Roslyn Fuller speaks with Sam Chang, the President of the Negative Vote Association, about the idea behind Negative Voting, its implications for democracy and the future of Taiwan
RF: Hi Sam, it is great to talk to you today. And thanks for taking the time to get in touch all the way from Taiwan. You are most known as a proponent of what you call ‘negative voting’. Could you tell us a bit about that and how you came to this idea?
SC: Well, I still consider myself a novice in politics. I was an investment banker for the last portion of my professional career. My last full-time job was Managing Director at Credit Suisse, based in Taiwan.
After my retirement, an old friend of mine who was interested in acquiring a company in Israel asked me to help him. So, I travelled to Israel several times, and during one of the after-dinner casual conversations, the local Israeli host engaged me in conversation about the military draft system in Israel. At the time, I didn't know anything about it, and I thought everybody in Israel, whether man or woman, was subject to the military draft.
So, he started to tell me about it and explained how fundamentalist Jewish religious leaders got [then Israeli Prime Minister] David Ben-Gurion to agree to exempt students at religious schools from the draft.
This Israeli friend mentioned this because he considered himself a centrist, middle-of-the-road voter. He claimed that there were a lot of people in Israel like him, and that they don't like the power wielded by this particular group [religious fundamentalists]. He said ‘they're the ones who make all the trouble, they're the ones who don't want to make peace with the Palestinians, they are the ones who go to occupy lands, and yet when trouble starts their children don't have to fight. My children have to fight, and it's not fair.’ So, he was expressing some frustration and he said that there was nothing to be done about it, because the religious fundamentalist group is quite cohesive. They always get their proportional seats in Parliament, and because Israel is a multi-party country this small party, because they're always there, can exert a disproportionate influence on national policy. So, he was just expressing the frustration of centrist voters like him, who despite being numerous, could not affect these issues.
I used to do a lot of Zen meditation regularly. So, the next morning in my hotel room during my meditation session, this idea just came down to me. What if my friend could vote against candidates or parties? Wouldn't that reduce their influence, and wouldn't that be good for the Israel-Palestinian relationship?
And that would be wonderful for the world. So, I thought it was a great idea at that time.
RF: So, just to explain that idea of negative voting more thoroughly, you propose that everyone would have one vote, but they could cast that vote against a candidate or party rather than just for one. Is that correct?
SC: Right. That was the basic idea, because that option doesn't exist in many places. After I came back to Taipei, I did some Google searching and quickly found that someone else had already written about exactly the same idea.
So, I told myself: this is none of my business. I'm not a political scientist, and since I'm not even the first one to think about it, this should be someone else's work, not my work. However, the idea stuck with me for quite a while. During the next 12 months in Taiwan, I would talk about it at casual dinners or lunch conversations with friends and everybody said: ‘Oh, that's a great idea, why don't you write an article about it?’ However, I did not do so for a long time, because I am not trained in this particular field, and even if I did write something, I didn't believe anybody would read it or anybody would publish it. This lasted for almost a year, and then after another casual conversation like that, the next morning I decided: ‘Okay, I'll do my civic duty and try to spread the idea.’
I started a Facebook group the next day, inviting two of my Harvard roommates to join. One is a die-hard Democrat, the other is a die-hard Republican, and neither of them liked the idea. But they agreed to join the group anyway, so that we could have a debate.
My naive thinking at that time was: ‘If this is a good idea, and I have put it on Facebook, and we can invite our friends to participate, it will spread.’
RF: What would worry me about that is, if you look at a country like the US, there's a lot of negative campaigning already. So, if I as a candidate knew I could get someone to cast a negative vote for my opponent, would I not be even more incentivized to try to tell people bad things about them, something that may be completely irrelevant to the election?
SC: Yes, I think that's a very good question, whether having this choice would produce more negative campaigns than we already have. The way I would address that is this:
Nowadays, we already see that whenever there is an election we are an inundated with negative campaigns, and I believe the reason for that is that the system encourages it, in order to win a party nomination. You tend to cater to the party ‘passionates’, and they tend to be more extreme than the general population. In order to win the party nomination, you tend to cater to this element. So, chances are the nominees of the parties are the passionate extremists.
And then, therefore, when you have the general election, both sides tend to just throw dirt on the other side rather than talk about policies, and they do that because there's every incentive for them to do it. You have your base support and all you try to do then is cut down the other guy's support by throwing negative campaigns on them.
That's why we see so much of it, and that's why also a lot of centrist, middle-of-the-road voters get frustrated, saying ‘Look, they're all bad’. And a lot of frustrated voters then therefore refuse to vote.
