campaign flags and strategic voting

One of the most interesting things about the SNTV (single non-transferable vote) electoral system is the way it creates strange incentives for strategic voting.  A voter engages in strategic voting when she votes for a candidate other than her most favored candidate in order to get a better outcome.  For example, in the Kaohsiung mayoral race, many KMT supporters will likely not vote for their favorite candidate (presumably Huang), but will instead vote for their second favorite candidate (Yang) in order to decrease the likelihood of a victory by their least preferred candidate (Chen).  In single seat races, strategic voting diverts votes away from weak candidates to the top two candidates.

However, in the SNTV system used in the city council elections, strategic voting can siphon away votes from the strongest candidates.   Suppose there are ten seats, and the first place winner wins 25000 votes while the tenth place winner only wins 15000 votes.  The first place winner has 10000 extra votes that she could have done without.  If another candidate from her party lost by 3000 votes, the supporters of the first place candidate might not be terribly happy, even though their favorite candidate won.  For them, a better result would have been for the first place winner to get only 21000 votes, and for the loser to get an extra 4000 votes and thus become a winner.  Voters try to anticipate this sort of result by guessing which candidates will get too many votes, and then they divert support to candidates from the same party they think will be weaker.

In Taiwan, this is often called “the curse of first place.”  No one wants the media to suggest that they are in first place, because their votes might evaporate.  The best place thing is to be perceived as being (though not necessarily actually be) on the edge of victory and defeat, because voters give candidates in that position extra votes (to the degree that voters agree on who occupies these positions.)  Candidates know this, and so everyone tries to convince voters that they are in danger of losing.

This weekend, I drove around Greater Taipei taking pictures of flags.  As the campaign draws to a close, candidates often put up flags screaming for help.  In this post, I’m going to show a bunch of these flags.

Here’s a fairly classic example from Zhang Jinting (DPP, Xinbei 3).  The dark green characters in the middle are the critical ones.  They read qiang jiu 強救.  Jiu means to save, and qiang is an intensifier, so this roughly translates as “HELP!!  SAVE ME!!!”

Here’ s another one from Zheng Jinlong (DPP, Xinbei 2).  He has put the qiang jiu characters in bright red.


Here’s a fence with banners from three different candidates in Banqiao (Xinbei 4), all of whom are screaming for help.  The three are Xiao Guanyu (TSU) in the red and yellow, Wang Shuhui (DPP) in black and red, and Huang Junzhe (DPP) in green.

Sometimes you have to do more than just scream for help.  Zhao Yanzhao (KMT, Xinbei 4) is emphasizing his ties with the Taipei County volunteer firemen.  Presumably they save lots of peoples’ lives, and now it is time for them and their supporters to save Zhao’s career.

Black and red seems to have become the official color scheme of the cry for help.  This is a bit disorienting for me.  Back in the 1980s, black was a color with a very serious political message.  The only people who used black in their campaign flags were people who were victims of political prosecution.   I suppose it is a good thing that Taiwan is far enough removed from those days that black can now be used to indicate a very different and much less serious type of disaster.  Here is a black and red call for help from Jiang Zhiming (DPP, Taipei 2).

For some reason, Taipei 3 (Songshan, Xinyi) seems to the epicenter of the black and red cries for help.  This is Wang Zhengde (KMT, Taipei 3).

Xu Jiabei (DPP, Taipei 3). Come to think of it, her father is a former city councilor who has a court case hanging over him.  However, she isn’t using black in the old sense; this black and red color scheme is clearly just another cry for strategic voting.

Yang Shiqiu (KMT, Taipei 3).  Instead of “qiang jiu” 強救, Yang has substituted “gao ji” 告急, or emergency!

Hong Jianyi (DPP, Taipei 3).

It’s not just that district.  Here is a black and red help sign in Tucheng.  (Ou Jinshi, DPP, Xinbei 7).

Ouch, too bright!

Jian Wenliu (KMT, Xinbei 5) asks people not to split up their votes.  That is, he is asking families to give him all of their votes rather than giving one to each of the KMT’s candidates.

Everyone screams for help, not just those who we might think are weak.  This banner is for Chen Jinxiang (KMT, Taipei 6) who is the vice-speaker of the Taipei City Council.  Really?  The vice-speaker is in trouble?  Really?

I can do better.  This sign is for Chen Xingjin (KMT, Xinbei 2).  Chen is currently the speaker of the Taipei County Assembly.  Just for the record, I didn’t make it to the districts of the Taipei City speaker or the Taipei County vice-speaker, so I don’t know if they were using this kind of tactic too.

Here’s another candidate who everyone expects to win.  This is former legislators Qin Huizhu (KMT, Taipei 3).

We already saw another former legislator using this tactic.  Wang Shuhui (DPP, Xinbei 4)  was one of the three people on the wall in Banqiao.

(And if you are counting, this would be the fifth black and red sign from that Taipei 3 district.)

Some candidates have figured that voters are probably inured to the save me appeal, and so they try to phrase the appeal in a more convincing way that reflects their special circumstances.  Here, Wu Yuanhao (KMT, Xinbei 3) tells voters that survey results are not equal to election results.  In other words, he is pleading with his voters not to strategically desert him for someone else.

Perhaps no one has played the save me angle as intensely as Zhong Xiaoping (KMT, Taipei 5).  Every time I go into his district, I hear a sound truck screaming that he is facing imminent death and needs to be rescued.  Zhong has another angle to his appeal.  He has lost before, so when he screams that he is in trouble, it might be more credible.  He even adds Jason Hu as his celebrity endorser.

