When Should We Be Voting: Why Electoral Reform Should Involve a Referendum

At the end of 2015 the Trudeau government announced that they would be following through on their promise to make the 2015 election the last in Canada to occur under first past the post. They announced that in doing this they would not be putting proposed changes to a popular referendum, but that the government would be conducting public consultations. Referendums are starting to grow in prominence in Canada. The British Columbia government put the Harmonized Sales tax to a referendum in 2011 and in 2015 residents in the greater Vancouver area found themselves voting on a tax to fund a major transit and infrastructure expansion. Three provinces, British Columbia (twice), Ontario, and Prince Edward Island have had referendums on changes to their electoral system. Referendums can be a value tool through which governments can get popular input on policy proposals. They do carry the danger that politicians will abrogate their duty to carefully consider and policy decisions and take responsibility for them. Referendums should be used sparingly, but are important for political decisions that affect Canadians’ ability to hold their representatives accountable. Because electoral reform would affect voters’ ability to hold politicians accountable for a change in the electoral system, electoral reform should be put to a referendum.

The danger with referendums is that they force citizens to make complicated policy decisions with limited information, understanding of the ramifications of decisions, or consideration of alternative policies. California became the poster case for the over-use of referendums as referendums significantly hurt the quality of governance in that state through the 1990s and 2000s.  Politicians are elected as representatives in order to carefully consider different policy alternatives and to make decisions on our behalf precisely because we as citizens rarely have the time and expertise to make careful decisions on policy details. Politicians are then supposed to be held accountable for these decisions in elections. When they make poor decisions, citizens have the opportunity to vote them out of office. This system does well because it allows the delegation of difficult decisions on issues such as transit and infrastructure spending to individuals who have the time to carefully consider policy options, but also gives them the incentive to act in the public interest by tying their ability to hold on to their jobs to their ability to satisfy the public.

Decisions over electoral reform are different, however, from most policy decisions because they affect the ability of the public to hold politicians accountable. Electoral systems are not neutral in the way that they treat political parties. Different electoral systems benefit different political systems and give parties different incentives to appeal to different groups of citizens. First past the post systems tend to make it easier for centre-right parties to win elections (for more on this see work by Torben Iversen and David Soskice*), alternative vote systems tend to benefit more centrist parties, and proportional systems tend to increase the likelihood that left parties win elections. Politicians and parties thus have strong interests that are independent from the interests of voters. Because electoral systems have a significant impact on the ability of different politicians to remain in office, their biggest concern when debating electoral systems is likely to be the repercussions of each system for their electoral fortunes, as opposed to their benefits and drawbacks with respect to voter representation. The way that politicians weigh the costs and benefits of different electoral systems will in many cases be coloured by the way those electoral system affect their chances of re-election.

On top of this, electoral systems affect the way that politicians are held accountable for their decisions. In first past the post the lower percentage of the vote needed to remain in office means that governments are held accountable by a lower number of voters than they might be in a proportional system. Such systems often give parties governments with around 40% of the vote and thus, if a government can avoid decisions that go against the interests of the 40% of voters that support them, they stand a good chance of remaining in power. In proportional systems governments or governing coalitions need to win 50% of the vote to remain in power and thus need to act in a way that is accountable to the majority of the population. At the same first past the post systems requires that parties in government have support across a large number of ridings and, as a result, forces parties to ensure that they respond to the interests of individuals from variety of different regions. Proportional systems do not force parties to build the same broad based regional coalitions as first past the post systems do, but they do increase electoral importance of smaller but geographically spread out voters such as environmentalists. Changing the electoral system changes the ability of different voters to vote a government out of office, and thus, changes the voters that are most able to hold politicians accountable for their decisions. It is difficult for voters to hold politicians accountable for the electoral the politicians put into place because such an electoral system is likely to weaken the power of voters’ who are hurt by that system.

A popular referendum on electoral reform is valuable because it forces that debate over that reform to be about the way different electoral systems affect the power of different voters as opposed to the way that they affect politicians’ ability to win re-election. In a referendum advocates and opponents of different systems have to justify those systems in a way that appeals to different voters and responds to the how they are affected by different electoral systems. A debate over electoral reform that is carried out as part of a referendum is likely to focus on the implications of different systems for voters who feel that their vote is wasted, voters who are concerned with regional representation, and voters who are worried about the stability of minority and coalition governments. All of these are important trade-offs that should be debated in any discussion of electoral reform. When politicians end up having the final say over a change in the electoral system, it is inevitable that the debate over these trade-off will have to compete with concerns over electoral systems’ affect on different parties’ electoral fortunes. That makes for a weaker electoral reform debate.

A referendum will be a challenge for voters. It will require that individuals learn about the details of different electoral systems and about how they affect the electoral power of different voters. Unfortunately debates over electoral systems require a fair amount of technical knowledge on the part of citizens, while at the same time voters should not trust politicians to act as agents on their behalf when evaluating arguments for and against different electoral systems. The result is that a decision over electoral reform that is legitimate will require a fair amount of citizen education about electoral systems. Only when the decision over an electoral system is taken away from politicians can a decision over electoral reform that takes proper account of voters’ interest be made.

* Iversen, Torben and David Soskice. (2006). “Electoral Institutions and the Politics of Coalitions: Why Some Democracies Redistribute More Than Others.” American Political Science Review. 100(2): 165-181.


One thought on “When Should We Be Voting: Why Electoral Reform Should Involve a Referendum

  1. Pingback: How Should We be Voting: How to Run a Fair Referendum on Electoral Reform | Somewhere Left of Ottawa

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