Now, what if we have the option to vote 'No'? It will bring out more Centrist voters, and this increased participation of the centrist voters can alter the outcome of a tight race. Wherever there is a tight race more participation can change the outcome. All the loyal partisan voters will vote 'Yes', because you have only one vote. So, who's going to vote 'No'?
The ones who will vote 'No' by definition are the other people, people not tied to a particular candidate or party. To me, they're all centrist voters. Not all of these centrist voters will vote 'No', some of them will vote 'Yes', a lot of them will vote 'Yes', in fact, but the additional participation of the centrist voter can change the outcome.
And every candidate would have to worry: How do you appeal to the Centrist voters? You cannot throw negative campaigns to appeal to them. You must bring beef to the table. So, therefore, in future elections, wherever there is a tight race, all candidates must move toward the center in order to win, and that would be good for democracy. I believe that this will also reduce negative campaigning. This is just a logical argument - I don't think there's a way to do research to prove this particular point.
However, we have done a lot of research to prove that participation will increase when people have this option, and it's a logical argument that this additional participation basically comes from the centrist voters.
RF: In Ireland we use the single transferable vote, so we number the candidates in order of preference. You don't need to fill the ballot out completely, you can just put a '1' next to the candidate you like the most, but you can also fill it out all the way. And people do this precisely in order to do what we call 'voting someone down the list', which means you want to express: ‘anyone but this person’. And that's why you give them your last vote, number 15 or 16. Is that not basically another way of doing the same thing as negative voting?
SC: Yes and no. When there are three or more candidates, this sort of gives you the option to deliver something similar.
And I understand the single transferable vote. STV is essentially a mix of ranked choice voting plus proportional representation. I have done some analysis to show, for example, for ranked choice voting how it can incorporate negative voting and be improved because of it. We have also done the research and the analysis to show how proportional representation can incorporate the negative vote and be improved by it. And what I mean by improvement is that by incorporating the option you have more participation, and possibly a different outcome.
Where there's more participation, it's more democratic.
I have not done this work for STV, because it's much more complicated. But STV, just like ranked choice voting and proportional representation is applicable only when there are three or more candidates.
There are, however lots of elections around the world where especially in local elections, there's only one or two candidates, for example, for mayor, for township mayor, or for the township school board.
I remember reading the data on US local elections and 70% have no competition. So, in at least that kind of situation, whether it's ranked choice or proportional representation, or STV, they don't work because they are irrelevant. But negative voting will still work and be relevant in those situations.
So yes, I like STV, I like proportional representation, I like ranked choice voting, but they are not applicable in all situations, whereas negative voting is applicable and can be very useful in all election scenarios.
RF: I know you've used that as an example in some of your talks, and especially in the United States and other first-past-the-post systems, parties have often gerrymandered their constituencies or their districts to the point where the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Thus, it is very hard to find people who want to put in the time and energy to run as opposition candidates, because they know they are going to lose.
However, just to continue to try to poke you on this point: Let's say we have the following situation: We have a local election for Mayor, and there's one candidate running. Negative voting is allowed and most people vote against that candidate. Say he gets 10,000 votes against, and only 2,000 votes for him. What do we do now? Because now we just have had an election that didn't have a result. So how do we go on from there?
SC: Our proposal is that in such a situation - which frankly I think will be rare except for really terrible situations, where the candidate is so bad that people don't like him or her - our proposal is that you have another election, and the previously rejected candidate cannot run in the next round. I think that would be the way to respect the voters' wishes. And then of course people might say: ‘Oh, we are running this city without a mayor and that's terrible’. Well, I don't think this is so terrible. Just consider that people die all the time, some people die even before they take office. So having another election to make sure you have the right person is not such a big deal. I would also cite the example of the Belgian government. There was, I think, over a year where Belgium didn't have a central Government leader - that's okay, the Belgians survived. It's not such a big deal to have a vacant office.
RF: If I can summarize your main point: you would like to attract more people to participate, and you feel maybe with negative voting more people would be attracted to run as a candidate because they'd feel like they have a chance?
SC: Yes, but it's more than just a participation issue, that's just the effect of having this choice. I also see having the choice as a basic human rights issue. When there's only one candidate and you can only vote 'Yes', that is not democracy - that's like North Korea.
If you have two bad candidates in the current system and you can only vote 'Yes', sometimes you vote for the lesser evil. Or you don't vote. That's why a lot of people don't vote.
So, I see that as a basic rights issue. But I also want to add that we are not encouraging people to vote 'No'. Quite the opposite. We hope people would have this option, and because this option exists, it will eliminate the worst candidates, the most extreme candidates, and the party will have to nominate better candidates. Then, if all the candidates are good, then we can vote 'Yes', for the better candidate. That's what we hope this will achieve eventually.
