Apportionment Formula, Act Three

This is a continuation of my last post. If you haven’t read that one, you might want to go back and read it first. You could probably understand most of this without reading it, but you wouldn’t have that warm feeling that comes with a fuller understanding of a topic.


Act Three: The political machinations


There is a prologue to this post. In 2010, Taiwan carried out an administrative reform increasing the number of direct municipalities from two to five. As I discussed in the last post, under the old boundaries Kaohsiung City and County had both rounded up and gotten a total of nine seats while both Tainan City and County had rounded down and only gotten five seats. When the units were combined and the apportionment formula recalculated, the new Kaohsiung should only have eight seats and the new Tainan should get six. The wily Kaohsiung politicians did not like the prospect of losing a seat, so they introduced a bill to freeze the districts for ten years rather that reapportioning every cycle, as had always been the practice. Like the USA, Taiwan would now only carry out redistricting once every ten years. (Never mind that Taiwan doesn’t base its population statistics on the decennial census like the USA does or that since Taiwan has a four-year cycle it doesn’t even have elections on the tenth year.) Since a lot of other legislators were not crazy about the possibility of adjusting to a new set of voters, the bill sailed through the legislature. Kaoshiung cleverly stole a seat from Tainan, and it has kept this extra seat for the past two terms. Now the ten-year reprieve is up, and reapportionment is due. The time has come for Kaohsiung to finally lose that extra seat.

Apparently Kaoshiung politicians are not going to just sit by and let that happen. They tweaked the rules once to keep their extra seat, so maybe they can do it again. The mechanism they have seized upon this time is the apportionment formula. Someone noticed that the Central Election Commission changed the apportionment formula in 2006 and that under the previous formula Kaohsiung would have kept its ninth seat. All the news reports point to demands for the CEC to reconsider the formula as coming from Kaoshiung, particularly from legislator Chen Chi-mai. Chen is one of the sharper members of the legislature and he is angling to succeed Chen Chu as mayor, so I’m not terribly shocked to see that he is the one who came up with a credible plan to protect Kaohsiung’s ninth seat. This is not necessarily a DPP power grab; I have been told that KMT legislator Huang Chao-shun might also be one of the primary conspirators.

(There is a possibility that I am responsible for this whole thing since I wrote a post in March pointing out the formula had changed and that the old formula would have given Kaohsiung an extra seat. I have no evidence that some evil genius on Chen Chi-mai’s staff read that post and started evolving a scheme, but it is a plausible scenario. I prefer to think they dreamed it up independently. Otherwise I may have to be more careful in the future about my irresponsible musings on this blog.)

Let’s take a step back and look at the differences between the formulae. There are eight cities and counties that might experience a change from their current number of seats:

  2016 T7 T4 (June) T4 (Nov)
Taoyuan 6 6 6 7
Hsinchu Cn 1 2 2 1
Taichung 8 8 9 9
Nantou 2 2 1 1
Kaohsiung 9 8 9 9
Chiayi Cn 2 2 1 1
Tainan 5 6 6 6
Pingtung 3 2 2 2

No matter what, Tainan is going to finally get the sixth seat that it should have gotten back in 2012. This seat will be taken from Pingtung. From a partisan standpoint, this is means that one southern, mostly rural, deep green place will lose a seat to another southern, somewhat less rural, even deeper green place. It’s bad for Pingtung and good for Tainan, but there isn’t a lot of difference to the rest of us. Anyway, this change is set in stone, so this isn’t the part we should focus on.

Using current (June 2017) population data, the difference between the two formulae is that under the current formula (T7) Taichung and Kaohsiung will get eight seats while Chiayi County and Nantou will get two seats while under the previous formula (T4) Taichung and Kaohsiung will do better while Nantou and Chiayi County will do worse. However, the final apportionment will be done using November 2017 population figures, and, if current trends hold, T4 would also give Taoyuan another seat at the expense of Hsinchu County.

