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Taiwan elections: Vote yes on voting age referendum, even though it won't pass

Referendum threshold makes it highly unlikely it will pass, but there is a very important reason to vote yes anyway

Taiwan elections: Vote yes on voting age referendum, even though it won't pass

KMT Chair Eric Chu at a press event supporting voting yes on the referendum to lower the voting age.

(CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — At age 18 in Taiwan, you can drive, hurtling tons of metal at high speeds through crowded traffic. At age 18, you can get married, have children, and start a family.

Also at age 18, young men are conscripted and can all join the army and be trained to shoot, and should the worst come to pass, be entrusted to kill and even die in the defence of their fellow citizens. And starting on January 1, they will be considered full adults in every way.

In every way but one: They still can’t vote. On November 26, a referendum will be held offering a chance to change that.

Critics claim that they are too young and immature, and cannot be trusted with a ballot. Yet, they can be trusted with a truck, a gun, and to parent children.

If they are correct that they are too immature, then they should not be trusted with any of those things. Cannot have it both ways.

Very aware they live in a young democracy

I also disagree with their assessment. Every semester, a few universities around Taiwan bring me in to give guest lectures.

Though many students profess to not be interested in politics, when given a question I am consistently impressed with their informed, thoughtful — and yes, mature — answers. Even when I disagree with their conclusions, I remain impressed with the clearly informed thought put into their answers.

The young in Taiwan are very aware they live in a young democracy, one that was not afforded to their parents. Indeed, I have met quite a few people who grew up in the martial law era when they were taught to keep away from politics, who even today continue to do so. If they vote, they usually vote for the party they are “supposed to” without giving it much consideration.

At 18, Taiwanese must undertake all the duties and responsibilities of adulthood. They should have a say in how they are governed. They have as much — if not more, considering how much longer they will live — of a stake in the laws, systems, and institutions that govern their lives.

The chances of it passing

But will in pass? In theory it should: All major political parties have come out in support of it.

However, the reality is murkier than that. The threshold is high, over 50% of all registered voters must approve it. That’s all voters, not the number that actually show up.

In 2014 and 2018, during similar elections, the turnout was 66%. There are 19.3 million eligible voters this year, though it is estimated that between 50,000 and 70,000 will not be able to vote because they will be in quarantine.

If the turnout remains consistent with the last two elections, then about 75% of voters would need to vote yes for it to pass. A referendum on “aren’t beef noodles awesome” would struggle to get 75%, once people from traditional farming families (who do not eat beef), vegetarians, and those poor souls who fail to appreciate the brilliance of beef noodles are accounted for.

Worse, indications are that support for it is not great, and that many people are unaware the referendum is taking place, which may depress turnout for that vote even further. While we cannot cite polls under Taiwan’s election law in the 10 days in the runup to the vote, broadly speaking, support is much higher among pan-green voters and drops off significantly among pan-blue voters.

In a sign that the party is moving further and further away from its roots in the Sunflower and student activist movements, support is about evenly split among New Power Party (NPP) voters.

Mixed messaging from pan-blues, in spite of KMT support

There are suspicions that the Kuomintang (KMT) is also trying to undermine the vote, in spite of being formally in support. At one point the KMT tried to decouple the referendum from this year’s local elections, which would have depressed voter turnout to the point it almost certainly would not pass.

The KMT has seen its support among voters under the age of 40 collapse in recent years, and cannot afford to be seen as anti-youth if it hopes to win back some of their support. But in reality, they know that adding voters aged 18 and 19 does not help them at the ballot box.

While party Chair Eric Chu (朱立倫) has, and continues to, campaign for a yes vote in the referendum, it appears some pan-blue activists are actively trying to undermine this. There are reports of posts in support of voting no in pan-blue-dominated social media, though it should be said no one formally associated with the party has been identified as doing so.

There is a good chance the referendum will not pass. In theory, the large portion of the population that identifies as neither pan-blue nor pan-green could push it over the top, but they would have to vote yes at levels seen among pan-green voters, which seems unlikely.

There is a very important reason to vote yes anyway

In spite of it almost certainly not passing the threshold, there remains a very good reason to vote yes anyway. If the percentage voting yes is over 50%, that will indicate the public supports it.

This is important because there may be another way to make this happen that does not require changing the constitution at all, and it could be done in the legislature. And it would almost certainly pass there.

Several law professors have pointed something interesting out, and the relevant line is in Article 130 of the Constitution, which reads: “Any citizen of the Republic of China who has attained the age of 20 years shall have the right of election in accordance with law.” It says nothing about people under the age of 20 not being able to vote, only that citizens at age 20 must be guaranteed it.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report ( and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce. Follow him on Twitter: @donovan_smith.