RF: I also want to pick your brain about democracy in Taiwan. Taiwan has been in the news a lot lately here in the Western world, and particularly over the last 5 or 6 years, we've heard about digital consultations that have been run there. Could you tell us a little bit more about that as a person who lives there? Are these digital consultations very widespread? Have you done it yourself? Do you think it's made a difference to politics?
SC: Well, my personal view is that it's a lot of hype. There's very little substance behind it. I have personally used a government system that tries to collect public opinion on subjects. The system basically encourages people to submit specific proposals for the government to consider and it requires you to get 5,000 electronic co-signers within 60 days.
If you are able to get 5,000 supporters to co-sign your proposal, then the government is supposedly required to respond to your proposal within two months. One of the key criticisms is that people who have submitted proposals feel that they are not given satisfactory responses from the government because how the government responds is entirely up to the various agencies. They then choose to respond in a way that is essentially a non-response. And then there's nothing you can do about it, and unfortunately most responses are like that.
So, people get frustrated by it. Therefore, I don't think it's as widespread as the Government had hoped it would be. And I know Audrey Tang [Taiwan’s Digital Minister] speaks a lot in international communities, and this is one of the things she talks about, but she doesn't talk about the other aspects of digital democracy that I believe really matter. For example, the referendum act that was revised, I think, in 2017 specifically mandated that the Central Election Commission must set up an online petitioning collection system by law, and a couple of years later I asked the previous chairman of the Central Election Commission in a public forum, "Why haven't we seen it? By law the government's supposed to do this." And he said that before he left office in early 2018 he had already built a system, and it was only subject to security checks to make sure it was compliant.
Well, that security check has lasted until now, and still there's no deadline, no end. It is something that is so obvious, that can be done so easily, but the Government doesn't want to do it.
I posed this question to Audrey Tang on her Facebook as well, and said, “look you were able to produce a real-name mask purchasing system during the pandemic, and you were able to do this just within a three months period. There is no security problem with that. You were able to deliver. How come this system has been there for almost 5 years and it is still not done?”
So it's not a real security issue. It's a political issue, because the central government doesn't want to see a lot of direct democracy proposals, they don't want to make it easy.
RF: So if you had this online petition, you're saying that could lead to a referendum? If enough people sign a petition?
SC: Well, certainly you can imagine the benefits of that. It's environmentally more friendly and it's pandemic proof. It will lower the cost of collecting signatures, so that obviously makes direct democracy easier, for people to propose a specific initiative or referendum.
RF: Could you explain that process a little more? I understand that there have been quite a few referendums in Taiwan recently, and if I'm not mistaken, there's going to actually be a constitutional referendum coming up.
SC: That is true. That is a little different from the other initiatives. After the 2017 revision, there was a blossom of proposals in 2018 and eventually 10 qualified by collecting around 300,000 signatures, so 10 proposals went to the ballot. Virtually every proposal was opposed by the Central government in 2018.
So, after that 2018 result, the ruling party decided to change the law, running that change through the Parliament without a significant discussion. I was actually one of the protesters against the revisions, which basically decoupled the voting of initiative referendums from the general election [meaning voting is held at a separate time and not in conjunction with an election]. I have no problem with the decoupling, if they lower the threshold for approval. But they kept the threshold for approval - 25% of the qualified electorate has to vote 'Yes' to approve something. That's a very high bar especially when there's no election going on at the same time. People tend not to go to the booth to cast a vote.
Therefore, in the most recent vote, just last year in 2021, we had four initiatives that qualified for voting, and none of them were approved.
And because of this difficulty to get people to participate, and because of the high bar for approval, I among others (people who used to think that there's a chance with direct democracy, proposing something) now just feel frustrated that it's just a waste of time and money because, as you know, it costs a lot of money to try to get something onto the ballot.
Constitutional amendments in Taiwan are a little different and require approval from three quarters of MPs with a three-quarters quorum, before going to vote by the people. There will be a vote on a constitutional amendment on November 26th, and of course this time because the Government want to pass it, it is tied to the election date.
Over 50% of the eligible electorate must approve a constitutional amendment. In Taiwan the electorate is somewhere around 19.3 million, so this means in order for this constitutional amendment to be approved by the general public, 9.65 million voters must say 'yes' to get it through. That's a very high bar: President's Tsai won an overwhelming victory in her last election, and she had 8 million votes.
RF: What is the subject of the constitutional amendment?
