The Recall: Is 48,693 a lot?

As readers of this blog likely already know, the recall vote for NPP legislator Huang Kuo-chang 黃國昌 was held last Saturday. The measure failed, and I keep reminding myself that the top-line result is important in and of itself. Because it failed, Huang probably won’t run for mayor (or if he does, he’ll drop out as soon as he extracts a few concessions from the DPP) and marriage equality won’t suddenly be recast as a toxic issue. Also, Huang will continue to be a legislator, which some people might see as kinda important.

Nevertheless, the top line result isn’t everything. 48,693 people cast votes to recall Huang, while 21,748 cast votes to oppose recalling him. I keep asking myself, are those numbers big or small? To be honest, I’m not really sure.

Maybe a good place to start is by examining the election night reactions. As the vote-counting wound down and the result became clear, the leader of the recall effort and Huang both gave interviews to the TV cameras. Huang spoke like he had been shocked and disappointed. He was contrite and promised to listen to the message that voters had sent. He did not act like a victor. However, Sun Chi-cheng 孫繼正, the leader of the recall effort, didn’t seem that much happier. His body language and mannerisms also struck me as coming from someone who was deeply disappointed with the result. He repeatedly pointed to the cold and rainy weather as an important factor in depressing turnout.* What was most interesting to me was that he never mentioned marriage in his remarks. From his voting night comments, you would have thought that the whole recall was an intellectual exercise in establishing the right of social movements to exercise oversight over elected officials. He made no attempt to claim a popular mandate against marriage equality, even though that was the driving force behind the recall effort. For that matter, Huang did not mention marriage either. To me, this omission suggests that both sides expected to do better and did not want to tarnish their cause by linking it with a poor election result. For what it’s worth, Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je also cast shade on the results, implying that Huang had not done very well.

(* The fragile citizens in the rest of the country might be persuaded by the weather argument. As a next-door neighbor of New Taipei 12, I’m not so impressed. It rains all the time in this area. If people stayed indoors every time it rains here, no one would ever go to the market and we’d all starve.)

So the recall side probably expected more than 48,000 yes votes. I’m not sure if Huang and the NPP were more surprised by how many people cast yes votes or how few people cast no votes. It seems clear to me that they were disappointed with at least one of those numbers. Again, I have to ask, should they have been disappointed? Are 48,000 and 21,000 more or less than we should have expected?

One thing to remember is that the main actors in this recall might not have had realistic expectations about how easy or hard it is to produce votes. The NPP is a brand-new party, and unlike the previous three significant small parties (New Party, People First Party, and Taiwan Solidarity Union), the New Power Party is not a splinter party. It isn’t composed of several established politicians with years of electoral experience. NPP members have fought exactly one campaign. In 2016, they won a lot of party votes, but those didn’t really require a lot of grassroots organization and most voters were already turning out to vote for the president. The three district legislators who won, including Huang Kuo-chang, probably overestimated their own efforts (as most people do) and underestimated how much support they “borrowed” from the DPP. The recall election is arguably much more like the 2018 city council elections will be, in which the NPP has to mobilize voters to support it, not simply rely on an alliance with the DPP. The point is, the NPP has yet to contest one of those elections, and they might not yet realize how hard elections are. (Go back and check the optimistic expectations and dismal record of the NP, PFP, and TSU in local elections. Ick.) And if the NPP perhaps had unrealistic expectations, the recall organizers were probably even worse. The Stability Power Alliance 安定力量 is a social group with conservative Christian churches at its core. Its members have even less electoral experience than the NPP. Moreover, social movements always overestimate their support in society and think that their support can translate directly into votes. In short, both sides were disappointed, but I suspect both sides had somewhat unreasonable expectations. I have not made any headway at all in answering my question: Should I be impressed with 48,000 yes votes?

 

Let’s turn to the electoral record. Unfortunately, this was the first recall vote under the new rules, so there isn’t any recall election history to look to.

(There was a recall vote against Alex Tsai 蔡正元 in February 2015, but that that was under a different set of rules in a highly charged atmosphere and there was no chance that the recall would pass because it needed 50% turnout. I’ll come back to this recall below, but let’s just ignore that vote for the time being.)

