The looming 2020 U.S. presidential election will no doubt spark debate about the electoral college yet again, and the delayed and contested results from the Iowa caucus, the first test in the Democratic primary process, have already brought outrage. With that background in mind, the United States could learn a valuable lesson about improving democratic participation and voting processes from Taiwan.
At 4:30 p.m. on January 11, 2020, a polling station in a first-floor classroom of Longan Elementary School in Da’an District of Taipei transformed into a paragon of democracy and civic engagement.
An audience of 15 Taiwanese adults and children watched quietly as a man, on stage right in the theater of democracy, reached into a ballot box, pulled out a messy stack of pink papers and passed them one by one to a female announcer. The announcer held the first ballot high above her head and called “Number 3 Tsai Ing-wen Ticket” in a strikingly clear voice, breaking the silence of the room. A woman behind her etched a tally in Tsai’s column on the official tracking sheet, marking the beginning of the election count.
Not only spectators, the audience plays the crucial role of policing this procedure and protecting its democracy. Although they worked like a well-oiled machine, the counting staff occasionally erred by misplacing or misreading a ballot. One particularly zealous elderly man in the front row, who never averted his gaze, caught each error just before the staff caught it themselves. Each time he graciously stopped the procedure, asked the announcer to reread the names and ensured that the ballots were placed into the correct candidate’s piles.
In seven instances, ballots with unclear or mismarked stamps surfaced. Together the audience and staff analyzed them and ultimately decided unanimously to place them in the “Invalid Ballot” folder. Witnessing this display, one cannot help but think, “this is what democracy looks like.”
The first-floor classroom of Longan Elementary School was one of 17,232 polling stations across Taiwan carrying out the same procedure, but it was particularly special. The last three ballots called in rapid succession, “Number 2 Han Kuo-yu Ticket,” brought the final ballot total to 459 for both incumbent President Tsai and challenger Han, a dead tie between the rival candidates. Given that Tsai garnered over 2.6 million more votes than Han overall, this tie was a bit of an anomaly.
Excited whispers rippled through the crowd. People from polling stations nearby piled in to see. The staff recounted each ballot and double-checked each pile. The elderly man asked the staff to check a third, then fourth time. He requested to view the empty ballot box, lifting the flaps at the bottom to ensure there were no ballots trapped beneath. Within two hours of the ballot box opening ceremony, the tie was confirmed and the ballots from the classroom were sent to the district operation center. At the district or city operation centers, tallies are entered into a computer counting system and sent directly to the Central Election Commission who announces real-time information and final results by the end of the evening.
The 2020 Taiwanese elections saw a voter turnout of 74.90 percent, a marked 15.6 percentage points higher than the United States’ most recent presidential election in 2016. Over the last seven election cycles since 1996, Taiwan has averaged a voter turnout of roughly 76 percent. The U.S. trails almost 20 percentage points behind, with voting-eligible population turnouts averaging 57.5 percent since 1996.
A compelling reason for Taiwan’s healthy civic engagement is the clarity and openness of its electoral system. In Taiwan, one voice equals one vote and counting procedures are open to public witness under its simple majority system. By contrast, Americans are barred from watching counting procedures and the electoral college system means that not all votes are created equal. For instance, due to population disparities, a vote in Vermont is three times more powerful than a vote in New York. The electoral college ignores the will of the American people by allowing a presidential candidate to be elected even when they did not win the majority of the popular vote, an instance which has occurred four times in U.S. history. The power of a vote in the United States depends on the population of one’s state, not on the inherent act of voting itself.
Taiwanese voters were stunned to learn that American citizens cannot watch the ballot count, immediately asking “How can you avoid corruption?” They were driven into further confusion by explanations of the electoral college, ultimately prompting them to ask whether the United States is really a democracy. Juxtaposed against Taiwan’s system, which is intrinsically more inviting of democratic participation, it is no wonder American voters feel unmotivated.
Advocates argue the electoral college system protects small states which would otherwise be dominated by large states in a majority system. This belief is based on a myth given that big states never award candidates one-sided victories. Since 2000, the largest winning percentage delivered by a big state was only 62 percent.
Some may argue that Taiwan’s small population is the only reason its traditional counting methods function; however, with a population nearly 14 times the size and a GDP approximately 30 times greater, the United States has all the more resources to carry out such procedures.
The United States may be the mother of democracy, but sometimes the best improvements come from daughters who learn from their mothers’ shortcomings. Its open vote-counting procedures have marked Taiwan with inclusivity and encourage democratic participation on a deeper level. Perhaps it is time for the U.S. to turn its attention to Taiwan and to simplify by abolishing the electoral college and opening counting procedures to the public to stimulate democratic participation.
Dominique Reichenbach is a Boren Scholar based in Taipei. She currently works as a research intern and teaching assistant at National Chengchi University. The views expressed in this article are hers alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Chengchi University or the Boren Scholarship program.