From a geographic standpoint, there isn’t a dramatic shift. One seat in north-central Taiwan (Hsinchu County) would be shifted slightly north to another place in north-central Taiwan (Taoyuan). One seat in central Taiwan (Nantou) would be shifted slightly northward within central Taiwan to (Taichung). And a seat in the south (Chiayi County) would be shifted slightly further south to Kaohsiung. It isn’t the case that the north would be getting three seats from the south or anything like that. The regional balance is basically unchanged.

There is slightly more effect from a partisan perspective, though again, it isn’t that big of a deal. Taoyuan is currently governed by the DPP while Hsinchu County is governed by the KMT, which makes it seem like a big deal to shift a seat from one to another. However, Taoyuan and Hsinchu County have historically voted in quite similar ways. If the KMT can’t dominate both areas, it isn’t coming back into power. The extra seat in Taoyuan might be in the fast growing areas around Taoyuan and Luzhu Districts, which the DPP has done particularly well in. However, a second seat in Hsinchu County would create a safe KMT seat centered around Zhudong and a very competitive seat centered around Zhubei. Overall, I consider shifting a seat from Hsinchu to Taoyuan to be at most a very minor DPP advantage. The story is roughly similar in central Taiwan. While Nantou is governed by the KMT and Taichung is governed by the DPP, the partisan difference between the two is not all that great. Moreover, the biggest beneficiary of a ninth Taichung seat might be KMT rising star Chiang Chi-chen, whose current district is dangerously green and also very small. With only eight seats, Chiang’s district will have to add a lot more green-leaning voters, making an already-challenging district nearly impossible. Again, shifting a seat from Nantou to Taichung is at best a minor DPP advantage. In the south, shifting a seat from Chiayi County to Kaohsiung is probably not very consequential. As things currently stand, both areas are completely dominated by the DPP. I think the KMT probably has a better chance of winning a district in Kaohsiung. Their best chance is in the Zuoying area with as few other voters added to Zuoying as possible. That is, the KMT would probably prefer to shift a seat from Chiayi County to Kaohsiung, though the advantage isn’t very large. Overall, there isn’t a whole lot of partisan impact. Changing from T7 to T4 might have a slight advantage to the DPP, but it probably isn’t worth losing sleep over.

The KMT representative at the CEC public hearing (Huang Teh-fu 黃德福) clearly didn’t see it that way. His arguments were unilaterally against the change. For whatever reason, he has decided the KMT is decidedly better off with the current formula than with T4. Huang is a top-notch brain, and it is quite possible that he is seeing something that I am missing.

Where there clearly is an impact of the proposed change from T7 to T4 is in the balance between urban Taiwan and rural Taiwan. All three shifts would be toward a more urban setting. The shift from Hsinchu County to Taoyuan would be only a modest increase in urban power (Zhubei is already pretty urban), but shifting as seat from Nantou to Taichung and especially from Chiayi County to Kaohsiung would be significant increases in urban political weight. The current apportionment formula is systematically biased against urban areas, so this would be a welcome adjustment. In the current system, the constitution gives extra representation (beyond what their population implies) to the east coast and the outlying islands. It further overrepresents indigenous voters, who are more rural than the rest of the population. As a result, cities are systematically underrerpresented. Taiwan’s main political cleavage isn’t centered on urban-rural divides or even on economic divides that might be related to urbanization, so the underrepresentation of urban areas doesn’t translate directly into an advantage for one party or the other. However, it does mean that progressive ideas (which tend to be centered in cities) such as marriage equality will face more obstacles than they should. Further, since clientelism tends to work best in rural areas, underrepresentation of urban areas arguably helps vote buying and factional politics survive. In Act Two of this post, I discussed malapportionment in general terms, noting that T4 is slightly fairer than T7. Here, I expand on that idea by pointing out that the specific form of malapportionment is to skew power toward rural voters. T4 would (somewhat) help redress that imbalance by transferring some power to urban voters.


This is all great, but what is actually going to happen? Will we get T7 or T4? After the CEC finishes its three public hearings, it will meet and decide to adopt one or the other. It will almost certainly opt for T7 since there is no real reason for it to want change. The CEC will especially want to reject the suggestion that it has been violating the constitution for the past three election cycles, and it has an interest in a depoliticized, stable process. What it does not want is pressure to rewrite the rules every election cycle.

