Use your ballot to reduce the risk of referendum skullduggery

Democratic governance requires more, a lot more, from citizens than periodically electing or re-electing representatives only to later blame them when something goes wrong. I have a bias in this regard which is likely reflected in my comments on the pending electoral reform referendum.

Referenda without a constitutional basis can be ambiguous. The local government level has such a basis in Community Charter section 180, where it states that “a loan authorization bylaw may only be adopted with the approval of the electors.” The Community Charter sets out the conditions and processes for securing that approval are in detail and without ambiguity.

When a government calls for a referendum without a constitutional basis, the rationale for the vote, the conditions under which it is to be held and the process to be followed, are all susceptible to political ruse and a self-serving slant. The results arising from such a referendum are inevitably open to interpretation. The vote, rather than yielding a clear democratic decision, runs the risk of deepening political divisions.

Great Britain’s June 23, 2016 referendum on the question of its membership in the European Union (Brexit vote) provides a textbook example. There was no constitutional basis for that vote. The question appeared to be unambiguous: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” Voters were invited to check either the “Remain” or the “Leave” box on the ballot.

The government did not have a post-Brexit economic strategy. The purpose of the referendum was to put an end to political bickering. Not surprisingly the campaign was dominated by emotional propaganda. A majority of 51.89 percent voted to leave. Today, nearly two years after the vote, British society and politicians are embroiled in arguments about how to interpret the result and what the government ought to do with it. Divorce negotiations with the European Union are mired in confusion.

I am not suggesting that a referendum without a constitutional basis lacks legitimacy. I am suggesting that when governments call for a referendum for political reasons on a question within the government’s constitutional authority, the question put to citizens and the process are more important than the outcome of the vote.

The May 17, 2005, electoral reform referendum asked:

Should British Columbia change to the BC-STV electoral system as recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform?

A majority (981,419 – 57.69 per cent) voted yes but it fell short of the referendum’s approval conditions. A second referendum was held on May 12, 2009. The essence of the question was identical to the 2005 question, but the wording and presentation were profoundly changed:

Which electoral system should British Columbia use to elect members to the provincial Legislative Assembly?

The existing electoral system (First-Past-the Post).

The single transferable vote electoral system (BC-STV) proposed by the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.

The majority (971,353 – 60.91 percent) voted for the First-Past-the-Post system.

Not only the wording and presentation were changed for the 2009 vote, so was the voting process. The 2005 referendum used polling stations; the 2009 referendum used mail-in ballots. A March 2009 Angus Reid Poll showed a 65 percent support for BC-STV, but it also showed that a mere 44 percent were aware of the pending referendum. More citizens voted to adopt a new voting system in 2005 than voted to retain the existing one in 2009!

The provincial government has issued a questionnaire concerning the form and substance of the electoral reform referendum to be held in the fall. The questionnaire can be accessed at engage.gov.bc.ca/howwevote. Your responses to the questionnaire will help validate the referendum results by reducing the risk of skulduggeries with the ballot’s question(s) and ensuring fairness in the voting process. The deadline is February 28, 2018, don’t miss it!

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