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.”
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.