candidate numbers and literacy

As I mentioned in the previous entry of Pinyin News, it’s election season in Taiwan. That means the streets are lined with political banners and roving trucks have been blaring candidates’ pleas for votes. This culminated last night in an orgy of loud campaign rallies. Today all is silent, as campaigning is not allowed on election day itself.

One of the rituals marking a milestone in the campaign season is the drawing of lots to determine the order in which candidates’ names are listed on the ballot. Candidates draw the numbers themselves at local election bureaus. Sometimes they even dress in costume for the occasion.

These numbers, however, are given a prominence that reveals their significance is far greater than just determining name order. Indeed, even if just one person is running for an office, by law (article 38 of the Enforcement Rules of Public Service Election And Recall Law) that candidate is still assigned a number (1, of course). The numbers go alongside candidates’ names on the ballots and appear prominently on essentially all campaign material, whether that be in the form of a banner, a poster, a flyer, or a package of tissue (a popular choice here). The numbers are almost always printed in red against a white background that is itself circled in red. These two campaign banners demonstrate the style:

Including the numbers is not mandated by law, but they’re always there (except in the few cases where someone overlooked writing in the number on individual signs printed before the drawing of lots). Furthermore, this style of writing the numbers is not required, but it’s seldom altered. Sometimes the color is altered to match the color scheme of the banner. But I’ve never seen a number in a square, a triangle, or a diamond — always a circle. And I’ve never seen the numbers written in Chinese characters (一, 二, 三, 四, 五, 六, 七, 八, 九,十, etc., or the more formal forms 壹, 貳, 叄, 肆, 伍, 陸, 柒, 捌, 玖, 拾, etc.) rather than 1, 2, 3, etc.

Here’s what the Public Officials Election and Recall Law states about what information appears on ballots:

The ballot shall bear the serial numbers [i.e., the numbers I’ve been discussing], names and photographs of all candidates. However, in an election of central public officials, the ballots shall also bear the candidates’ party affiliation from which the candidates were recommended (article 60 ).

So the numbers also appear on the ballots themselves, which is, of course, the whole reason for them appearing in campaign literature. Note that ballots for local-level elections omit mention of political parties. Thus, not only the photo of the candidate but also the candidate’s number is regarded as more important than party affiliation.

I think the attention given to numbers should prompt questions on the true state of literacy in Taiwan.

I asked an official at the Central Election Commission about why party affiliation was left off. But neither he nor anyone else in his office at that time knew the explanation. And when I asked about the prominence of numbers, the official admitted that literacy did play a role in this.

For what it’s worth, party affiliation on ballots for national-level posts is indicated by the printed name of the party, not with a party logo. A change to logos is being discussed for the next legislative election.

There’s a lot more to be said about this topic. Perhaps I’ll come back to it later.

The UN says:

In countries with high rates of illiteracy, election management bodies should design ballots that include party emblems or photographs of candidates in order to facilitate voting. If there are minority languages in a country, it is good practice to print ballots and voter education material in all the languages commonly used.

In Afghanistan, where literacy is low, ballots have not only the names of candidates but also their photos and an assigned icon. Here’s a small sampling of these icons:
Here’s the full list to be used on ballots in Afghan elections.)

What’s the situation in other developed countries?

A story in the Miami Herald from 2004 states that in Florida
“using numbers has a long history here [in Miami-Dade County, Florida], where illiteracy is not uncommon.”

“Miami, FL, Jun. 23,[ 2004] (UPI) — Miami-Dade County, Fla., is suing the state for refusing to allow placing numbers next to ballot questions and candidates to help illiterate voters…. Miami-Dade County Commissioners say the numbers next to candidates’ names and ballot proposals help the illiterate because it makes it easier for them to identify the candidate they want by number.”

Taipei Times story of candidate using other people’s photos (without permission or attribution) on his campaign lit:

Also talk about arty b&w images of Mayor Ma on people’s posters.

Further reading:

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