I think the closest thing to this recall vote is a legislative by-election. By-elections typically get modest news coverage, as did this recall election. If you think of the partisan vote in a general election as full turnout, both sides typically have enough potential votes to win in a by-election. The problem is turning all those votes out. Even for professional politicians who have dedicated their careers to building connections in society, mobilization is hard. In these elections, rather than looking at the share of valid votes, it is perhaps more illuminating to look at the share major candidates get of the eligible voters. There have been nineteen by-elections since the 2008 election. I’m going to ignore the 2009 Nantou 1 by-election since that was held on the same day as the county magistrate general election and had a turnout of 66.3%, far out of line with the eighteen other by-elections. There are 37 major party candidates in the other eighteen by-elections. (In 2009 Miaoli 1, the DPP did not run a candidate and instead cooperated with the eventual winner, independent Kang Shi-ju 康世儒.) These 37 major party candidates won an average of 18.0% of eligible voters. I think that is a pretty good baseline for how much we might expect a competent partisan campaign to turn out.

By-election eligible KMT% DPP% turnout
2010 Taoyuan 3 233116 0.183 0.195 0.414
2010 Taoyuan 2 241609 0.153 0.222 0.384
2010 Hsinchu Cnty 358854 0.157 0.200 0.360
2015 Miaoli 2 231684 0.203 0.142 0.351
2009 Miaoli 1 253375 0.158 0.327
2010 Taichung 3 257460 0.201 0.246 0.451
2015 Changhua 4 259816 0.134 0.200 0.376
2015 Nantou 2 205390 0.188 0.170 0.371
2009 Nantou 1 (185818) (0.355) (0.287) (0.663)
2009 Yunlin 2 279854 0.105 0.265 0.456
2010 Chiayi 2 221816 0.122 0.259 0.384
2015 Pingtung 3 202129 0.102 0.213 0.324
2010 Taitung 119762 0.177 0.194 0.394
2010 Hualien 197426 0.199 0.168 0.416
2009 Taipei 6 241498 0.191 0.151 0.391
2015 Taichung 6 255203 0.129 0.177 0.308
2013 Taichung 2 275086 0.242 0.237 0.489
2011 Tainan 4 291588 0.105 0.168 0.276
2011 Kaohsiung 4 228805 0.102 0.235 0.340
Ave: 18 elections 0.158 0.202 0.378
Ave: 37 cands

0.180

The recall vote against Huang did a hair better than this baseline. The 48,693 yes votes represent 19.1% of all eligible voters in New Taipei 12. That is mildly impressive.

Of course, we now have to ask whether it is reasonable to compare a partisan election with a recall vote. The argument for doing so is that, while the social group was the public face of the recall, we might suspect that the actual muscle behind it was old-fashioned partisanship. There were two KMT city councilors salivating at the prospect of taking Huang’s place in the legislature, and KMT deputy chair Hau Lung-pin campaigned on behalf of the recall. I am reminded of a chat I had with a second-generation KMT politician back in the 1990s, who told me that his father told him to run his first campaign his own way, with lots of idealistic young people putting out lots of policy papers. Then, in the last week, Dad mobilized his own network, bought a ton of votes, and won the election the old-fashioned way. In a similar way, the Christian activists may have just been window dressing distracting us from the low-profile professionals who actually turned out the voters. If this is what happened, then this recall election is a big yawn. In a swing district like New Taipei 12, we should have expected the KMT pro-recall side to produce about 46,000 votes, and they did.

 

What about the 21,000 no votes? Is that a lot? Let’s remember that there was a lot less motivation to vote no than yes. Most observers expected the recall to fail because the yes side would not reach the 25% threshold, and that is what happened. The no votes did not really affect the outcome. Voting no was more of an expression of support for Huang than a mechanism to determine his fate. Lots of mild supporters may have decided to just sit this one out. Therefore, we shouldn’t really be surprised that there were fewer no votes than yes votes.

I suggested above that this recall vote may have just been a partisan vote in disguise. If that is correct, Huang was probably missing a lot of his 2016 coalition. Let’s not forget that Huang is a NPP member, not a DPP member. The NPP has been vocally and publicly drawing lines between itself and the DPP in recent weeks over the Labor Standards Law, and quite a few DPP politicians and supporters probably aren’t feeling as supportive of Huang and the NPP today as they were 22 months ago. One of the two DPP city councilors (Shen Fa-hui) asked his followers to vote no, but I have no idea if that plea was matched by active efforts. If Huang loses his seat, the two city councilors are first in line, and they will presumably want support from Huang’s sympathizers.

I don’t have a standard to judge the 21,000 no votes. I wouldn’t expect a regular by-election turnout for the no side, and Huang probably didn’t have a “full” partisan effort supporting him. Maybe in the future after a few more recall votes, we will be able to look back and see that this result was fantastic or dismal. Right now, I just don’t know.

