A thousand-dollar plane ticket? For some, just the cost of democracy in Taiwan

Foreign Affairs

Ahead of Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections on Saturday, all parties are going full throttle to mobilize as many of their voters as possible. As part of their last campaign push, both major parties, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang (KMT), held massive rallies on Ketagalan Boulevard in the center of Taipei, and included nods to overseas Taiwanese. On Thursday, KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu, standing in front of a sea of Republic of China flags, thanked voters for returning home from all over the world. On Friday, president Tsai Ing-wen’s DPP invited 80 people onto the stage, who had returned from overseas: “Look at these young people, who have come from all over the world and crossed all three oceans to vote!” she said.

Among the group were Shane Hsiung and Chien-hui Wang, a couple who had flown in from Paris. Wang had spent the night at Paris’s airport to catch a 7 am flight, while Hsiung had gotten a ride to the airport from a Taiwanese friend at 4 am and financial support from another so she could afford her plane ticket — just so she could vote.

Taiwan’s household registration makes voting difficult — and expensive

One particular feature of Taiwanese democracy is its household registration (戶口 hùkǒu) system. In order to vote, people need to be physically present in the place of their registration on election day and cast a ballot at their local polling station. There is no postal or electronic vote, or any other way of voting from somewhere else.

Domestically, this policy contributes to an extremely low turnout rate among young people, who are more likely to have moved away from their place of registration for work or study. Internationally, it puts a hefty cost on the ability to vote for Taiwanese citizens abroad: They need to take time off work or school and pay for expensive plane tickets just to cast a ballot.

That many people like Hsiung and Wang are returning back home at great financial cost is a sign of how much they think is at stake. President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文 Cài Yīngwén) has staked her reelection campaign on the need to protect Taiwan’s democracy from China; she has spent her last four years in office trying to reorient Taiwan’s economy away from China. Her chief opponent, Han Kuo-yu (韓国瑜 Hán Guóyú), puts a stronger emphasis on the Chinese aspects of Taiwan’s identity and proposes to improve Taiwan’s economy through closer trade relations with China.

Wang worries that the economy might end up trumping other values like freedom and human rights in voters’ minds. “When Han won the mayoral election in 2018, I cried — I couldn’t believe that people would be willing to give up the hard-fought freedoms of the last 30 years just to get rich,” remembers Wang, whose father was an early member of the Taiwanese democracy movement. She and Hsiung booked tickets in August, when events in Hong Kong were making them increasingly anxious about the prospect of a KMT-led, China-friendly government in Taipei.

They are not exactly ardent DPP supporters, but consider Tsai the obvious choice when contrasted with Han Kuo-yu. For them, the choice is clear: The DPP and Tsai stand for democracy, more distance from China, a Taiwanese identity separate from the mainland, and, for some, progressive values such as same-sex marriage. They associate the KMT with more influence from China and a possible erosion of Taiwan’s freedoms. “It’s basically for us voters to choose if we value freedom and our democratic system and way of life,” says one voter who delayed quitting his job in the U.S. so that his travel back to Taiwan would coincide with the elections.

However, it is not only Tsai supporters and young people who are returning. “The older generations have always mobilized themselves to go back for elections, often through personal networks,” explains Wei-ting Yen, a professor in political science at Franklin and Marshall College. “Most of these people are KMT supporters who migrated decades ago.”

What’s new in 2020 is the online mobilization that is clearly aimed at young people: After the DPP’s resounding defeat in the 2018 mayoral elections, Ed Liu, a PhD student at Rutgers, coordinated with other volunteers to film a multi-series documentary about overseas Taiwanese. They spread the clips via Facebook and hoped to convince people that returning home to vote for Tsai was important. Others have taken to organizing via Facebook or messenger groups, where they help each other find affordable plane tickets. After the KMT’s massive rally in Taipei on Thursday, Hsiung and Wang noticed a flurry of activity in one of their LINE groups: Scared by the massive crowd of flag-waving Han supporters, several Taiwanese people in Japan decided that they needed to vote after all, and and frantically searched for tickets — less than 48 hours before polling stations would open.

The willingness of so many Taiwanese people to return home to cast a ballot contrasts sharply with attitudes in many established democracies, where turnout rates have been shrinking, especially among young people. “I know some people who arrive on the morning of the 11th and are leaving Taiwan on the 12th, just to vote — that is not very rational!” says Yen, the professor. “But many of the materials mobilizing people to return home boil down to voting as a defense of democracy. Compared to the possibility of losing democracy, spending $1,000 on a plane ticket suddenly doesn’t seem that costly.” This sense of doom has only been reinforced by events over the past year, such as the protests in Hong Kong and increasing Chinese rhetoric that Taiwan is part of China.

“How is this fair?”

While some people decide that going home to vote is worth it, that choice is much more difficult for others. One 29-year-old woman who lives in Germany was told by her boss that taking leave during her probationary period would be extremely unusual. After some consideration, she decided against buying a ticket. “Ultimately, every citizen has a responsibility to contribute to Taiwan’s future, but I am the only one who can take responsibility for my own future,” she said.

Another woman, who works as a renewable energy consultant in London and has been eligible to vote in Taiwan for eight years, has not voted in a single election due to the logistical difficulty. This election felt like the most important one to date, and she considered flying back. She, too, is deeply worried about China’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric toward Taiwan, and the KMT’s threats to overturn progressive legislation, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage. But again, her work got in the way. “I’d have to leave London on Friday morning at the very latest and transfer to Kinmen, where I am registered, on Saturday,” she said. “But I have an important deadline at work on Friday that I can’t simply move.”

“How is it fair that we need to pay so much money just to vote?” she said. “Part of Taiwan’s pitch is that we’re different from China and that we are democratic. It is the government’s duty to expand suffrage in any way that is technologically feasible.”

Who benefits?

So why doesn’t the Taiwanese government introduce absentee voting, either by mail or in embassies? According to the Taiwanese Overseas Community Affairs Council, the Taiwanese diaspora holding Republic of China passports is 2 million people strong. Compared to the 19 million citizens eligible to vote, 60 percent of which turned out at the last presidential election, this is a sizable number of voters, and even just half of them could significantly influence an election outcome. For example, in the 2012 presidential election, now-president Tsai Ing-wen lost to KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou (马英九 Mǎ Yīngjiǔ) by less than 800,000 votes.

It is hard to say how many people are actually returning home to vote from abroad. According to official numbers, 5,328 overseas Taiwanese registered to vote in the 2020 election — more than twice as many as 2016’s 2,420 registered overseas voters. But these numbers likely only include people whose household registration has expired because they have been out of the country for a continuous period of at least two years at some point. Many overseas Taiwanese make regular trips, which means that they automatically remain on the rolls in their last official place of residence.

“We have had discussions about introducing absentee voting before, but it never turned into a bill — probably because both major parties are trying to calculate how much they can gain,” says Yen, the professor at Franklin and Marshall College. “Both sides are worried that they might lose out because there is no reliable data on which side the overseas vote would ultimately go to.”

The argument could cut both ways: On the one hand, many recent emigres are young, progressive, and would probably support the DPP. On the other, older immigrants who left before Taiwan‘s democratization are staunch KMT supporters that were only able to leave because they were loyal supporters of the government. In the end, the uncertainty over who has more to gain from the overseas vote probably means that overseas Taiwanese will have to vote at the cost of a plane ticket for the foreseeable future.