Referendum approval thresholds and turnout: The PEI vote on MMP in comparative perspective

Should a referendum on a fundamental policy or institutional change require more than 50%+1 of the votes cast? Should it require some minimal voter turnout in addition to a majority? These are important questions regarding direct democracy, and different jurisdictions have different rules on this question of referendum approval thresholds (as I alluded to in my discussion of the odd Iraqi rule.)

The question just came up (again) this week in Canada in connection with an upcoming referendum. On November 28, the Atlantic Canadian province of Prince Edward Island will vote on a proposal of an independent commission on electoral reform to adopt a form of mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation for that province. The vote will be the second Canadian referendum on adopting proportional representation, following that of British Columbia in May. (Other provinces will be following suit soon.)

According to the Guardian of Charlottetown, the PEI premier, Pat Binns, may be having cold feet. Despite the fact that this same premier appointed the Commission on P.E.I.’s Electoral Future after a campaign promise to that effect, and despite the fact that the Commission recommended that a majority of votes cast be sufficient to adopt MMP, the premier on October 20 said:

Government is not comfortable with 50 per cent plus one in a low turnout situation. If we were to have a very low turnout for some reason, and only 50 per cent plus one supported change, I would hardly think that that would be enough cause to change the system.

I think Binns has a fair point here (though I would note that one of the purposes of direct democracy is presumably not to make governments comfortable). Major changes to law, especially laws under which future lawmakers will be elected, arguably ought to receive widespread endorsement. (The possibility that major changes in California, such as the law on political spending of union dues or our electoral re-districting process, might be passed in a low-turnout special election disturbs me–more about that in some future posts.) That said, it is troubling that just over a month before the referendum, the premier is changing rules that supposedly had already been set.

What is worse is that he also is taking other actions that appear calculated to keep the turnout low, as noted in the Guardian article:

One of the factors that may affect voter turnout is the number of polls that will be set up across the province on plebiscite day. The Plebiscite Act says the vote should be conducted “as nearly as may be possible” to a provincial general election. But Binns said he has instructed Elections P.E.I. to cut the number of polls across the Island to cut costs. Binns said he expects the number of polls where Islanders can vote in the plebiscite to be cut to two-to-three per district. In a provincial election, there could be as many as 14 polls. [my emphasis]

In a previous referendum (in 1988, on constructing a bridge to the island from New Brunswick), the same number of polling places were provided as for a regular general election.

It seems like the premier is “shifting in the goal posts”, as Fairvote Canada put it (in a press release I received via e-mail).

In the BC referendum in May on adopting single transferable vote for provincial legislative elections, the requirement was 60% and majorities in 60% of the ridings (districts) and everyone knew that well before the vote. (The proposal itself was crafted by an independent Citizens Commission, chosen more or less at random, sort of like a grand jury.)

While the approval threshold for the BC electoral-reform referendum established the principle that such a fundamental change should only be made by consensus, it led to an embarrassing result: The BC-STV proposal won 57.7%, meaning the proposal was narrowly defeated. Yet the governing Liberal party that was re-elected on the same day received a manufactured parliamentary majority on only 45.8% of the vote. (And turnout was high, in part because the referendum was combined with a general election.)

In other words, the BC Liberals received less voter support than did an alternative electoral system that would have deprived the party of a governing majority had it already been in effect. Not surprisingly, the BC government announced in the Throne Speech in September that it will allow a second vote, in November, 2008, on electoral reform. In other words, they recognize that nearly 58% “yes” does not mean “no.”

That is precisely the problem with imposing thresholds on referenda, which supposedly are devices for discerning the “popular will”: When you get more than 50%, but less than the threshold (either in yes votes or in voters showing up), the legitimacy of the thus-expressed “popular will” is ambiguous.

14 thoughts on “Referendum approval thresholds and turnout: The PEI vote on MMP in comparative perspective

  1. Note that this is post #1 in a new “Canada” category (and I also created a “referenda” category with this post). There would have been many more Canada-related posts if I had started F&V several momths earlier, as the BC vote and the no-confidence vote that the federal minority Liberal government narrowly defeated quite gripped my attention in the spring. I am sure there will be many more to come, given that Canada, and its several ongoing electoral-reform processes, are topics of some of my ongoing research.