 

I guess my tentative conclusion is that this election was … about normal??

 

Assuming that by-elections are at all useful in thinking about recalls, can we see any indicators that will tell us about future recalls?

This recall did not come close to passing. The yes side needed 25% of eligible voters, but it only got 19.1%. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen in the future. Of the 37 major party candidates, two have actually broken the 25% barrier. Both were DPP candidates running in deep green districts (Chiayi County 2 and Yunlin 2), and both got over twice as many votes as their opponents. So if a candidate won a three-way race in the other side’s territory, that might be a prime candidate for a recall vote. There aren’t any really obvious examples right now, but in 2012 Chen Shui-bian’s son ran against the DPP incumbent in Kaohsiung 9 and threw the district to the KMT. Under the current law, that KMT legislator would have to worry about a recall.

There are several other candidates who came very close to 25%, including some in competitive races. In Taichung 2 in 2013, Yen Ching-piao’s son (who probably has a name) and the DPP candidate both broke 23%. In 2010 in Taichung 3 (now Taichung 7), both candidates broke 20%. 25% is hard, but it isn’t impossible, even in a competitive district. The more the district leans to one side or the other, the easier it becomes for the dominant side to recall a “mismatched” legislator.

Oh, and remember that recall against Alex Tsai in 2015? 76,737 people voted yes, accounting for 24.2% of eligible voters. Against that figure, the 19.1% voting to recall Huang doesn’t seem so impressive. I think the difference in the two results probably has more to do with the supercharged political atmosphere in early 2015 than the individual candidates, but Tsai is nonetheless one of the few legislators who I consider to be more controversial and disliked by the other side than Huang. Under the current rules, the recall would have needed 79,359 yes votes to pass. I’m fairly sure if they could have gotten the extra 3,000 votes if recall had been a realistic possibility. (In fact, the people who rewrote the recall law might have been thinking along these same exact lines.) However, that doesn’t mean that Tsai or Huang should have been recalled. Tsai was elected as a KMT legislator (with 111,260 votes) and did a lot of KMT things. The district was so furious with him that they … elected another KMT legislator in 2016. Would it really have been appropriate for 80,000 unhappy voters to overturn the decision of 111,260 voters? I don’t have any evidence, but I’m betting that almost all of the 76,359 people who voted to recall Tsai were among the 78,097 people who voted for the DPP candidate or the 39,593 people who voted for the PFP candidate in 2012. They couldn’t coordinate to support one candidate and defeat Tsai in 2012, and when they did cooperate in 2016 they still couldn’t defeat the KMT candidate. It might be easier to agree on who they didn’t want, but eventually the voters have to choose someone as a representative. The recall is seductive as an easy way to get a negative result (removing someone you don’t like), but it doesn’t solve the problem of producing a positive result (agreeing on someone to put in office).

The recall is clearly a mechanism with the potential to be used and abused. Even beyond the potential to remove a legislator, recall can severely damage an incumbent. They have to divert energy away from their normal activities to deal with the harassment, and the result will almost always look bad to most observers. In Huang’s case, the recall may have damaged him by focusing attention on his (supposed) neglect of constituency service, especially in the more outlying areas. It almost certainly makes his 2020 re-election campaign harder. Remember, the post-sunflower recall efforts targeted four legislators. All of them failed, but none of the four legislators was re-elected in 2016. I suspect Huang might be the fifth to survive a recall only to find that he sustained a severe wound.

 

Who is next? This depends on how the major parties react. As of now, all the recalls have been spearheaded by a social group, and the major parties have (quietly) lent background support. It might be necessary to have some idealistic social movement take the lead. If that is the case, they might not pick their targets so strategically. For example, if the social group’s members are mostly in Taipei, they might have to pick a Taipei legislator even if there is a better target in Chiayi. If the two major parties decide to weaponize the recall mechanism and go after each other’s weaker members, they should target based strictly on vulnerability. We’ll see how this unfolds. Right now, there aren’t a lot of obvious mismatches between the legislator and the district, so I’d expect the two big parties to stay in the shadows. Anyway, here are a few people that could be on a watch list.