SC: Well this is another part that I felt was sneaky. It is billed as lowering the voting age to 18. However, the other part of the amendment, which was not highlighted by the government, was that those 18 years old or older would also qualify to be elected. I would have voted for 18 year olds being able to vote, but I am opposed to 18 year old being able to be elected to be a legislative member. I think that's too young.
[Note: the recent referendum, in fact, failed, after it did not hit the required minimum number of votes in favour]
RF: It’s been so interesting talking to you. Is there anything else you'd like to add that we haven’t covered?
SC: I'd say that people looking at the democracy in Taiwan from the outside need to be wary of the information source and not be consumed by government propaganda.
My personal observation is that Taiwan's democracy has been really going downhill at a very rapid pace for several years, and people overlook the decline because of the China/Taiwan issue, and unfortunately that is exactly how the issue is being abused to help the ruling party retain power. So, anybody who's opposing the government will be tainted as Red, a Red-leaning politician, a Red-leaning voter and so forth.
We have the situation that the ruling party dominates the legislative and can pass any laws they want to. They passed laws that are clearly unconstitutional. For example, the government can, using the newly passed laws, seize assets of the opposing political party - and they have done it. KMT [Kuomintang] was the primary opposing party and the government has gone ahead and seized assets of KMT. Even organizations, that are seen to be leaning KMT, they go after them, especially if the organization is rich and they have a lot of assets. They will make up a reason, they'll say "You are KMT affiliated", therefore we want to take your assets.
RF: I've only talked to you for a little while, but you don't strike me as being a pro-China person. You were an investment banker, so I am assuming you lean more capitalist.
Is my assumption correct?
SC: I have been an anti-communist since I was a youth and I participated in a lot of protests.
I really despise dictatorships - dictatorships in any form. Now, China obviously represents one form, but dictatorship by democratic means is also dictatorship, and unfortunately that's what we're having in Taiwan.
RF: What do you think is the future of Taiwan, in the next few years, given the macropolitical context between China and the USA?
SF: We are treading in very dangerous water. I have attended many scholarly presentations, after the Xi Jinping 20th Congress [of the Chinese Communist Party] and the purpose of having one united China is not a negotiable point for the People’s Republic of China.
However, people in Taiwan who tend to be painted into the Red corner, make the point that our own constitution, the constitution of the Republic of China (Taiwan) also states that there is only one China. So there has to be room to negotiate and talk on that basis. If we keep asserting that Taiwan is not part of China, then we are basically giving up on our own constitution.
RF: Is Taiwanese culture much different than mainland China's culture? Has there been a divergence that would make reunification difficult even from a cultural point of view?
SC: From the cultural point of view, actually I would consider myself Chinese, because of my background in terms of education, and the language I use, my ancestry. I have a lot of relatives in China. So even though I was born in Taiwan and was brought up here, I consider myself Chinese, and I feel no difference at all when I talk to people who live in China. I used to go there before the pandemic frequently. I don't feel any animosity or separation in terms of culture.
I would not want to be ruled by a Communist party, because they really do not respect individual freedoms. That's a system that I find intolerable.
But culturally I have no problem with anybody living in China, having dinner conversations and see each other as good friends or when we see each other overseas. But I should caution that I'm over 70 years old, and a lot of young people may not feel that way. The government has made a deliberate effort to reduce the elements related to Chinese culture and background and try to emphasize more Taiwanese history and background - in primary school, in junior high school, in high school education.
RF: Why is recovering Taiwan such an essential part of Chinese foreign policy?
SC: Taiwan was carved out of China after losing a war to Japan in 1895. And that loss is one of the many humiliations suffered by the Qing dynasty. So this is a shameful chapter in Chinese history. At the end of World War II, Taiwan was recovered from Japanese hands for a very brief period. But the KMT government, which ruled China at the time, lost the civil war with the communists and retreated to Taiwan.
So, anybody who is educated in China about the Qing dynasty, the foreign occupation of the Chinese cities, colonial history, and so forth, can easily drum up this patriotic feeling about recovering Taiwan.
RF: Thank you for indulging my curiosity about these things. It's really nice to meet someone who's also involved with a direct democracy and trying to push that forward and I am sure people will be interested to read more about your work.
Mr. Chang is the founder and President of Negative Vote Association, an NGO in Taiwan dedicated to the improvement of democracies by allowing voters to have the option to vote Against instead of For. Mr. Chang has sponsored citizens' initiatives to implement this reform in Taiwan and in El Cerrito, CA, U.S.A. He also serves on the boards of a few companies in Taiwan.
Mr. Chang received his MBA from The Wharton School in 1977, and A.B. cum laude from Harvard College in 1974.