08 July 2011

Why we should not hold a referendum on proportional representation

It seems that every time the subject of changing the voting system comes up, we automatically assume that a change must be sanctioned by a referendum. I increasingly feel this is a mistake.

We have experienced four referendums on the voting system in this country recently, one in Prince Edward Island, two in B.C., one in Ontario, and all lost even though the systems proposed were thoroughly considered and two were recommended by citizens' assemblies. While it is true that in the first B.C. referendum the proposed system received 57 per cent of the vote, it nonetheless lost because the government set an unreasonable requirement of 60 per cent. In the next referendum the system was roundly defeated, obtaining only 39 per cent of the vote. It is time to think about whether the referendum approach is a sound one.

Referendums have major drawbacks as a democratic instrument, one of which is the ignorance factor. Some citizens will research the issue, think it through calmly and thoroughly, and discuss and debate it with others. Some won’t. The more complex the issue the greater the ignorance, and voting systems are, unfortunately, a complex issue.

Healthy democracy requires a great deal more than the people’s voice and the people’s will. It requires fully-informed, thoughtful voices and wills, and these are often absent, to a greater or lesser degree, from referendums.

One of the advantages of representative democracy is having decisions made by people whose job is to study issues thoroughly before deciding. Referendums short-circuit this advantage. If we insist that legislatures read bills three times (in the case of Parliament, three times in both the House and the Senate), are we being sensible when we decide an issue in one go in a referendum? A decision made by elected representatives after thorough consideration may well be closer to what the people would decide if they deliberated rather than if they simply voted in a referendum.

However, if we do want the people to decide directly, we could use a citizens' assembly, rather like the first step in the B.C. and Ontario processes. With a citizens' assembly, the participants can be thoroughly immersed in voting systems such that when they decide on a system, it is a knowledgeable, carefully considered decision. Unfortunately, in the B.C. and Ontario cases the decisions of the assemblies were subverted by forwarding them to referendums. Ironically, a citizens' assembly, if chosen by random selection, will almost certainly be more representative of the population at large than a referendum. An assembly is “the people” in microcosm.

I suggest, therefore, that the preferred approach to change would be delegating the choice of a system to a citizens' assembly and then referring that decision directly to the legislature.

Electoral change does not require constitutional change. What one government legislates, the next can undo. If the people dislike a system introduced by an incumbent government, they can respond accordingly and vote that government out in the next election. A vigorous debate generated by an unpopular voting system may be just the catalyst needed to fully develop a popular sense of what voting systems mean to democracy. This sense is now seriously undeveloped in this country. Relying on referendums for change may mean it will remain that way.


  1. I am starting to believe that a referendum on voting reform is not needed. The way I look at proportional representation, it is a democratic. When I look at First-Past-the-Post, it is not democratic. Therefore, we do not live in a democracy. We shouldn't need a referendum on wanting democracy.

    The next problem has to do with government legislated referendum questions: they are designed for defeat. I think a question such as "Do you support STV? Yes or No?" is different from "Do you favour the existing FPTP voting system or some funky new STV system that was proposed by some funky citizens' assembly?" The public response will be different.

    If another referendum were proposed with a convoluted question and approval formula, I would not participate in such a charade.

    I do think that if we Canadians really want democracy in Canada, we will need our own "Canadian spring" with people protesting in our cities 24 hours per day every day until we get democracy that includes some form of proportional representation.

  2. Elections matter.

    Although some alternative to the present system might be preferable the Ontario proposal was not.

    The problem has to do with the list of candidates each party put forward for the proportional "top up". They could, and, I feared, would destroy democracy.

    They could be the most disruptive, partisan, anti-democratic creatures to ever enter parliament. And they would be completely unaccountable to voters.


  3. Recall that there was also a referendum on proportional representation on Prince Edward Island in 2005. It lost since only 36.42% of people supported it. The threshold of support necessary to pass was 60% and it was very poorly explained and publicized by the provincial government.

  4. The reality is that many opponents of MMP are also opponents of STV, closed and open list voting systems. They oppose proportional representation of any kind. In fact many of the opponents of proportional representation used the same arguments to oppose MMP in Ontario and STV in BC. It's too complicated. It will hurt rural representation. It will hurt women and minorities. Parties in Toronto/Victoria (or Vancouver) will control the selection of the candidates. Nevermind that their central party offices control the nominations of the candidates for the current First-Past-the-Post ridings.

    Anonymous, you may give an examples of how democracy could be destroyed under MMP. I will state that we currently do not live in a democracy to destroy. We live in a defacto autocracy.

  5. Christopher, I completely forgot about the Prince Edward Island referendum. Shame on me. I apologize to the good people on the Island.

  6. "I suggest, therefore, that the preferred approach to change would be delegating the choice of a system to a citizens' assembly and then referring that decision directly to the legislature."

    ... that is all contingent on having an elected legislature that is: a) friendly to the concept of a Citizens' Assembly, b) open to a change of electoral system, and c) gets moral support for the whole Citizens' Assembly/change idea from its grass roots party members.

  7. I agree broadly with your opinion. While I think it is possible to use a referendum process to create public debate and make substantive change (see the multistage referendum/education process used in New Zealand). However, in Canada this seems to not be how it will ever work, a referendum is a simple yes or no question with very little debate based on the notion that the public knows best even without any education on an issue and that the winner of an election is always right (unless the election is about seperation of Quebec of course ).

    The two best hopes I see in the short term are
    - getting different types of PR in use at the local level like municipal elections and other local bodies
    - getting the NDP to commit to PR as a plank of their next election campaign. They say on paper they support electoral reform. The conservatives don't and the Liberals don't really understand it as a party. So if the NDP want to they can make the next election about democratic reform. Winning on that kind of campaign would give them the mandate to make changes without a referendum.

    But I'm not seeing either of those happening right now.