Huang Kuo-chang’s recall vote

The Central Election Commission has announced the date – December 16 – for the vote to recall New Power Party legislator Huang Kuo-chang 黃國昌, which gives me a convenient opportunity to rant about how stupid the new law is.

Recall that after the Sunflower movement, activists tried to recall several KMT legislators, including Chang Ching-chung 張慶忠, Wu Yu-sheng 吳育昇, Alex Tsai 蔡正元, and Lin Hung-chih 林鴻池. All of these efforts failed, and activists believed that the requirements for recall were unreasonably stringent. (The effort may have had some effect. None of the targeted legislators won re-election in 2016.)

When the NPP entered the legislature, one of its first goals was to revise the election law to make recall easier. Strangely, neither of the two big parties put up much resistance, and the revision was passed last December. I’ll steal this table from a UDN article summarizing the main changes:

  Previous law New law
Initiate a petition 2% of eligible voters 1% of eligible voters
Signatory period 30 days 60 days
Advertising Prohibited Allowed
Signatory threshold 13% of eligible voters 10% of eligible voters
Voting day concurrent with other election? Not allowed Allowed
Turnout threshold 50% of eligible voters Abolished
Yes votes Yes > No Yes votes must exceed 25% of eligible voters;

Yes > No

Let’s focus on those last two rows, since they are the most important. Previously, 50% turnout was required to pass a recall. This made it nearly impossible to pass a recall. The legislator could simply advise supporters to ignore the vote and stay at home. That meant that the opposition had to supply 50% of all eligible voters. In normal conditions and in normal districts, this was nearly impossible.

Huang’s district, New Taipei 12, had 251,191 eligible voters in 2016. (It’s probably a few thousand more now since Xizhi is a fast-growing area, but for the sake of simplicity I will ignore that.) This means that to recall Huang under the old law, opponents would have had to mobilize 125,596 votes. In winning the seat, Huang had only gotten 80,508 votes. That was in a general election concurrent with a presidential election, featuring campaign that dominated news in Taiwan for several months. The recall would have to mobilize 50% more votes without the benefit of a general election atmosphere. Not gonna happen.

As I’ve stated before, I think that is exactly how it should be. It should be nearly impossible to overturn an election result. One of the main ideas behind fixed terms is that we don’t need to continually re-litigate elections. We have a general election period, and then the winners get some time to focus on governing. The next election comes along in only a few years, so the wait is not oppressive. There is no need to overturn an election result except in the most exceptionally egregious cases. As a general principle, recalls should be doomed to fail unless most of the people who originally voted for the winner turn against him or her. In most such cases, the legislator will resign unilaterally, and there will be no need for a recall. However, if the legislator has really lost the confidence of his or her original supporters and refuses to step down, a recall may be necessary. In this case, that high threshold might be manageable.

The new law makes recall far too easy. Instead of 125,596 yes votes, recall supporters only need half that number, 62,798. How low is that number? In the 2016, Huang’s main opponent Lee Ching-hwa 李慶華 got 68,318 votes. That was nowhere near enough votes to win the seat, but if every one of those voters supports the recall, they can remove Huang from his seat. Take note, in this scenario, not a single person who originally supported Huang has changed his or her mind. It is now easier to recall Huang than it was to elect him in the first place.

Of course, the previous paragraph is ignoring the difficulties of mobilizing 62,798 yes votes without the atmosphere of a general election. This threshold is still probably unreachable. However, it is low enough that I have some doubts. 63,000 is difficult, but by no means impossible.

This puts Huang Kuo-chang in a difficult position. He now has to decide whether to try to mobilize his supporters to defend his seat. Even if they can pass the 62,798 threshold, he could still keep his seat if he can mobilize his original 80,508 supporters to come out to the polls and vote no. However, mobilization is expensive and difficult. The burden should be on the side trying to recall the legislator, not on the incumbent legislator. They are the ones trying to overturn a previous election result.

In a vacuum, I’d simply advise Huang to ignore the anti-gay marriage groups behind the recall effort. It’s highly unlikely that they have enough penetration in society to mobilize 10,000 votes, much less 63,000. However, there are other politicians making strategic choices. In particular, there are four city councilors who would love to have Huang’s seat. For the two KMT city councilors, this is a golden opportunity. Huang removed the old KMT incumbent, so now they have a wide open seat staring at them if the recall passes. You can bet that they are mobilizing their networks trying to recall Huang. The two DPP city councilors have to be more careful, since many of their supporters also voted for Huang. However, I suspect they wouldn’t be heartbroken if the seat were to come open. The point is, there are a lot of well-connected people who have an interest in Huang’s recall. The anti-gay marriage activists don’t have to supply all 63,000 votes; self-interested politicians will supply a substantial number of yes votes. It’s still a longshot, but it isn’t impossible.

