Two years ago, citizens of Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.) – a Canadian province – took part in a non-binding plebiscite on whether to adopt a proportional voting system for the island.
Voters – including, for the first time, 16- and 17-year olds – could choose among five options and rank these by preference. The options were: First Past the Post, Mixed Member Proportional Representation, Dual Member Proportional Representation, First Past the Post Plus Leaders, and Preferential Voting.
After four rounds of counting, Mixed Member Proportional Representation (Called the Additional Member System when used for Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and London Assemblies) was the preferred choice of a majority of voters (52%). This was the first time a Canadian province endorsed a form of PR in a province-wide vote.
But – despite no turnout threshold having been set prior to the vote – the government chose not to implement the result given the unusually low turnout (36.5%).
P.E.I. premier Wade MacLauchlan was doubtful of whether the results constituted ‘a clear expression of the will of Prince Edward Islanders’ and provided the government with a clear mandate. The premier pledged, however, to discuss the results in the Legislative Assembly and subsequently introduced a motion to hold a second referendum on electoral reform. The Electoral System Referendum Act was approved in June 2018.
The new referendum is due to take place before October 2019, alongside the scheduled provincial elections in the hope that this will increase participation. This time, voters will be presented with a simple Yes or No question: Should Prince Edward Island change its voting system to a mixed member proportional voting system?
The Referendum Act sets out more detailed rules concerning the referendum. To ensure a level playing field among campaigners and to avoid the influence of external or wealthy donors, outside donations will be restricted and individual donations will be capped at $1,000, though groups of individuals can spend up to $10,000 collectively. But in return, the government will provide $75,000 of public funding to both sides of the campaign to conduct their public information campaign.
The Act also made provision for a Referendum Commissioner, appointed to serve from June 2018 until after the referendum, to oversee the referendum process ‘including by engaging the public in the process and providing public education related to the referendum.’
According to the legislation, the referendum will be binding only if the change option is supported by more than 50% of those who are recorded as having voted in the general election – not 50% of ballots cast. While this raises the margin of victory, it is seen as offering a clear mandate. The government commits itself to implementing the results of the referendum.
Prince Edward Island has taken an innovative approach to the regulation of the future referendum on electoral system by limiting the amount of external money in the process and introducing public spending – two proposals that the ERS has long called for.
Further, the appointment of the Referendum Commissioner for the purposes of campaign information – on the example of other countries such as Ireland and New Zealand – demonstrates a commitment to ensuring that voters are engaged and aware of the options that will be put before them.
Arbitrary thresholds in referendums always act against change. When it comes to putting them into power, politicians have no aversion to low turnouts or getting less than 50% support. Yet when it comes to making every vote equal, a simple majority isn’t enough.
See the rest of our Spotlight on Canada series