It was a problem during the 2012 elections, and it’s going to be a problem again less than three weeks from now: Because of the timing of their final exams set by the Central Election Commission (CEC) and inflexibility on the part of the Ministry of Education (MOE), a number of Taiwanese students probably won’t be able to cast their vote on Jan 16.
At the heart of the problem is the hukou, or household registration, system, which when it comes to elections stipulates that citizens of voting age (currently 20 years old) can only cast their vote where they are registered, and must do so in person. In short, Taiwan has no absentee voting system. Consequently, a number of university students whose last day of finals is Friday Jan. 15 will have a difficult time getting home in time to vote the next day, on the 16th. They might get there late, or could simply be unable to purchase high-speed rail, train, or bus tickets during those two days, when demand for public transportation will be inordinately high, it being the weekend and a nationwide Election Day.
Although universities have the flexibility to set their own schedules, a number of them insist that the finals must be held until that Friday and have made attendance compulsory, making it impossible for young voters to “skip” their exams in order to exercise what is both a civic right and duty.
This, of course, has invited speculation that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration may be attempting to make it difficult for young voters, who tend overwhelmingly favor the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), to cast their ballot. The conspiracy theories are further fuelled by the extra efforts that have been made to facilitate air transportation for the approximately 1 million China-based taishang, who are perceived as pro-KMT, to return to Taiwan to vote. Those efforts include discounted tickets and a reduction, by Beijing authorities, of the number of Chinese tourists heading for Taiwan during that period in order to increase the number of seats available to Taiwanese businesspeople. (Needless to say, such discounts are not available to overseas Taiwanese coming from, say, North America. In fact, according to some U.S.-based Taiwanese, airfare during that period has increased substantially.)*
One “easy” way to address the hukou problem would be to amend the Election and Recall Act for Public Servants (公職人員選舉罷免法), and in fact efforts have been made to do just that. However, this has run into difficulties. In May 2015, the KMT caucus in the legislature “bundled” provisions for absentee voting with other items, such as lowering the voting age to 18 — which given social trends would presumably benefit the DPP — and giving the legislature the power to approve a premier’s appointment. Moreover it insisted that the changes necessitated constitutional amendments (which are extremely difficult to make), whereas the DPP argues that absentee voting is a legal rather than constitutional issue. The KMT’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude has led to accusations by the DPP and civil society that the ruling party has “hijacked” the process of reform.
Absentee voting comes with a set of difficulties, and ultimately addressing those will be the greatest challenge. Under the hukou system, every Taiwanese citizen living overseas must return to his or her place of registration to vote. No distinction is made between the taishang in China and overseas Taiwanese who live or work in other countries. However, implementing an absentee voting system for all overseas Taiwanese would be problematic, as there would be no way to ensure the integrity of the ballots, electronic or in paper form, cast by taishang in China, where the government would have opportunities — and the incentive — to manipulate them. Evidently such problems are less likely to occur in other countries, especially in the Western democracies where most overseas Taiwanese have settled. That being said, granting absentee voting to all overseas Taiwanese except those who are based in China would discriminate against the taishang and violate their rights.
Therefore, until the security of absentee ballots cast on Chinese territory can be ensured, abolishing the hukou system will either have to wait or it will have to be discriminatory, which is unacceptable.
All of this shows us that reforming or abandoning the hukou system, while making perfect sense, is more complex than it first appears. Therefore, while dispensing with the hukou system or detaching elections from it would resolve the issue of students who won’t be able to vote because an election coincides with their finals, such a solution will have to wait. As a temporary solution, all it would take is for the CEC and the MOE to ensure that finals and Election Day do not overlap (this wasn’t a problem until the 2012 elections when, ostensibly to save money, the government decided to hold the presidential elections, which were historically held on March 20, and the legislative elections concurrently). A slight modification to the finals’ schedule, or to the date on which the elections are held, would do the trick. They didn’t do that in 2012, in which as many as 1.8 million Taiwanese in the 20-24 age category, or 10 percent of the about 18 million eligible voters, voted (or hoped to vote) for the first time. And they repeated that mistake for 2016.
Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei. This article was first published on the blog Thinking Taiwan and can be found here,
* Subsequent to the publication of this article, one reader has reported just the opposite, saying he is paying the lowest fare he has ever paid on an EVA flight from North America to Taiwan.