National Referendum on Electoral Reform? Don’t Do It, Says Expert

Canadians are not 'too stupid to vote the right way,' Conservative MP counters
By Chandra Lye
Chandra Lye
Chandra Lye
November 17, 2016 Updated: November 17, 2016

As the country holds it breath waiting to see what recommendations the Special Committee on Electoral Reform will make at the beginning of December, one expert warns against a referendum on the issue.

Although the Liberals haven’t said whether they’ll hold a referendum or not, the Conservatives have been pushing for one, insisting that any changes to the voting system must be put to Canadians in a national vote.

But Dennis Pilon, a political science professor at York University who has studied various election systems extensively and written two books on the topic, says a referendum may not provide a clear expression of the will of the people.

“One of the problems with referendums is that choices are put too bluntly, or the public isn’t given a chance to differentiate between what are multiple options,” he says.

Pilon’s argument is that there’s an abundance of research on provincial referendums showing that people are not in a position to weigh the options and make an informed decision because in many cases they don’t fully understand what they’re being asked.

It would be immoral to have a referendum when we have so much evidence that referendums do not work.
— Political science professor Dennis Pilon

“It would be immoral to have a referendum when we have so much evidence that referendums do not work,” he says. “To use a policy that you know will fail I think is not a moral thing to do.”

He cites a referendum on electoral reform held in Ontario in 2007 as an example.

“What is interesting about the Ontario referendum was that at the same time the public voted down the proportional voting option, surveys showed that a majority of Ontarians wanted more proportionality in their election,” Pilon explains.

“That is what the referendum was offering them, they just didn’t know that. So the Ontario referendum was kind of a perverse result. People voted against the thing they told pollsters they wanted.”

Conservative MP Scott Reid, the opposition critic for democratic reform, begs to differ.

“I would have to say the people are always right when they vote in a referendum,” says Reid, one of the 12 members that make up the all-party electoral reform committee, which has been criss-crossing the country to consult Canadians on the issue.

“You can argue that the people are making a wrong decision because they are not sufficiently informed. Then what you are really arguing is that you yourself were incapable of providing them with convincing arguments.”

He called Pilon’s comments “insulting” and “untrue.”

“The point he is arguing is that there was a right way to vote and a wrong way to vote, and the people were too stupid to vote the right way.”

Last week, news emerged that the government is extending the consultations on electoral reform by sending mail-outs to some 13 million households encouraging recipients to fill out an online survey on the issue. The website, mydemocracy.ca, will go live in early December.

Some MPs on the committee as well as Fair Vote Canada have said they are worried the results of the survey could be regarded as a referendum. But Reid says that’s not its aim.

“It is not a referendum. What it is, is a means of getting back further information early in the legislative process. A referendum occurs at the end of a legislative process.”

Choosing a new voting system

The Liberals have said that the 2015 election would be the last using the first-past-the-post system; what to replace it with is the big question. Some options being considered are plurality or majority systems, proportional representation systems, and mixed electoral systems.

While it’s generally agreed that no system is perfect, Fair Vote Canada advocates for some form of proportional representation, as does Pilon.

“In our elections, often over 50 percent of the votes don’t actually contribute to the election of anyone,” he says. “Now when we contrast that say, to proportional systems, we find that in proportional systems 95-98 percent actually contribute to the election of someone that the voter wants to see elected.”

When testifying before the Committee for Electoral Reform in July, Pilon suggested the committee “move forward and just recommend that the government change our voting system to a proportional system.”

“The only real barrier is political will,” he said.

“And here I would argue that the government shouldn’t really worry about critics, because I think the critics’ arguments are mostly politically self-interested. We’ve had a number of commentators suggest that there will be public outrage if there’s not a referendum, but frankly, the only people who are outraged are the ones who are writing such editorials.”

Reid, though, is hopeful a referendum will be part of the process the government undertakes.

“What I have been saying is that if every party sticks to its currently stated bottom line and does not enter in new conditions, then a deal is possible because the Liberals and the NDP have both said that they are not absolutely opposed to a referendum.”

Chandra Lye is a freelance reporter based in Vancouver.

Chandra Lye