How Should We be Voting: How to Run a Fair Referendum on Electoral Reform

In my last post I made the case for holding a referendum on electoral reform. This was in response to a commitment made by the Liberal government to change the electoral system after holding public consultations, but not after a referendum. Referendums can be a lot trickier than they seem. Run poorly referendums can be end up being contests over the extent to which voters’ trust the current government or over whether voters understand the proposed policy changes instead of over which policy option voters prefer. A referendum on electoral reform needs to be careful designed. The aim should be to maximize the likelihood that voters see the referendum as a choice between different electoral systems, separate from concerns over which party is in power on how they feel about the general state of Canadian politics. It is likely impossible to prevent such factors from influencing public opinion at all, but some things can be done to weaken their influence. The electoral system put to a referendum should be chosen through a process independent from partisan politics, the referendum should not be held during an election, and it should be phrased as a choice between electoral systems not as a yes/no question over the status quo. Each of these three measures will increase the quality of debate in a referendum over electoral system change.

Ensure People Trust the Process for Selecting Alternative Systems

There is a danger that referendums become votes over how people feel about the current government instead of about the policy options being put to a referendum. Most recently, the Vancouver area referendum on increases taxes to fund public transit and infrastructure expansion ran into difficulty because many Vancouverites did not trust Translink, the organization that runs Vancouver’s public transit system. While this was not the only reason that the referendum failed, it certainly was a focal point of the “no” side’s campaign. The problem when citizens vote like this is that the value of the policy options being presented is often not related to trustworthiness of the government in power. An electoral system will affect the way that elections are run long-after the politicians who introduce and campaign against electoral reform have left politics. Their trustworthiness has little to do with the quality of an electoral system.

The danger that a referendum becomes about voters’ trust of politicians is particularly likely to influence referendums on electoral reform. Different electoral systems will benefit different parties. Because of this, it will be easy for opponents of electoral reform to make a case that electoral reform proposed by a particular party or government is being proposed only to increase the likelihood of that parties’ future success. The more removed the choice of electoral system for a referendum is from partisan politics the greater the likelihood that voters will trust that the system can serve their interests. It is thus imperative that any referendum be preceded by an independent examination of different options for electoral reform.

A citizens’ assembly, instead of parties, could decide what kind of system will be included in a referendum as an alternative to first past the post. A citizens’ assembly is a decision making body that contains randomly selected individuals from across the country. In the case of BC one man and one women was selected at random from each of the provinces ridings. These individuals then listen to presentations from experts on electoral systems, hold public consultations, and deliberate amongst themselves in order to come up for a recommendation for electoral reform that can be put to a referendum. By removing the decision over what kind of reform is put to a referendum from politicians, voters can be more confident that the electoral system being proposed is a product of deliberation that broadly considers that interests of the public and not those of politicians. If voters trust the citizens assembly (and the high level of support for the assembly’s recommendation in BC suggests that in that case they did) they are more likely to be receptive to its recommendations and see an electoral reform proposal as a reasonably alternative to the current system and not a cynical attempt on the part of politicians to implement a reform that suits only their interests. When citizens trust the process though an alternative electoral system is chosen, they are much more likely to give it fair consideration in a referendum.

Keep the Referendum Away from Elections

One of the other ways to try to limit politicians’ influence over a referendum is to hold the referendum in between elections. There are two problems with holding a referendum simultaneously with an election. The first is that it makes it easier for parties to mobilize to influence voters. Parties usually experience large increases in membership in election years, obtain more donations, and have an easier time recruiting volunteers. This means that parties fighting a referendum campaign while also fighting an election will have more resources to try to influence voters than they would competing in a referendum held separately from an election. Holding the referendum in between elections will not prevent parties from participating in a referendum campaign, and they will likely still be able to hold a great deal of influence over their hard core supporters, but it will help to level the playing field in the campaign between parties (who are likely to support different electoral systems out of self-interest) and other electoral advocacy groups (who are more likely to represent the interests of a segment of the population).  Holding a referendum apart from an election means holding a referendum when parties are relatively weak (compared to elections).

