Taiwan recently reaffirmed the strength of its democracy by successfully administering its elections last month in defiance of threats from China and elsewhere, but those threats and others created an emphasis on election security that continues to come at the expense of ballot access for too many of Taiwan’s eligible voters. Only 71.86 percent of voters turned out to cast their ballots in this year’s elections — a relatively high number when compared with many other countries’ recent elections, but the second lowest in Taiwan’s history.
This dip in civic participation has led some analysts to suggest a perceived lower-stakes political environment. Regardless, Taiwan usually prioritizes security over accessibility in its elections. This is a false choice. Taiwan can make its elections more accessible without sacrificing their security.
Election security can mean different things to different people in different contexts, but there is near universal agreement that the concept involves at three least goals: security, integrity and access. An election with only in-person election day voting might be secure and perceived as legitimate, but it is unlikely to maximize voter participation and ensure adequate access to the ballot box. It is possible to accomplish all three goals at the same time, and Taiwan has already pursued security and integrity.
Taiwan’s voters can only vote on one single day, which makes it harder for some citizens to cast ballots in a variety of circumstances.
When Taiwan faced large-scale quarantine restrictions during its November 2022 local elections, more than 60,000 eligible voters were unable to vote because they were trapped in quarantine. Then, like now, Taiwan had no provisions for alternative means to cast a vote other than in person on a single election day. By offering early in-person voting, as well as at-home voting for eligible voters who cannot safely visit a polling station to cast their ballot, Taiwan could add much more accessibility to its elections.
Many of Taiwan’s most critical workers are unable to vote in their country’s elections. Far too many police officers and medical workers report that they do not vote in Taiwanese elections, because they need to stay on the job throughout election day. Others who live far from their official place of residence, such as active-duty military personnel, often have a difficult time getting back home to cast their ballot.
While making the election process more accessible could introduce additional risks, there are lots of best practices for addressing these potential issues. For example, in Sweden, which is constantly having to be mindful of the possibility of election interference from Russia, legislative changes ahead of its 2004 election allowed eligible voters to vote ahead of election day in places such as libraries and shopping malls, and this expanded access to the ballot while also ensuring the integrity of the vote.
More opportunities to vote in person mean that the impact and stress on the election system is spread out over a longer period, which provides more opportunities to discover and resolve issues before voting ends.
For example, if a polling station in Taiwan was mistakenly understaffed during early voting, election officials could more easily observe the problem and fix it before many voters go to cast their ballots.
Alternatively, if such an issue appeared for the first time on election day, election officials would have less time to discover and resolve it. Taiwan’s polling blackout period could simply be moved up to commence with the beginning of early voting.
Moreover, providing additional in-person voting options could bolster confidence in Taiwan’s electoral process, which could be critical if there are concerns over voter confidence and election interference. If Taiwanese see that their neighbors and others are voting in large numbers ahead of election day, that could help shore up their confidence in the security of their election system, even in the face of efforts by China and others to influence the vote.
Taiwan should also allow voters who have a legitimate reason for not being able to vote in person to vote from home. This does not even need to involve Taiwan’s postal system if that were deemed too great a risk regarding issues such as vote-buying. Instead, election workers and legally permitted observers could work out procedures to visit these voters’ homes with their ballots.
Such a policy would not only enfranchise these “home-bound” voters, but reduce potential consequences that could arise if these voters tried to visit a polling station to cast a ballot, such as the spread of a contagious illness.
Historically, pre-election day voting has been viewed with skepticism by much of Taiwan — and for justifiable reasons. Ballot-stuffing was a serious problem in the days of martial law.
However, subsequent reforms, such as public vote counts, official election observation and improved chain of custody procedures, have largely rectified these issues. These safeguards could be extended to early in-person voting and at-home voting in special cases as well.
Enabling more of its citizens to vote would not only make Taiwan’s already sterling democracy more democratic; it would help its citizens see that the country is continuously improving its democracy, even as it faces its most fragmented political system since 2008.
It would also take away one more piece of fodder that authoritarian actors such as China could try to amplify in their efforts to undermine democracy in Taiwan and elsewhere.
Taiwan’s elections played out peacefully, transparently and securely last month. Enfranchising more of its citizens would help ensure that future elections, especially closely contested ones, meet a similar fate.
David Levine is the senior elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund in the US.
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