  2. Good post. One question, since you seem knowledgable in this area, and google is unhelpful, do you know of any precedent (besides B.C.) for requiring a super-majority in a referendum?

    I know some U.S. states have passed (50%+1) referendums which specified that any *future* referendums on a certain topic (wildlife hunting, for example) require a supermajority, but as far as I know these laws are currently being challenged in the courts as unconstitutional.


  3. Declan, thanks for the question. I will think on it and probably do a post on the question in the coming days.


  4. Pingback: Fruits and Votes » Blog Archive » More on referendum approval thresholds

  5. Pingback: Fruits and Votes » Blog Archive » Canada: Will PEI be the first province with PR?

  6. The next installment of this debate is now on the agenda of Ontario’s cabinet.

    The current Ontario government was elected on, among other things, a promise of an electoral reform process just like British Columbia’s Citizens Assembly. Ontario’s premier, Dalton McGuinty, clearly remembers how his Liberals felt in 1995 and 1999 when the Conservatives got a minority of the votes but were rewarded with majority governments. McGuinty deserves credit for not forgetting his conclusions upon sitting down in the big chair, unlike others one could name (Tony Blair).

    In an attempt to be non-partisan, his cabinet has postponed setting the terms of reference for the Citizens Assembly while a Select Committee of the Ontario Legislature went on a sensible overseas tour, held some good public hearings, and wrote a Report tabled Nov. 29:

    On the referendum approval threshold issue, it recommended “The referendum should be binding upon a vote of 50% + 1, and the support of 50% + 1 in at least two-thirds (i.e., 71) of the ridings, or any other formula that ensures the result has support from Northern, rural, and urban areas of the Province.” As an example of another formula, it gave “one alternative might be requiring a simple majority (50% + 1) of votes cast in communities with a population of under 100,000 (just under 36% of Ontario’s population – 2001 census)” — “rural” therefore including “smaller urban.”

    The cabinet should make its decision shortly. The referendum is already set for Oct. 4, 2007. If the Assembly’s Report is to be ready by April 2007, and if the Assembly will need a year for its work, the process needs to begin soon.

    Another controversial question may be the Select Committee’s recommendation that “Responsibility for the referendum question(s) – including the wording and number of questions to be asked, and the number of referendums to be held – rest ultimately with the Legislature, acting on the advice of the citizens’ assembly, the Select Committee on Electoral Reform, and if required, Elections Ontario.” By contrast, in B.C. the Citizens’ Assembly wrote the referendum question with complete independence.


  7. Pingback: Fruits and Votes » Blog Archive » Citzens assembly for California?

  8. Pingback: Fruits and Votes » Blog Archive » Referendum in Montenegro

  9. This is a remarkably late comment. Australia requires a form of supermajority for constitutional referendums. A constitutional amendment needs a national majority and a majority in a majority of states.

    PS I am ready, if needed, to engage in a bitter polemic on the subject of ‘referendums’ versus ‘referenda’ in which I expect to gain a plurality on plurals.


  10. Alan, there is no such thing as a late comment at F&V, as our plantings never die. They can always be propagated.

    I studied four years of Latin in high school, so it’s referenda.


  11. I often wrestle with referenda versus referendums when blogging. Interestingly, my built-in Firefox spell-check flags “referenda” but not “referendums.” The deciding factor for me usually is acceptable level of pretension given the target audience.


  12. Evil Jesuits inflicted six years of Latin when I was at school. Fortunately, I get to speak English using good English plurals away from their tender ministrations.

    I do not, for instance, choose between gymnasia, haunt the rotundae of capitoles, or decide which senatores to vote for. (When Australia first elected a female senator there was a brief attempt to invent that alarming creature the senatrix)

    Nor do I insist, on the basis that the gymnasion is a Greek invention, that the newfangled Latin -ium ending be done away with or mumble that Byzantion was around a long time before Byzantium.

    De referendibus est disputandum.


  13. Coming from a state with two Senatrices, I rather like the idea that Alan has now called my attention to!

    I freely took four years of Latin in high school; no infliction involved whatsoever. But I am, in general, in favor of naturalization of words that enter from abroad, so referendums is fine.


  14. Pingback: Brexit vs. BC-STV: Help with my principles! | Fruits and Votes

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