Collect Your Signatures in the Temple

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

As direct democracy expands around the world, finding public space to collect signatures on referendum or initiative petitions has become a global challenge. Sometimes it’s quite hard. Here in California, local governments and corporations often use harassment or litigation to keep petition circulators away from places they should have the right to be.

But Taiwan, which has embraced direct democracy recently, with 10 nationwide referenda just last year, has found a solution for this.

The temple.

Specifically, Taiwan’s Buddhist and Taoist shrines and temples have become a magnet for petition circulators. Such places draw a steady stream of visitors, and even more people during services. They tend to be open. And they often are in very public spaces, next to night markets where families can go after they’ve visited the temple.

Temples also are open to all, and they have the distinction of being still non-partisan spaces in Taiwan. Indeed, one political figure who wants to pursue a ballot initiative on neutrality—specifically, declaring Taiwan a neutral country, like Switzerland—has talked of doing all the signature gathering in temples.

This of course isn’t so different from American churches or temples, where parishioners talk up their causes, and might even ask for your signature on the petition. But the scale of temple petition circulation is impressive in Taiwan, where 37 measures circulated for signature last year. And it could get bigger if Taiwan embraces direct democracy on the local level.

The one problem? The legislative Yuan changed the rules to make it harder to pass intiaitives and referendum, by moving them to lower-turnout election years while maintaining a very high turnout quorum. A simple majority in a vote is not enough to win. You need to win the votes of 25 percent of all Taiwan’s voters. 

To get that many voters, you’ll have to go temple as well—to pray.

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