The second danger that comes with holding a referendum simultaneously with an election is that the debate over electoral reform can get drowned out by the election. Electoral reform debates are highly technical affairs and, as a result, it can be difficult for both advocates and opponents of electoral reform to hold voters’ attention. This is especially the case when those debating electoral reform have to compete with an election for voters’ attention. The kinds of issues that are raised during an election are often more interesting to voters. The result is that voters will tune out the electoral reform debate an instead follow the major issues that divide the political parties competing for government. At its worst, a referendum held at the same time as an election will lead voters to simply follow the cues that parties give them when it comes to voting on electoral reform. When a referendum is held separately from an election, it is more likely that the debate over electoral reform will be the most prominent political debate that voters engage with. This increases the likelihood that voters will hear from advocates and opponents of electoral reform without links to parties, and increases likelihood that the debate over electoral reform will be about the interests of different voters instead of the interests of different parties. This will, of course, not remove parties from the referendum debate completely, but holding a referendum independently of an election should decrease their influence over the referendum campaign and increase the extent to which the electoral reform debate becomes about the interests of different groups of voters.

Keep the Words “Yes” and “No” Off the Ballot

One of the challenges in designing a referendum question is creating a question that gets voters to focus on a discussion of the merits of both the current and the proposed electoral system. Part of this is affected by the way the ballot question is worded. There is a danger that a question phrased as a yes/no decision on whether to change from the status quo to another system becomes about whether individuals understand the proposed system (regardless of whether they understand the current one) and about whether they are satisfied with the status quo. A yes/no referendum question frames the choice that voters make, and the resultant debate that they have, as a choice over whether they want to change the current electoral system. As an alternative, voters could be asked whether they prefer a first past the post system to a proposed alternative such as proportional representation or alternative vote.  Rather than voting “yes” or “no” voters would choose between “first past the post” and an alternative such as “mixed member proportional” or “single transferable vote” This reframes that decision that voters make and can lead to a subtle but important change in the way that voters approach the referendum question.

Framing the debate as a choice between two electoral systems as opposed to a question about whether to change the electoral system increases the likelihood that voters will carefully consider the costs and benefits of different systems. Setting up the question as one between first past the post as an alternative makes it more difficult for advocates to make the case that voters should vote for change because of dissatisfaction with the current system. It also makes it more difficult for opponents to argue that voters should simply vote no either because they do not understand the proposed alternative or because they are satisfied with the current system. When advocates and opponents have to campaign for two particular systems instead of for or yes or a no, the likelihood that voters will ask them to explain both systems (and that voters will make a serious attempt to understand the costs and benefits of each system) increases. A fair question should encourage voters to raise questions about how both first past the post and its alternative work. When opponents of electoral reform have to run a campaign that says “vote first past the post” instead of “vote no,” they are more likely to be asked about how first past the post works and what its advantages are. Setting up the question as a choice between two alternative systems on a ballot instead of as a yes/no question can nudge the debate in a way that will produce more careful consideration of the costs and benefits of each system.

Ensuring that the choice of systems to put to a referendum is not done by politicians, that the referendum is held apart from an election, and that the referendum question is not a yes/no question are all valuable steps that can be taken to ensure that the debate over electoral reform is focused on costs and benefits of different electoral systems. This will not make the debate perfectly rational, it is unlikely that such a debate exists in politics. Different political parties, as well as other political actors, have strong interests in either maintaining the current electoral system or in seeing electoral reform enacted. These interests mean that any debate over changing the electoral system is likely to see its fair share of emotional appeals and misinformation. There are, however, ways in which the referendum can be designed in order to maximize the likelihood that voters will weigh the costs and benefits of each system, and which can reduce the likelihood that referendum becomes about something other than the costs and benefits of different electoral systems. A carefully crafted referendum question with its roots in a process that voters’ can trust and held apart from election can increase the quality of the debate over electoral reform that comes with a referendum.


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