More open space: Voting rights and constitutional change in Taiwan
CT in Taiwan

ANU Law student ambassador Cherish Tay with a woman handing out pamphlets ahead of the referendum to lower the voting age.

In learning about Taiwan’s evolution as a constitutional democracy over the last 32 years and the commitment to institutional responsiveness, I’m sure this discussion of voting age will continue to spark debate into the future.

Ever wondered what it’s like to study abroad? ANU Law student ambassador Cherish Tay gives us the low-down on her adventures and experiences studying in Taiwan in her blog series.

By Cherish Tay (student ambassador)

On Saturday 26 November 2022, a nationwide referendum was held in Taiwan seeking to lower the voting age from 20 years old to 18 via constitutional amendment.

Thanks to my Monday afternoon Taiwan Constitution Law lecturer, Professor Jiunn-Rong Yeh, the significance of this referendum and its outcome has not been lost on me.

This vote not only grapples with youth enfranchisement, an issue continuously raised in relation to climate activism globally, but also the strength and flexibility of the law and legal institutions to produce and protect freedom in society.

The amendment would have enfranchised approximately 500,000 new voters. This change was said to benefit the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), whose supporters skew younger. It would also have brought the voting age in line with the age of majority and the age of military conscription in Taiwan.

As the results are now finalised, I thought of looking into the recent history of this mechanism for constitutional change and the social and political ramifications of the vote.

As the voting age is constitutionally enshrined, a referendum was required for the Constitution to be changed. For the change to succeed, 50 per cent of all eligible voters must vote yes. Notably, voting is not compulsory in Taiwan.

While voter turnout is traditionally high, and usually reaches around 66 per cent of eligible voters for most elections, it is still a high benchmark to reach for a constitutional amendment to occur.

For the amendment to pass, roughly 9.65 million votes were needed in favour of lowering the voting age. That is more than the 8.17 million votes which elected President Tsai Ing-Wen in 2020. This means that support was needed from both sides of the political spectrum.

This referendum mechanism for constitutional change was legislated in 2005, the last in a long series of seven administrative amendments to the Constitution that have taken place since Taiwan became a democracy in 1990.

These amendments came out of the Kuomintang (KMT) and DPP struggle and reflect the history of a negotiated transition from a one-party state to a multi-party democracy in Taiwan.

This referendum was the first time this mechanism for constitutional change has been tested. Prior to the referendum, there were discussions of whether the 50 per cent of eligible voters requirement was too high a bar and whether further amendments were needed.

Speaking to Professor Yeh one day in the lecture break, he noted that from the perspective of constitutional law, whether this vote passes will test if the referendum mechanism for constitutional change is capable of balancing the competing interests of robust democratic checks and balances, and continuing to facilitate constitutional change.

He said, “the referendum will test whether Taiwan’s constitutional evolution is still alive”.

It highlights the centrality of legal responsiveness in creating more open space within democratic societies.

Professor Cheryl Saunders from the University of Melbourne spoke with Professor Yeh at the Tang Prize Masters’ Forum online series hosted by the National Taiwan University (NTU) before the referendum.

She commented that the requirement for support from both major parties would represent a doubling down on the commitment to democracy in Taiwan and be a positive precedent to set.

She also noted that, “it will energise and engage young people in constitutional change, which is very hard to do in many parts of the world.”

The outcome of the referendum shows that given the high level of civic engagement from Taiwanese people generally, and the efforts of electoral officials and politicians to encourage voting, the mechanism may be an insurmountable barrier to constitutional change in contemporary Taiwan.

However, in learning about Taiwan’s evolution as a constitutional democracy over the last 32 years and the commitment to institutional responsiveness, I’m sure this discussion of voting age will continue to spark debate into the future.