A referendum on the voting system would be undemocratic and immoral

The following op-ed was written by Dennis Pilon, an Associate Professor of Political Science at York University. Pilon is the author of two books and many academic articles about voting systems, including “The Politics of Voting: Reforming Canada’s Electoral System.” This first appeared in the Hill Times September 26, 2016. You can read his testimony to ERRE here.

A referendum on the voting system would be undemocratic and immoral

The Conservatives and their media supporters have spent the summer beating the referendum drum, insisting than any change to Canada’s voting system must be approved by the electorate in a national vote.  To its supporters, the position is so obviously the right one, they respond with incredulity when anyone raises objections.  But holding a referendum on the voting system would be both undemocratic and, frankly, immoral.  Undemocratic because just voting on something doesn’t mean the results are democratic if the process violates more important democratic principles.  Immoral because evidence from the recent provincial voting system referenda make clear that a referendum on this issue will fail to engage the public, and to promote something you know will fail as a process is to act in bad faith.

The principled democratic issue driving the need for voting system reform is unequal voting power: our current voting system, single member plurality (SMP), privileges geographically proximate voters and discriminates against voters who do not live close to each other.  The most obvious victims are supporters of the Green party but supporters of all our other parties suffer as well to some extent: Liberals in the west, Conservatives in our urban cores, etc. There are no compelling democratic reasons to conduct our elections this way.  We could have local representation and a more accurate representation of what voters say at the ballot box with any number of proportional voting systems.  We use our voting system because it has served the political parties who have held power.  Putting our current system to a vote in a national referendum won’t give it democratic legitimacy, it will just violate the rights of voters to have their votes count equally.  The higher order principle here is voter equality and you don’t put such principles to a vote.  Or, put differently, letting people vote to diminish other people’s rights can’t be characterized as democratic, no matter what spin you put on it.

That Conservatives play fast and loose with democratic principles should not be surprising as their referendum position rests on a rather inconsistent application of majority rule.  We are led to believe that a majority vote in a national referendum is absolutely essential to change the voting system but for literally everything else a government may want to do 39% of public support is just fine, as long as it manages to produce a majority of seats in the House of Commons.  If Conservatives think that a majority vote of the public in a referendum is so democratic, why are they so unwilling to have every vote in the House of Commons decided by a government that represents an actual majority of Canadians? That is what a proportional voting system would lead to.  It would appear that their reasons have nothing to do with principle – its all about politics.  Conservatives and their supporters are throwing anything into the public debate in a desperate bid to keep a voting system that sometimes allows them to win a majority of seats with just a minority of the popular vote, even though a majority of voters would prefer somebody else.  

But the Conservative position calling for a referendum is not just undemocratic, its immoral.  Research on the voting system referenda in BC and Ontario produced fairly consistent results: nearly half of the public voting in these three cases did not know a referendum was taking place and, amongst those who did, they reported very low knowledge about the issue. Most who voted against change did so because they did not feel they could make an informed decision, clearly signalling a failed process.  Others made their decision on the basis of perceived party self interest or cues from the party or ideological proxies (e.g. columnists), rather than a deliberation about the details and merits of the different systems.  Conservatives would have us believe that they want a referendum because they want Canadians to weigh the options and make an informed decision.  But they know very well the results of this research, which means they know that the referenda on voting systems in Canada have not produced the conditions for voters to make an informed decision.  So they want a referendum because they think it will give them their best shot of keeping our unrepresentative voting system, not for any democratic reasons.  It would be immoral for the Liberal government to agree to a process that research tells us will fail in its stated objective.

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