Editor’s note: This is a column written by former Centre Daily Times senior reporter Mike Joseph on May 14, 2007. The sentiment still rings true today. The polls are open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Visit www.co.centre.pa.us for an election guide and to find your polling place.
The polling place in the middle school classroom had a wall that was nearly all windows, so from the courtyard outdoors you could see what was going on inside. A brother and sister, two young children, stood on tiptoes and just got their chins above the window sill, watching closely as their parents checked in with the poll workers and then cast paper ballots. It was not an election in Pennsylvania or anywhere else in the United States. It was instead the first democratic election for president in Taiwan, the small island nation of 23 million people halfway around the world, on the far side of the Pacific Ocean, just off the coast of China.
I was working in Taiwan’s capital city, Taipei, as an editor for an English-language newspaper in a Chinese-speaking culture. It was March 23, 1996, a wonderfully sunny, dry and altogether balmy day in a subtropical climate where clouds usually dominate.
It was a Saturday, and Saturday in Taiwan at that time was a normal workday until noon. But not on this Saturday. Election Day is very special to the Taiwanese, and the government made this Saturday a holiday. Anyone age 20 or older could vote.
Election Day was special to the Taiwanese people in 1996 because their democracy was only 10 years old. Under heavy popular pressure, the authoritarian Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang, or KMT, ended martial law in 1986. That allowed the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, to form in opposition to the KMT’s domineering and often corrupt rule.
By 1996, there had been direct, democratic elections by the people themselves to fill city council and mayoral seats and elections further up the governmental ladder for seats in the national legislature.
But never before had the Taiwanese been given the right to choose between rival presidential candidates from rival political parties promoting very different views — such as whether Taiwan should formally declare independence from its giant neighbor, China.
The Taiwanese loved this Election Day. They loved their Saturday day off and turned it into a carnival. Firecrackers popped and ripped everywhere through the air.
Huge billboards, in both Chinese and English, promoted the election: “You’re the boss!” the signs told the people. The people, who on workdays power-walk the city sidewalks and jam buses to get to jobs in the midst of urban gridlock, instead took leisurely strolls to their polling places on this Saturday.
They used the occasion for voting also for a family walk in the park or a family meal in a restaurant.
The convergence on voting seemed almost choreographic.
Circles of pedestrians zeroed in on the polling place bull’s-eyes throughout the city, their presence thickening as they got closer.
The dance unit was the family. Husbands and wives arrived together and voted. Many brought their children. I remember one man with his spouse and children alongside but also with an elderly woman — I guessed it was his grandmother — on his shoulders, walking to the polling place.
It was in that bigger picture that a certain family of four caught my curiosity as I too approached the polling place, just to watch. I spoke and understood little Chinese, so I had to rely on observation to find out what was going on.
The two children craning to see what was going on inside the classroom-turned-polling place were about 7 and 5 years old. First their father voted, as their mother stayed with them outside. Then mom and dad traded roles.
Dad stayed outside with the children, standing between them, a hand gentling the shoulders of each, and they all watched mom vote.
The children got excited. They bounced up and down. I could tell they were begging dad for something, but I couldn’t make out exactly what.
Then dad answered their petition.
He calmed and soothed the children with a few words.
I jotted down the sounds and later with help found out their meaning.
“Wait till you’re 20,” he said.