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.