Lin Shuishan (DPP, Xinbei 4) has a similar strategy.  Last time he came in 10th in a 9 seat district.  He has a picture of Su Tseng-chang sighing “I am worried that Lin Shuishan will be the top loser again.”

Here, Tsai Ing-wen tells that Lin Shuishan was the top loser last time and asks everyone to encourage him.

Wang Xinyi (KMT, Taipei 6) also lost last time.  Her banner exhorts voters not to let her lose by only a few votes and cry tears of regret again.

The crux of the problem is that all these candidates are trying to divide up votes from the same pool of voters, and each one wants (more than) his fair share.  One way to deal with this is to redefine the group of candidates who can legitimately draw from the pool of voters.   In Zhonghe (Xinbei 5), the two official DPP nominees (Zhang Ruishan and Lin Xiuhui) pose with Tsai and say “we are all DPP nominees.”  To understand why this is controversial, you have to know that a third candidate is trying to make claims on the DPP voters as well.  Jiang Yongchang only recently joined the DPP, and since he has been in the party less than a year, he wasn’t eligible to be nominated.  The two DPP candidates are suggesting that Jiang doesn’t deserve any DPP votes.

Predictably, Jiang Yongchang (IND, Xinbei 5) screams for voters to save him, as the “new” green soldier needs your critical vote.

Usually I think of strategic voting as something that goes on within parties, not between them.  However, Xue Yonghua (PFP, Xinbei 7) is the only PFP nominee in his district.  He asks voters to save him and adds, don’t let the PFP disappear.  In other words, he is trying to convince voters to think about the blue camp, not just the KMT.

Finally, we get to the last two candidates, and there is something strange going on.  Yang Zonghan (IND, Xinbei 5) boasts that he is a monster, 100 battles and 100 victories.  In other words, he is an election juggernaut.

In the same district, Lu Wanyu (IND, Xinbei 5) has taped a sign to his sound truck telling people that he is in third place in a recent survey.  What?  Third place?  The district has seven seats.  He should be claiming that he is seventh or eighth.  What is he doing?  And why is Yang telling voters that he always wins?  Don’t these guys know how the game works?

In fact, Yang and Lu are guarding against the traditional kind of strategic voting, in which voters desert weak candidates to support viable candidates.  Both are independents and neither is an incumbent, and the first battle they have to win is to convince voters that they are viable.  Party nominees, especially from the two big parties, have a much easier time of this.  If they weren’t strong enough to win, they couldn’t have ever gotten a nomination.  Independents don’t have this kind of credible signal, so they have to send other signals.   It seems you have to convince voters you can win before you start screaming that you are going to lose.

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6 Responses to “campaign flags and strategic voting”

  1. David on Formosa Says:

    As an Australian I always thought of preferential and proportional voting systems as the norm. However, living in Taiwan I have found that this is actually not the case. Proportional voting is a much better system for multi-member districts. I am surprised the two major parties don’t support it as it would ensure that their nominated candidates are elected in the order on the ticket.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      As an American, I too was initially confused by the SNTV system. Most experts on electoral systems would agree with you that proportional representation is better. However, since most of the literature on SNTV is based on the Japanese LDP, the most common critiques of SNTV are that it encourages factionalism and money politics. I think this is misguided, as you can find “dirty” elections in most systems. Money politics is not the exclusive purview of SNTV. I think that the strategic voting aspect is much problematic for SNTV. The system should produce winners who are the most popular. As such, I agree with you that a preferential voting system such as the STV system used in Ireland or the Open List PR system used in Brazil would be much better. However, I have rarely heard anyone suggest these systems. (Shen Fu-hsiung was touting open list PR about a decade ago, but no one paid attention.) If the choice is between the old SNTV system and the current MMM system used for the legislative elections, I prefer SNTV.

  2. lws Says:

    just a reminder of name transliteration for the speaker of the taipei county council speaker “陳幸進” Chen Jinxing. i guess Chen Xingjin would more correspond to his name. apart from that, you wrote a great detailed analysis. still another question, though, is there any specific name for the stv in ireland? just want to look for more things about it. 😉

  3. frozengarlic Says:

    I have changed the speaker’s name. Thanks.
    STV is short for Single Transferable Vote. It was dreamed up in England back in the 1840s and you can find John Stuart Mill advocating it in the British Parliament. However, Ireland and Malta are the only countries that use it for their national parliament. Some local elections around the world also use it. The Australian Alternative Vote (called Instant Runoff in San Francisco) is basically STV with only one seat. For years, most electoral systems scholars agreed (to the extent that scholars ever agree on anything subjective) that STV was probably the best electoral system. Then MMP (the German system) became the flavor of the month.

  4. lws Says:

    just out of curiosity: is mmp the electoral system for local legislative body election? or is it for the federal parliament?

  5. frozengarlic Says:

    Taiwan does not have a federal system (there are no “states”), so there is no such thing as the federal parliament. Instead, it is what we call a unitary state. The legislature in the central government is elected by MMM (mixed-member majoritarian). This is a similar system to the one used in Japan. The assemblies for the local governments are elected by SNTV.

    MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) is a different system. It is used in countries such as Germany, New Zealand, and Bolivia.

    If this all seems confusing to you, you are not alone. I used to teach an entire semester course on electoral systems. It’s extremely interesting, but it takes time to understand how all the systems differ.

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