Huang Kuo-chang won over 50% in 2016. Imagine how the calculations would be different for a candidate who had won a three-way race. For example, Tsai Shih-ying 蔡適應 won the Keelung seat with only 41.5% of the vote. He got 78,707 votes, but 111,162 people voted for one of the three blue camp candidates. The threshold in a recall election would only be 74,736, so a successful recall would be quite likely even if no voters who originally supported them had changed their minds. Recall elections are supposed to be tools to remove legislators who have betrayed their electoral contract, not second chances for when one side can’t agree on a single candidate. However, if Huang’s recall succeeds, this is where we are headed. Every legislator elected on the other party’s turf with less than 50% had better start looking over their shoulder.

If there is any ironic justice in this episode, it is that Huang and the NPP brought this recall on themselves. They insisted on drastically revising a law that was working well. At least they are the first ones to face the consequences of their lousy choice. And if the recall does pass, it won’t just be Huang personally who suffers. The outcome will be widely interpreted as an indicator that the general public is not ready for marriage equality, and the NPP will have succeeded in kneecapping one of its most cherished goals. Good going, guys.

Hopefully after the recall vote, the parties will decide to revise the election law again to make recalls harder and end this stupidity. In the meantime, Huang deserves to sweat a bit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

11 Responses to “Huang Kuo-chang’s recall vote”

  1. Mike Says:

    I’m still rather confused.

    Under the previous law, turnout needed to be 50%, and Yes > No (i.e. of those who turned out at least 50% voted yes) for the recall to be successful.

    So in other words, the minimum requirement could have been 50% * 50% = 25% of eligible voters voting yes.

    Under the new law, there is no minimum turnout required, but Yes > No; and Yes must exceed 25% of eligible voters.

    So in both the old and new law Yes must exceed 25% of eligible voters???

    So isn’t the only real effect that in the old law, you wouldn’t to mobilise support for No, in order to drive down the voter turnout to ensure it doesn’t hit 50% (which is the big burdern)

    However, in the new law, you would want to mobilise people to vote for No, so that No>Yes?

    I feel like I’m missing something but the penny isn’t dropping in my head.

  2. frozengarlic Says:

    You have it right. Those might technically seem like the same thing, but in practice they actually operate very differently. The old law was basically like the current referendum law, so let’s use that to illustrate.

    The first referendum (which was some vague question about favoring purchasing more military weapons) was held concurrently with the 2004 presidential election. The presidential turnout that day was over 80%, which is just about the maximum you could ever hope for. However, the KMT advised its supporters to not pick up the referendum ballot. Most KMT supporters voted in the presidential election and abstained from the referendum vote.

    There were a total of 6,511,216 yes votes, 581,413 no votes, and 359,711 invalid votes. With 16,497,746 eligible voters, that yielded a turnout of 45.2%. Even with extreme mobilization in a concurrent presidential election (that they won), the DPP fell well short of th 50% threshold. If they couldn’t do it in that case, it is almost unthinkable that it might happen in a single recall election. In other words, partisan measures are doomed to fail; the only things that have a chance are measures with widespread cross-party support.

    Of course, KMT supporters could have voted no in that election, but why would they? Voting no would only help the measure (which they opposed) to pass.

    However, if we apply the new recall rules to that election, the referendum would have passed easily. The one-fourth threshold for yes votes would have been 4,124,436, which the DPP managed to exceed by over 2,000,000 votes. Even in a more normal election with lower turnout, getting to one-fourth of the eligible voters is quite doable. In this scenario, the KMT could not have blocked the measure by simply abstaining; they would have had to mobilize to produce more no votes.

    (Huang Kuo-chang’s recall is not being held concurrently with another election, so turnout will still be a major challenge for recall supporters. However, the new law allows for concurrent recalls; if the activists had waited another eight months, Huang might be in real trouble.)

    The new rule removes the incentive for opponents to boycott the election, but it does so by effectively cutting the number of votes needed to pass a recall in half.

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  7. JL Says:

    I totally agree with you that the current threshold is unbelievably low and the NPP has brought it upon themselves. The opposition managed to amass 48,000 votes without a full mobilization from the KMT as if it was a general election. We might even see higher numbers if the weather wasn’t so bad in the 12th district today.

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