Wed, Apr 07, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Recount rules must be agreed on

By James Robinson

The people of Taiwan and their officials confront a number of problems in recounting votes from the March 20 presidential election. It is difficult for friends of Taiwan abroad to follow the details of each of these problems -- who pays? A judicial or legislative decision? The length of time for recounting? Or even whether to recount? The customary abrupt post-election departure of many visiting journalists and academics deprives overseas students of democracy of sources to monitor the changing circumstances stemming from the closeness of the vote. Even otherwise reliable Web sites have lowered their priorities for the impending recount.

Despite these handicaps, specialists in Taiwan's elections can glean hints of progress and retrogression in reaching a broadly acceptable and established legal outcome. Among these signs are those relating to the recount itself, not to the decision to recount, not to the payment of costs for the recount, not even to the merits of any legal dispute before the Taiwan High Court, but to the physical setting and physical acts of retabulating the ballots cast on March 20.

Since this would be the first major recount in the nation's history and previous considerations of recounts have been inconclusive, surely controversies are likely to spawn. The fundamental one may turn on the meaning of "recount." Some surely will want to adhere to a narrow conception in which the reappraisal is confined to a simple double-checking of the accuracy of the original count. Others will want to introduce higher or more extensive standards.

For example, the claim that "every vote should be counted" will seem appealing. However, unless the recount is to be turned into a new count of an essentially new and different election, participants should set a common and realistic goal: To recount the vote in as nearly the same ways as originally. The test is whether the recount is of the same election.

To this end, at least three questions deserve scrutiny and resolution. First, who counts? It is not clear to date what personnel will be assigned to this task. News media report that judges and prosecutors may be recruited. Whatever their integrity, they are unlikely to be experienced at counting paper ballots. Who is experienced? The officials who conducted the election -- school teachers, civil servants and others hired and trained during the last several years, most of whom will have had worked in previous elections. Counting ballots may seem, but is not, an altogether routine task. Actually, it involves several tasks: Reading the ballot, showing it to observers, recording it on a wallboard, collecting and securing ballots at the end of the count, all of which are followed by officially reporting results in a standardized way.

In addition to who counts, there arises the second question -- who observes? Typically, the major political parties assign local party members or leaders to monitor the vote during the day and the counting at the end. These people vary greatly in experience, attentiveness and competence. Are the same observers to attend the recount as monitored the original count? Are they to follow the same instructions for accepting or challenging voters and/or ballots, or are they to be a newly installed team of successors, to employ different standards for affirming or disputing how one or more ballots are to be counted, or even accepted for counting?

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