After that, the legislators will get their chance. They can override the CEC’s decision by writing the formula into the election law. There isn’t a lot of time to get this done before the November deadline, but there is enough. A decade ago, Kaohsiung politicians quickly built a coalition to revise the law and protect their ninth seat, and now they need to do it again. We’ll see just how good Chen Chi-mai and his allies are at this game of politics.

I think they will probably succeed for the simple reason that the numbers should be in their favor. There are 23 legislators from Kaohsiung, Taichung, and Taoyuan but only 5 from Nantou, Chiayi County, and Hsinchu County. The legislators from Taichung and Taoyuan might not be aware that a seat is about to fall into their laps just yet, but this is not hard to explain. Once you make the effects clear to the legislators and voters from those three cities, it will be hard for any of the 23 legislators to oppose the change. He or she would have to explain to voters why it wasn’t important to protect their hometown’s interests. The Kaohsiung politicians also have an advantage when it comes to expanding beyond the initial 23-5. Their natural allies are the 20 legislators from Taipei and New Taipei who don’t benefit in this round but might benefit in the next reapportionment. T4 is clearly more advantageous to populous cities. That might seem to imply that T7 is better for small cities and counties, but that is not necessarily the case. The smallest cities and counties are guaranteed a seat by the constitution, and they aren’t going to get a second seat no matter what the formula is. The group of legislators with a direct interest in keeping T7 are those from smaller cities and counties that might actually lose a seat under T4, including Miaoli, Yunlin, Pingtung, and Changhua. That’s only 11 more votes. The enlarged potential coalitions are thus 43-16 in favor of T4. If the party leaderships stay out of the matter, that’s probably enough to pass an amendment. Surely the urban coalition could find a few allies among the party list representatives, most of whom are from urban areas.

The rural coalition’s best hope is probably to turn this into a partisan issue, accusing the DPP of manipulating the electoral rules to its own advantage. This might force the DPP leadership to intervene to snuff out the effort to amend the law in order to protect its own image. (Remember, there isn’t actually much of an advantage for the DPP or disadvantage for the KMT.) One of the KMT caucus leaders is already trying to do this. Several of the KMT floor leaders held a press conference lambasting the DPP for trying to manipulate the rules. You might notice that one of the KMT floor leaders is Lin Wei-chou 林為洲, who is from Hsinchu County (and is planning to run for county magistrate). He’s working hard to mobilize the KMT on his behalf. Another one of the KMT floor leaders is John Wu 吳志揚, a party list legislator from Taoyuan. Wu is the former Taoyuan County magistrate, and he is also maneuvering for the Taoyuan mayoral nomination. He might not realize yet that Taoyuan would directly benefit from T4. Once someone explains it to him, I’d be shocked if he continues to dance to Lin Wei-chou’s tune. If he has any political sense at all, he will insist that the KMT caucus should remain neutral on this question and leave the decision up to individual legislators. Otherwise, he’s going to have some questions to answer when Taoyuan voters ask him why they should vote for someone who wasn’t interested in defending Taoyuan. In short, the rural coalition’s best chance is to make this a partisan issue, but that will be very hard to do since many people within the KMT will favor T4.

In the end, I expect the legislator to amend the election law and write T4 into the law. I’m not terribly happy or unhappy about this. I would prefer a stable law that rarely changes, especially to benefit short term interests. However, I also place importance on equal representation, and I think underrepresentation of urban voters is a significant flaw in the current system. If I had a vote on the CEC I’d probably vote to keep T7, since the CEC’s primary responsibility is institutional stability and neutrality. If I had a vote in the legislature I’d probably vote for T4, since by that time the question has already been politicized and it is the responsibility of elected politicians to make the normative tradeoffs such as how much malapportionment is too much. Fortunately, I don’t have a vote in either body, so I can sit back and watch while other people make the choice.

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