 

  1. Taipei 5, Freddy Lim 林昶佐 (NPP). Freddy is far and away the most obvious target. There is already a social group ready to go, and they have already practiced once. Taipei 5 is not a particularly green district, though there is more support for gay marriage in Taipei City than in the rest of the country. Nonetheless, social conservatives will probably relish the idea of trying to recall a death metal rocker.
  2. Taichung 3, Hung Tzu-yung 洪慈傭 (NPP). Yep, the three NPP district legislators are the top three. Hung’s district is greener than the other two, so it is probably less fertile soil for a recall. However, there is almost certainly less support for gay marriage in Hung’s district than in Taipei City. If they go after Hung before Freddy, that will be a good indicator that the activists –not the partisan politicians – are setting the agenda.
  3. Taoyuan 6, Chao Cheng-yu 趙正宇 (IND). Chao is an independent cooperating with the DPP in a district that had always been heavily blue before 2016. Because he is an independent, attacking him wouldn’t send the same partisan message as attacking a DPP or NPP member. However, he looks more vulnerable to me than any DPP members.
  4. New Taipei 10, Chiang Yung-chang 江永昌 (DPP). Chiang won his seat by beating Chang Ching-chung, who (in)famously tried to ram the Services Trade Agreement through committee hearings and touched off the sunflower movement. Chang was severely damaged by the sunflower movement and the subsequent recall effort, so it isn’t yet apparent that Chiang won (as opposed to Chang being tossed out). Zhonghe District is traditionally a very blue area, so Chiang has to be considered as highly vulnerable.
  5. Hsinchu City, Ker Chien-ming 柯建銘 (DPP). The DPP floor leader won his 2016 election fairly convincingly, but Hsinchu City is historically blue territory. Moreover, the NPP and their supporters detest Ker. A recall against him would drive open the divisions between the DPP and NPP and perhaps create some opportunities for the KMT to exploit in the legislature.
  6. Hualien, Hsiao Bi-khim 蕭美琴 (DPP). Hsiao won her seat by beating a lackluster KMT incumbent in a district that voted for the KMT in the presidential race. I have no reason to think that she has done a bad job in office or is unpopular in her district, but there is an obvious partisan mismatch in Hualien.
  7. Changhua 1, Wang Hui-mei 王惠美 (KMT). If the DPP wants to fight back and attack the KMT, there aren’t a whole lot of obvious opportunities. Most of the vulnerable KMT legislators lost in 2016, so the remaining ones are generally in safe seats. Wang is one of the few KMT legislators in a green district. However, she is personally very popular, and it is highly unlikely that a recall effort would get very far. The logic here is harassment. Wang is running for county magistrate in 2018, and a recall effort might undercut that campaign by sapping some of her energy while also giving the impression that she is not a great legislator.
  8. Taichung 8, Chiang Chi-chen 江啟臣 (KMT). Basically the same logic as with Wang, except that Chiang is still contesting the mayoral nomination. Nonetheless, this is one of the greener districts in central Taiwan, so this is prime territory for an attack by the green side.
  9. Taichung 2, Yen Ching-piao’s son 顏清標之子 (KMT). Unlike nearly everyone else on this list, Yen consistently gets terrible ratings from the Citizen’s Congress Watch (as did his father before him). Add in the Yen family association with organized crime, and we finally have someone who might deserve to be recalled. However, Yen has deep local roots, the district is less green than Changhua 1 or Taichung 8, and I personally wouldn’t want to go around his district on a petition drive asking for signatures to recall him.
  10. Kaohsiung 1, Chiu Yi-ying 邱議瑩 (DPP). Chiu is emerging as the most strident DPP voice. When you need a hardline opinion embodying the DPP position or someone to storm the podium, Chiu is your woman. Of course, this recall wouldn’t have a chance in hell. Kaohsiung 1 is deep green territory, and Chiu’s antics probably play fairly well with her constituents. This would be a quixotic move, akin to the recall of Alex Tsai in 2015.

 

I hope everyone sees a few people on this list who they like. If you think it would be a democratic travesty if that person were recalled, I agree. Recalls should not be part of the normal process. They should be reserved for extraordinary cases in which a legislator has done something to lose support from the people who originally voted for him or her. A NPP/KMT/DPP legislator who does NPP/KMT/DPP things should not be recalled; s/he has not broken the contract with his/her original supporters. The best outcome would be to revise the recall law to increase the threshold. The current system makes recall too easy.

2 Responses to “The Recall: Is 48,693 a lot?”

  1. John Says:

    I know you didn’t really have the space to go into it, but Hualien County’s legislative electorate is different (and presumably a lot greener) than its presidential electorate because Aboriginal voters have their own district. Hsiao is safer than the presidential results indicate.

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