11/08/2016 05:54 EST | Updated 11/08/2016 05:58 EST

P.E.I. Electoral Reform Referendum Doesn't Reflect Will Of People: Premier

Just 36 per cent cast a ballot in the plebiscite.

CHARLOTTETOWN — The low turnout for Prince Edward Island's plebiscite on electoral reform — 36 per cent — means it's debatable whether the results can be considered a clear expression of the will of Islanders, Premier Wade MacLauchlan said Tuesday.

The premier said the results confirmed the need for the legislature to "enhance our democracy," but he did not commit to making any changes to the existing first-past-the-post system, even though it was rejected as the best option after 10 days of online and telephone voting wrapped up late Monday.

P.E.I. Premier Wade MacLauchlan appears at a conference in Boston on Aug. 29, 2016. (Photo: Elise Amendola/AP via CP)

"We certainly won't ignore (the plebiscite)," MacLauchlan said in an interview. "This has been a major exercise in democracy for our province ... The ongoing dialogue is a continuing process. We are absolutely taking to heart the plebiscite and the results."

The non-binding vote was based on a preferential ballot system that offered voters five options to rank in order of preference.

In the end, the mixed-member proportional representation system garnered more than 52 per cent of the votes, once the votes for the other options were redistributed according to the rules of preferential voting. The first-past-the-post system received close to 43 per cent of votes in the final round.

The mixed-member system, which is used in New Zealand, is a hybrid that combines proportional representation with first-past-the-post. There's a mix of members elected under the old system and others chosen from party lists, with each party's share of those seats reflecting its share of the popular vote.

"This has been a major exercise in democracy for our province ... The ongoing dialogue is a continuing process. We are absolutely taking to heart the plebiscite and the results."

However, MacLauchlan said the poor showing at the polls, when compared with the 80 per cent turnout recorded in nine of the past 10 provincial elections, meant there was no real mandate for change.

"The combination of the (low) voter turnout and the level of support (for change) means that just under one in five registered voters has supported mixed member proportional representation," he said. "That's why there should be more debate."

It was the first time online voting was used in a provincewide plebiscite, and it was the first time 16- and 17-year-olds took part in a provincewide vote. Paper ballots were cast at 22 polling stations on the weekend.

'I don't think they can say it's a failure'

Don Desserud, a political science professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, said the turnout may have been low, but he argued the government would be wrong to ignore the results.

"At 37 per cent, in relative terms, it's not bad," he said. "I don't think they can say it's a failure. There's political pressure to do something."

The problem is that the government is now caught between activists who will be pushing for change and an electorate that hardly seems interested.

"No matter what they do, there's going to be a substantial number of people who say, 'No way. You don't have a right to do that."'

A big opinion poll?

Desserud said the poor turnout stemmed from the fact that the government had made it clear the plebiscite was nothing more than a big public opinion poll.

As well, he said MacLauchlan didn't include voting thresholds that would have required the government to act, leaving the impression that the government wasn't interested in change.

"Voters shrugged their shoulders and said, 'They're not interested in reform, therefore I'm not going to participate," Desserud said. "If they had made it clear what the thresholds would be, that would have been more of a motivation to get people out to vote"

The premier said thresholds were never an option because they were rejected as a form of interference during an electoral reform plebiscite in 2005, in which 36 per cent of eligible voters rejected change by a 64 per cent margin.

Elections P.E.I. encouraged participation

MacLauchlan said Elections P.E.I. worked hard to get out the vote.

"Every step was taken to encourage voter participation," he said, noting that elections officials conducted a widespread education program and travelled to every high school in the province.

Still, he admitted it didn't really work.

"This is one of the big lessons that we will take from this."

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