Written by Kharis Templeman.
Image credit: Hyehwa-dong pre-voting April 11 by Bonnielou2013/ Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY-SA 4.0.
With its colourful and fiercely contested campaigns, efficient electoral administration, and universal acceptance of the results, Taiwan’s recent local elections were, in most ways, a sign of a vibrant and healthy democracy. But one aspect failed to live up to basic democratic standards: thousands of people were denied the right to vote because they were trapped in mandatory COVID quarantine. After nearly three years of dealing with a global pandemic, Taiwan’s leaders should have been able to find some way to accommodate these citizens, as many other countries around the world have managed to do under much more difficult circumstances. Instead, they ignored the issue, and many Taiwanese were denied the right to vote. Taiwan’s democracy has received much recognition recently for its impressive vitality and resilience. But on voting rights, it is now a laggard. It can and must do better.
The Central Election Commission Denies Quarantined Citizens the Right to Vote
Taiwan had the remarkable good fortune to hold its last major elections on January 11, 2020, mere weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic burst out of China and spread around the globe. The Taiwan government’s initial response was swift and effective, and it managed to stop any domestic infection for over a year. That success allowed it to dodge questions about what to do if part of the electorate was infected with COVID – questions that challenged election administrators in much of the rest of the world, from Poland to Korea to the United States.
It also allowed the Central Election Commission (CEC) to hold a recall and by-election in 2020 without making any accommodations for quarantined voters. However, with the spread of domestic transmission in the summer of 2021, the CEC decided to postpone referendums originally scheduled for August to December rather than devise contingency voting plans. That gamble that paid off when new case counts fell by the end of the year to under 20 per day, and the referendums were ultimately held without incident.
These near misses should have motivated the Tsai administration, the CEC, and the legislature to expand Taiwan’s voting options in case of another domestic outbreak. Instead, everyone passed the buck. In October 2021, the CEC proposed an absentee ballot system for referendums – a modest reform which still fell victim to partisan politics and got stuck in the legislature. The CEC then spent precious months ignoring the problem, even as the government finally moved away from a zero-COVID strategy last summer, and Taiwan’s case count shot up. Finally, in October 2022, the CEC announced that it would provide no special accommodations for voters in quarantine, arguing that there was no legal basis for allowing mail-in ballots or special polling stations for COVID-positive citizens. That decision ultimately disenfranchised an estimated 65,000 people who were in mandatory quarantine on election day. It also provoked condemnation from Amnesty International, criticism from media commentators and all the major opposition parties, citizen lawsuits, and even a Control Yuan investigation.
Accommodating Quarantined Voters: The Korean Example
To be fair, the CEC is not chiefly to blame here: it was simply trying to follow the letter of the electoral law, which has no provision for alternative ways to cast a ballot. The CEC also had no way to force the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) to relax quarantine rules. Nevertheless, it was still quite disingenuous to claim nothing could be done to accommodate quarantined citizens.
In fact, Taiwan could have copied an idea from Korea. In April 2020, during its initial COVID outbreak, the Republic of Korea held its regularly scheduled parliamentary elections. With more than 60,000 people locked down at home or in hotels in strict two-week quarantines, the Korean election commission faced the exact same dilemma: should they allow voters to break quarantine and put others at risk of infection or deny them the right to vote?
In the end, the Korean authorities mitigated this problem in three ways. First, they expanded the limited categories of people eligible to cast mail-in (postal) ballots, from those homebound or disabled to those in quarantine as well. Second, they encouraged people to take advantage of early voting, which had already been introduced in 2013. In the 2020 elections, an astonishing 40 per cent of all voters used this option. Third, they coordinated with the public health authorities to allow quarantined citizens out to vote between 5:20-7:00 pm on election day. As long as they arrived at polling stations before 6 pm, they were permitted to cast a ballot when the polls officially closed. That flexible interpretation of the election law allowed poll workers to keep quarantined individuals separate from other voters while still allowing them to cast their ballots.
The CEC is correct that without changing the election law, it could not implement either of these first two options. But the third was still a real possibility. Similar to Korea’s law, the Civil Servants Election and Recall Act (Article 19) allows anyone already in line to vote when the polls close to cast a ballot, no matter how long they have to wait. And the CEC has the discretion to choose both the date and time of the election. It is by tradition, not statute, that elections are held on Saturdays from 8 am-4 pm. Voting hours could have been extended and additional measures taken at the polling stations themselves, without requiring action by the legislature. Thus, Taiwan’s election commissioners ultimately chose to disenfranchise voters rather than adapt election procedures for the pandemic.
How to Improve Taiwan’s Restrictive Voting Rules
This shameful episode highlights a long-standing problem with elections in Taiwan: unlike most of its democratic peers, Taiwan’s election law allows only one way to vote. Ballots can only be cast on election day and only at the precinct where a voter’s official residence is registered. Moreover, Taiwan has never legalized any form of absentee, postal, or early voting, and the law does not provide alternative ways for citizens out of the country or living far from home to cast a ballot. Consequently, some parts of the Taiwanese electorate, including college students, active-duty military personnel, and those living overseas, face a disproportionate burden to exercise their voting rights.
This problem is not new, but efforts to address it have raised at least three reasonable objections. First, early, and absentee ballots can be more susceptible to fraud or mishandling. In other countries, their use has sometimes resulted in long delays in voting count and certification. Before democratization, Taiwan had a dark and sordid history of election shenanigans. Many of the strict rules for handling and casting ballots and for the public counting of votes were implemented to increase the legitimacy of election outcomes. If not done with care, introducing other voting methods and sources of ballots could undermine trust in the results. Second, vote-buying in Taiwan is no longer ubiquitous, but it remains the most serious threat to electoral integrity. For instance, by election day this year, prosecutors had already gathered evidence in at least 20 separate cases of alleged vote-buying. Because absentee ballots would be marked outside of polling stations where there is no guarantee of privacy, postal voting would make this practice even harder to deter, and it would be easier for candidates to ensure votes they paid for were actually cast for them. Third, many of Taiwan’s overseas nationals live and work in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Given the relentless efforts by Beijing to try to influence Taiwan election outcomes, it would be hard to persuade many people that mail-in ballots from the PRC were marked without coercion or improper influence – especially if those votes provided the decisive margin of victory in close races.
Thus, taking into consideration Taiwan’s current system of election administration and its legacy of serious electoral violations, a better way to expand voting options would be through early voting, which could be held in many of the same locations as election-day polling stations and would not require additional modifications to election procedures. Taiwan should also consider experimenting with some limited form of absentee balloting for citizens who are disabled, hospitalized, or otherwise unable to return home on election day. It is unconscionable to deny the right to vote to anyone who cannot physically access their polling station, and it is long past time for legislators to do something about that problem as well.
Put simply, the disenfranchisement of quarantined citizens is indefensible in a modern liberal democracy. Unfortunately, the 2022 elections have made clear that Taiwan has fallen far behind other most other countries on this measure – including peer states like Korea. Taiwan desperately needs a more serious discussion about how to introduce alternative voting methods without undermining the many strengths of its current electoral process.
Kharis Templeman is a lecturer at the Center for East Asian Studies at Stanford University and a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he is the program manager of the Project on Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific Region. His areas of expertise include democratic transitions and consolidations, comparative parties and elections, and the politics of Taiwan.