting rights in the LY election and show a big turnout contrary to past trends. In the past, voter turnout for LY elections has been low -- under 60% -- while voter turnout for the presidential election has been much higher -- no lower than 75%, and peaking at 82.69% in the 2000 presidential election.
Since the KMT-dominated LY will not initiate a review of the rules relating to elections, a review of our referendum rights is at task.
No wonder Taiwan's former president, Lee Teng-hui has the wisdom to call upon scrapping the ROC Constitution. "Lee calls for ROC Constitution to be scrapped"
So, wake up Taiwan! Let's talk about fair rules before we even talk about going into the polls. Without fair rules, how can we uphold democracy?
And, wake up politicians of the world! How can Taiwan's representation be subject to Beijing's approval for international presence (membership) when China's leaders (and therefore its representation) have not even been elected by its own people?
Only democracy can protect Taiwan, and only democracy (not economic engagement) can change China for the better!
1. Note1: Additional Articles of the Constitution of the Republic of China (2005 Reform), Article 4 governs the rules on how LY seats are determined
2. My own observations just after the 2008 LY Election
3. Rules on recall and impeachment of ROC president -- the excerpt here is from a source in this link:
Recall of the State President or the State Vice President shall be initiated upon the proposal of the Legislative Yuan and shall be passed by more than one half of the valid ballots in a vote in which more than one half of the electorate in the free area of the Republic of China participate. The Legislative Yuan shall initiate the recall upon the proposal of no less than one-fourth of all members of the Legislative Yuan, and present the proposal with a clearly stated reason for such a recall to the Procedure Committee to have it included in the agenda to be sent to the YuanSitting. The Yuan Sitting shall, with no discussion required, refer the proposal to the Committee of the Entire Yuan for the latter to finish deliberation within 15 days. Prior to the deliberation by the Committee of the Entire Yuan, the Legislative Yuan shall notify the recalled subject to submit a written defense within seven days before the deliberation. When the Legislative Yuan receives the written defense, it shall distribute the report to each member. Should the recalled subject fail to submit the written defense, the Committee of the Entire Yuan may still continue the deliberation. After the deliberation, the Committee of the Entire Yuan shall submit the proposal to the Yuan Sitting for registered voting. Such a recall of the State President or the State Vice President is passed with no less than two-thirds of all the Legislative Yuan members concurring in the registered voting. The Committee of the Entire Yuan shall promulgate and inform the recalled subject of the voting result.4. Taiwan's current population statistics are based on this link.
For the impeachment of the State President or the State Vice President, the Legislative Yuan must initiate it upon the proposal of more than half of the entire Yuan members; a written proposal with detailed reasons for such an impeachment must be referred to the Procedure Committee later to have it included in the agenda to be sent to the Yuan Sitting. No discussion is required, the Yuan Sitting shall refer the proposal to the Committee of the Entire Yuan for examination, during which the impeached subject may explain on the floor at the invitation of the Legislative Yuan. What follows the examination is an anonymous vote in the Yuan Sitting; should no less than two-thirds of all the Legislative Yuan members concur in the voting, an impeachment case then by resolution shall be submitted to the Grand Justices. Once the case is sustained at the Constitutional Court, the impeached subject shall forthwith resign.
5. Another interesting observation about Taiwan's elections by Jerome Keating: "The hidden face of Taiwan politics"
6. Understanding combined elections
7. Announcement of investigation by the Control Yuan of some "missing documents" by former DPP officials including Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) just one day before he declared his candidacy in the DPP presidential primary, but 1,036 days after Ma took the presidential office. What is Ma's intention?
(Some editing by Tim Maddog)