What Does Voting “No” Mean? Rethinking Referendum Questions

The Greater Vancouver Regional District held a referendum this May on a plan to increase provincial sales tax in order to fund a substantial expansion in public transit and transportation infrastructure. Vancouver voters rejected the tax increase, with 61.7% voting against. This has left municipal politicians scrambling to figure out how they are going to fund a transit expansion that is necessary for a growing city. The result raises questions about whether referendums are an appropriate make decisions about tax and transit policy. My colleague David Moscrop wrote this piece in March arguing that by putting the tax increase to a referendum the BC governments shirked its responsibility to make difficult but important policy decisions. If policy questions are going to be put to referendums though, it may be worth rethinking the way that those questions are framed. The common form of a referendum, a single policy proposition put to a yes or no vote, does not provide an accurate picture of the policy options that governments face nor does it produce a good account of public preferences. Forcing people to make binary decisions on policies prevents them from indicating a preference for alternative policies. Referendums framed as yes or no questions give people the option to say “no” but not to say “let’s try something else.”

As a population we are good at saying “no” to different policy choices. In BC alone referendums have led to the removal of the HST (a referendum to stop a policy initiative the government was implementing) and to the rejection of Single Transferable Vote twice. The binary nature of most referendum questions creates odd coalitions of voters, many of whom prefer different policies. The BC transit referendum, for example, united individuals who opposed raising taxes and the expansion of transit with those who felt that a transit funding increase was necessary, but that a sales tax increase was the wrong way to go about it. One of the objections to the BC government’s plan was that the proposed sales tax increase was regressive. It would be paid disproportionately by low income individuals who spend a greater portion of their income on consumption. Presumably these voters would have been more supportive of an increasing a different, more progressive tax, such as income tax.  Other voters did not want to put more money into transit at all, and would have likely rejected any tax increase regardless of how progressive it was.  The positions of those who oppose tax increases in general and those that want a less regressive tax are very different, yet the referendum treated them as exactly the same. The problem here is that it is unclear what mandate voters have given the BC government and the mayors of the Vancouver region. Should the government cancel the transit expansion, or should they be exploring alternative funding mechanisms? It is clear that Vancouver voters do not want a sales tax increase, but it is not clear what they want in its place.

Perhaps the most concerning effect of the ambiguity of a no vote is that voters may end up with policies that they like less than the sales tax increase that they voted against. Alternative mechanisms for funding transit include raising property taxes or implementing a road pricing (or toll) system. Neither would likely be popular with those that voted no in the referendum because of their opposition to tax hikes. Depending on the degree of property taxes or tolling, its not inconceivable that such a system would cost voters more in taxes than that proposed sales tax increase. Another alternative to the tax increase is simply to decrease funding for public transit and, as a result, service. This is not likely to be a popular option for those that voted against the sales tax because its disproportionate impact on low income individuals. Any decrease to transit service is likely to also disproportionately affect those with low incomes, who are more reliant on public transit. Because the alternative policy preferred by “no” voters is unclear, they can end up with a policy that they prefer less than the one proposed in the referendum.

The alternative to a yes or no referendum would be question with multiple policy options. This would allow voters to distinguish between preferences for a larger set of alternative policies and give governments a clearer picture of what the public wants. It would also protect the public against the danger that a no vote may leave them with a policy that they like less than the one they voted against. It would work like this. Rather than providing voters with a single policy proposal and asking whether they support it, voters would be given four or five different policy options. In the BC transit referendum for example, voters might asked if they support funding a transit increase via a sales tax, via an increase in income taxes, via an increase in property taxes, or if they favoured no increase in transit funding at all. Voters could then rank order their preferences from most preferred to least preferred. When the ballots are counted, the policy with the least support could be eliminated and its votes redistributed to its voters’ second choices until one policy option has more than 50% support. This way, the votes of those that want an increase in transit funding but a different tax from a sales tax can be distinguished from those that want no tax increase at all.

Such a system would give governments a much clearer picture of how the public feels about the policy issue put to the referendum. Rather than being left trying to interpret an ambiguous “no”, provincial and municipal politicians would have a clear indication of the degree to which Vancouverites simply oppose tax increases to fund transit as compared to the degree to which they support the transit funding increase but just prefer it be funded by different means. A clearer outcome would mean clearer policy options for governments and a greater level of confidence in voters that the policy choices they seek in a referendum are the ones that will be put into place.

The Vancouver transit referendum provides an example of how the framing of referendum questions as a binary choice between the acceptance or rejection of a single policy proposal is problematic. Referendum question should be developed in a manner that allows the public multiple options, and gives voters an opportunity to express nuanced views on complex policy decisions. If referendums are going to be used by governments to test public policy, voters ought to at least be given the choice of multiple policy options.

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