Taiwanese voters head to the polls on November 26 for what is shaping up to be a contentious midterm that will inevitably impact the future of Taiwan’s politics domestically and internationally. What makes Taiwan’s midterms particularly unique is that these elections use a different mixture of voting systems than presidential and legislative elections. Taiwanese voters will cast votes for their mayor/county magistrate, city council members, and finally a referendum on whether or not to change the legal voting age to 18.
The twist is that each of these votes uses a different electoral system, which means that each carries its own different sets of strategies and challenges.
Mayor and County Magistrates
The mayor and county magistrate votes are conducted using what is called a first-past-the-post system (FPTP). Taiwan uses this same electoral system for the president and district representative elections during major elections. To win, the candidate must have more votes than the other candidates. In other words, the winning candidate does not have to have a majority of the votes, just more than everyone else.
Typically, a FPTP system will almost always leads to two major candidates running instead of three. More than two major candidates and the race will be “spoiled,” meaning that the third candidate might siphon votes from the person who would have won if only two candidates entered the race. For those familiar with Taiwanese politics, Chen Shui-bian’s first presidential win – also the first presidential victory for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – came because there were two Blue candidates who ran against each other, James Soong and Lien Chan. If Lien had not run, Soong would have won instead of Chen.
This in part is why Taipei’s mayoral election is so contentious. There are three candidates, Chen Shi-chung from the DPP, Chiang Wan-an from the KMT, and Huang Shan-shan, who is running as a third candidate. Huang as the third candidate is taking votes from both the DPP and the KMT. What is still an ongoing question is whom she is siphoning more votes from. Some public opinion polls show that she is taking more votes from the DPP, while other polls predict Huang will take more votes from the KMT. Even though the data is not unanimous, what is true is that without Huang in the race, the electoral landscape and political strategy for Taipei’s mayor race would look very different.
The electoral system used for city councilors is called “single non-transferable vote.” SNTV is a system in which multiple people win, which makes sense because city councils are made up of lots of people. Each city’s council is made up of neighborhood district representatives. In each neighborhood district, multiple people – often from the same party or a mix of parties – win and are elected to city council.
For example, Taipei’s city council is made up of 63 representatives from six different neighborhood districts and two seats reserved for Indigenous representation. Each district has a different number of representatives; for example the Songshan-Xinyi district has 10 representatives, five from the KMT, four from the DPP, and one independent. You can look up the city council and how many seats each neighborhood gets here. Long-time watchers of Taiwanese politics will remember that previously, Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan was also conducted through SNTV, but was reformed in 2008 to a different system.
The rules of SNTV are that the candidates who get the most votes win until all seats are filled. So if we look at Songshan-Xinyi, there are 10 seats, so the candidates who finish in the top 10 when the votes are counted will join the council. But voters can only vote for one candidate.
While this may seem simple, from a political party’s perspective this is an incredibly challenging electoral system. Parties have to make a very careful decision not just about how many candidates to nominate, but who to nominate, and where. Parties have to make sure that popular candidates and less-popular candidates are dispersed appropriately. If someone super popular from the DPP runs, they might end up receiving too many of the DPP’s votes, meaning that the less-popular DPP candidate may not get enough votes to get elected.
Or, if the party nominates too many candidates, the votes will be split between them and fewer will get elected. Meanwhile, a small party like the New Power Party (NPP) will not run multiple candidates in the same neighborhood, so as to avoid splitting the limited number of votes the party will receive.
Parties have to communicate very clearly to their voter base to vote evenly across their party’s candidates in order to maximize their number of city council seats, instead of just having everyone voting for the same candidate.
The benefits of SNTV are that it allows for lots of parties to have representation, and gives voters lots of choices to pick from instead of just two candidates. But it can be strategically complex for parties and voters to coordinate. Big neighborhoods get more seats than smaller neighborhoods, so the required number of votes needed to get elected will vary by person and district. In other words, in district A you may need at least 10,000 votes to get elected, but in another smaller district you only need 5,000. This is why on election day, the number of votes a candidate receives alone cannot tell you if they won. You also must know how many city council representatives that neighborhood has, and how many votes the other candidates received.
After last year’s referendum mayhem, this year there is only one vote: whether or not to lower the voting age to 18. Unlike the mayor or city council races, this is not an election for a person, but whether or not a constitutional law should be changed. For this to pass, 50 percent of Taiwan’s eligible voters have to vote in favor of the change, which will require around 9.65 million votes in favor of the referendum. This is a relatively high threshold, because constitutional changes in Taiwan are a big deal. In order for them to pass, a clear majority of Taiwanese voters have to show that they’ll vote in the affirmative.
Public opinion polls show that not everyone in Taiwan supports the referendum. One recent poll showed that only about 47 percent of voters support the motion. Even from the DPP, only about 60 percent support the referendum. What is odd is that party leadership from all parties, including the KMT, have vocally supported the change. But no parties have spent much of their resources campaigning on the referendum. Instead, it has fallen largely to the wayside in favor of candidate races. Even though parties are not against the referendum, its lack of support from civil society may leave it dead in the water.
Although three different electoral systems may seem like a lot, it is a reflection that Taiwan is a robust and highly functional democracy. Each of these systems offers different ways for Taiwanese voters to meaningfully participate and have a say in Taiwan’s future. Unlike some democracies that only use one electoral system for all levels of government, Taiwan’s varied approach allows for more competitive elections and more voices to participate in politics.