Californians Should Envy Taiwan’s New Direct Democracy

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)

I have Taiwan envy.

At least when it comes to direct democracy. The island nation has a new structure for initiative and referendum that might be the best in the world. Meanwhile, California labors under a broken initiative system.

What’s so great about Taiwan’s system? One way to explain it is to compare with California.

Taiwan’s system demands initiatives that are short and use simple language. The texts are supposed to be limited to 100 words—to state policy and intention, not the legal details. That means less opportunity for mistakes, intended and unintended.

Taiwan’s system is flexible. It allows for the Central Election Commission not merely to review initiatives but to suggest corrections. There is space for back and forth between the commission and proponents, to make sure the measure is clear and accurate.

And when it comes to gathering, it has flexibility to help proponents. While California and Taiwan both set a six-month period for signature gathering, Taiwan’s is flexible in a crucial way. If it turns out that the number of signatures have come up just short, Taiwan’s law then gives proponents another 30 days to make it right. (Imagine how that would help recent California proponents who have come up just short, and have little recourse).

Initiative standards are relatively low, giving the grassroots a real chance of organizing a referendum or initiative. While California demands a number of signatures equal to 5 percent or 8 percent of the people who voted in the last election, Taiwan’s percentage is just 1.5 percent. Also, the Taiwan law offers broad protections so that petition circulators can gather in any public space (California has been restricting where circulators can go) and cannot be interfered with.

Even better, Taiwan’s system for submitting, editing and circulating measures is electronic! And there’s no fee for submissions; proponents just need 1,800 signatures.

California allows initiatives to govern – or misgovern—all manner of budget and tax questions. Taiwan’s system wisely bars initiative and referendum on those subjects.

Taiwan’s initiative and referendum law permits such measures on all levels of government, from the national to the local. And while it’s new, already dozens of measures have been filed, on subjects including same-sex marriages, nuclear power, transitional justice (after the military regime), and food security.

On a recent visit to Taiwan, I had a two-hour briefing with the head of the Central Election Commission, scholars, and journalists on the process. We talked quite a bit about the extensive financial transparency required in the process.

The Taiwan process, like the California one, is open to donations and people who are not from Taiwan. I asked if they were worried about mainland Chinese interests, even the government, attempting to meddle.

The answer to my question was; Yes. But the biggest concern so far — they said, looking hard at me — has been measures funded by meddling Americans – specifically, American social conservatives backing measures limiting gay rights.

Touché.

I was so impressed that, with colleagues, I worked out a deal to host the 2019 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy in Taichung, Taiwan’s second largest city, October 2-5 of next year. Californians should come and be prepared to take notes.

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