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A Referendum Rarely Leads To Electoral Reform

12/17/2015 11:23 EST | Updated 12/17/2016 05:12 EST
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Man putting a ballot into a voting box - Canada

In March 2015, Justin Trudeau said he was favourable to changing the electoral system and that he would prefer alternative voting to our actual majoritarian system (i.e. a winner-takes-all system). We also know that others MPs, including Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion, are also supporters of a change in our electoral system.

Two questions thus arise. What would be the alternative? And what considerations should we have in mind when discussing whether to implement it by referendum or not?

While I will focus on the second question, I will not argue in favour of one method or another. Instead, I propose a review of the use of referendum in Westminster-style democracy when it comes to implementing electoral reforms.

We should first consider Canadian (provincial) experiences. The most recent one happened in British Columbia where the government asked its citizens if they preferred to keep the actual system or change it for a single transferable vote (STV) system. To change this fundamental aspect of politics, the government decided, would require a majority of 60 per cent of votes cast. Moreover, for practical reasons, the referendum was to be held in May 2009, as people were already going to polling stations to elect a provincial government. The result: the original system was preferred by an overwhelming majority of 60.9 per cent, a dramatic failure for change proponents.

Another provincial experience occurred in 2007, as Ontario's government asked citizens whether they wanted to keep the winner-takes-all system or to change it for a mixed member proportional system (MMP). Again, it was massively rejected by more than 63 per cent of the population. That same year, the Prince Edward Island government hoped to get the mandate to bring electoral reform in favor of a MMPPS by referendum and suffered its complete rejection with 64 per cent of residents voting against it.

But what if Canadian experiences were unique? Outside our borders, results are mixed.

Two similar Westminster-style systems held referendums -- New Zealand passed a referendum in 1992 to ask its citizens whether they would keep or change the system. An extraordinary 84 per cent responded that they would like to change it.

The next year, another referendum made them choose between keeping the winner-takes-all system or change it for a MMP, as was proposed in Ontario and Prince Edward Island. This resulted in a majority of 53.8 per cent voting for the MMP.

Meanwhile, in May 2011, the United Kingdom held a referendum to replace the actual system for preferential (or ''alternative'') voting, as Prime Minister Trudeau would personally prefer: 68 per cent decided to keep the current system.

Some considerations

In light of this short review, there are at least some lessons that will need to be discussed.

First, as experience shows us, holding a referendum rarely works in favour of reforming the system. (A referendum is surely the most unsure way to try to change the electoral system).

Second, as in British Columbia, a referendum could be held during the day of the next election: people would elect their federal government and also vote to keep or change the electoral system. Holding such a referendum four years from now would give plenty of time for discussions.

Finally, what kind of majority would be required? In similar democracies, the only referendum that resulted in a change would not have passed in a ''supermajority'' context that requires 60 per cent of votes, as is the case in British Columbia.

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