Lessons from Taiwan’s recent referendums and why e-voting is the way forward

While the implementation of direct democracy is welcome, the system is in need of further improvements, with e-voting the obvious way to go



KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) -- The political upheaval of the recent local elections has overshadowed what was a landmark moment in Taiwanese democracy.

Last weekend gave the Taiwanese electorate the chance to vote in a series of public referendums for the first time. And while the results of these various referendums haven’t pleased everyone, the implementation of this new form of direct democracy has been broadly welcomed both at home and overseas.

But the experience of these elections has also highlighted several ways in which the referendum laws can, and should, be improved.

How the DPP made public referendums possible

Taiwan’s Referendum Act (公民投票法) was passed by the Legislative Yuan back in December 2003. It was a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) policy, but because the Kuomintang (KMT) held a legislative majority at the time, they introduced thresholds that set the bar for passing a referendum prohibitively high.

To get a public referendum sent to the Referendum Review Commission, you needed the signatures of at least 0.5 percent of the electorate. If approved, in the second round, you needed signatures from 5 percent of the electorate. For a referendum to pass, it then needed to secure the support of more than 50 percent of the electorate.

Prior to last week's referendums, there were six national referendums put to the Taiwanese people since 2003, but none managed to pass that 50 percent threshold, primarily because the KMT urged their supporters not to vote in any of them.

The DPP's sweeping election victory in 2016 gave them the power they needed to make long-overdue reforms and finally make Taiwan’s Referendum Act fit for purpose.

In 2017, the thresholds that had to be reached to secure and win a referendum were dramatically reduced. Now a campaign only needed to secure the signatures of 0.01 percent of the electorate to propose a referendum to the Referendum Review Commission, and they required signatures from only 1.5 percent of the electorate to put a referendum to the people.

Most importantly of all, for a referendum to pass, it now only needs 25 percent of the total electorate to vote in favor, in order to make the results official.

One aspect of the revised Referendum Act which remains unclear is just how enforceable the results are. While there is a legislated deadline on which the government must act in response a referendum, there is no clear statement on the extent to which they have to abide by the decision of the people and also no enforcement body to ensure referendum results are implemented.

It will be interesting to see how the Taiwanese government does respond to the recent referendum results, but it seems likely that further amendments to the law will be necessary if the results of public referendums are to be legally binding.

Inevitably, many campaign groups have taken advantage of these reforms to put their particular issues to the Taiwanese people. There were no fewer than ten different referendum questions on the ballot in the November elections, in what was seen by many as a test of how the new referendum laws would work.

As with all tests, things weren't absolutely perfect. What is important now is that the Taiwanese authorities learn from this experience and make the necessary changes to ensure that things go better next time around.

The risk of confusion and conflicting results

Of the ten referendum questions asked, there were three that related to energy generation, three relating to same-sex marriage, two relating to the teaching of sex education in schools, a question on importing food products from the Fukushima region of Japan, and one on changing the name Taiwan uses in international sporting events.

This list highlights two of the major issues with the Referendum Act as it stands.

Firstly, the fact that there can be several referendum questions relating to the same issue complicates matters significantly and seems likely to run the risk of confusing some voters.

Some of the questions were extremely similar. For example, on same-sex marriage, there was one question which read, “Do you agree that Civil Code regulations should restrict marriage to being between a man and a woman?” and another which read “Do you agree that the Civil Code marriage regulations should be used to guarantee the rights of same-sex couples to get married?”

This is essentially the same question being asked in two different ways, which all but guarantees some voters, especially older voters, will misunderstand what is being asked.

But it also raises the hypothetical problem of what should happen if voters end up giving conflicting responses. How should the government react if the Taiwanese people give a different answer to two similar questions such as the two questions above?

It would seem a sensible step for the Referendum Review Commission to be given the task of ensuring that only one referendum question can be put to the people on each specific issue. When multiple questions on related issues reach the threshold, the commission should be empowered to sit down with all interested parties and agree on a single question to determine public opinion.

How to make voting in referendums easier

The second issue relates to the sheer number of questions voters were being asked to answer. Having to respond to ten different questions in addition to voting on local election candidates could lead to confusion and to people casting votes at odds with their intention.

The large number of questions also made the process of voting extremely slow. Polling stations across Taiwan saw long queues and people were forced to wait for an hour or more to exercise their democratic right to vote.

It seems likely that at least some gave up and went home, while others who had to vote during their lunch-hour or juggle voting with childcare and other demands on their time may have been put off from voting as well. Changes need to be made to ensure that voters are not disenfranchised in this way.

Another risk of holding referendums on the same day as an election is that matters of principle become inexorably linked with the current political issues.

Taiwanese voters have used these elections to punish the DPP for perceived failings in their governance. Is it a coincidence that they also seem to have opposed the DPP position on almost all of the referendum issues as well?

Taiwan's government, therefore, needs to give serious consideration to whether it is a good idea to carry out national referendums on the same day as elections.

Holding a referendum on a particular issue should be a special occasion. It is an opportunity for the public to have their say on a specific issue of national importance. People should have the opportunity to hear the arguments from both sides of the issue and reach their own conclusions. It should not enable a vitally important issue to become conflated with wider political disagreements.

For that reason, not only should future referendums take place separately from elections, but they should also take place individually rather than collectively, with a long enough gap between each for the public to be able to properly consider the issue.

When the people vote in referendums, they should face a single question on a single issue.

The case for e-voting in Taiwanese referendums

This brings us to the most significant reform which the Referendum Act requires. The process of opening polling stations, getting people there to vote, and then counting is far too bureaucratic and is likely to exacerbate voter malaise on public referendums relatively quickly.

But this is the 21st century; the digital age, and there is another alternative. In Switzerland, another progressive democracy which holds regular referendums on important issues and strongly supports direct democracy, they have already introduced a system of e-voting.

E-voting gives people the ability to vote online. It means they can vote easily and quickly, and they can do it from the comfort of their own homes or, for that matter, anywhere they might be.

Implementing a system of e-voting in future referendums would enable a public referendum to take place at any time throughout the year and ensure maximum enfranchisement.

Taiwan already has one of the highest levels of internet-connectivity in the world. Well in excess of 90 percent of Taiwanese voters are already online. The few people who aren’t could be offered the opportunity to vote online at secure locations in government offices or public libraries to ensure everyone is able to have their say.

Obviously, any e-voting system would have to include robust security processes to ensure that it is not vulnerable to interference from China or other hackers. The system should be built domestically or in cooperation with Taiwan’s democratic allies. No Chinese companies should have any role in the system at any point.

Switzerland has proven that such a system can be secure and can help to ensure a system of direct democracy.

Taiwan is heading down the right road with its referendum reforms. But there are still improvements that can be made to the law. The good news is that the government seems to have recognized the need for change already.

Premier William Lai (賴清德) yesterday admitted that e-voting was needed and has instructed the Central Election Commission (CEC) to report on how to improve public referendums within one month. Let’s hope that their analysis leads to some sensible reforms being implemented ahead of the 2020 elections.