Lessons from Past Referendums

The current discussion on electoral reform in Canada (led by current elected MPs and the media coverage they affect) is on whether a referendum is required if we are to fundamentally change the way we vote.  Last week, I wrote about why it is absolutely required.  This post discusses past referendums and what we can learn from them.

Provincial referenda on electoral reform have taken place in BC (in 2005 and again in 2009), PEI (2005), and Ontario (2007).  Other First Past the Post systems that have held referenda include New Zealand (1992 and 1993) and the United Kingdom (2011).  The referenda themselves had some similarities and differences.

1. Results and Thresholds

In 2005, BC voted 58% in favour of adopting electoral reform.  However, a threshold of 60% of the total vote was required, as well as a simple majority in at least 60% of the ridings in the province (97% of the ridings did achieve this).  Because of this result, they voted again in 2009 with the same thresholds.  This time, 60% rejected the reforms.

In PEI and Ontario, 64% and 63%, respectively, voted against their version of electoral reform in referenda with the same thresholds as BC.

New Zealand did vote to change their system with 85% and 54% majorities in a twin referendum system I’ll explain below.  The election was held on the basis of a simple majority (50% + 1 vote required to win).

The UK voted 68% against their version of reform.  The election was on the basis of a simple majority.  An amendment to require a 40% voter turnout for the vote to be valid was presented in Parliament but was not ultimately required.

2. Voting yes/no on one electoral reform alternative

In all four Canadian provincial referenda as well as the UK, the question posed to voters was to choose between the existing system and one alternative system.  The actual alternative that was presented as an option varied (Single Transferable Vote in BC, Mixed Member Proportional in PEI and Ontario, and Alternative Vote in UK).

Of note, BC and Ontario developed their (different) alternatives through the use of Citizens’ Assemblies (choosing random average citizens similar to jury duty).  PEI came to their alternative through a government-appointed commission.  The UK’s alternative was chosen directly by elected politicians.

New Zealand was the only jurisdiction to use a different approach.  They held one referendum in 1992 where voters answered two separate question.  In the first they voted on whether to retain the First Past the Post system or change the system (without specifying what would replace it).  With their second ballot, they voted on which of four alternatives they would prefer.  Sixty-five percent of voters chose Mixed Member Proportional.

Before changing the system, New Zealand held a second referendum in 1993 asking voters to choose directly between FPTP and MMP.  This vote passed by 54% in favour of reform, a smaller margin than the year before.

3. Concurrence with general election

Among the referenda mentioned above, the 1992 New Zealand referendum and the 2005 PEI referendum were the only ones where electoral reform was the only item to be voted on at the polling station.  BC and Ontario timed their referenda to take place together with provincial elections.  The UK referenda coincided with local (municipal) elections, as well as national elections in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  The 1993 New Zealand referendum coincided with their national election.


In a two-option ballot (FPTP or One Specific Other Approach), many voters who do want electoral reform may disagree with the specific alternative being presented to them.  For example, in Ontario, the implementation of Mixed Member Proportional being proposed would have resulted in a 25% increase in the number of MPPs.  Some voters (I personally know several) voted against it based on that one feature alone.  Interpreting the 63% FPTP result as meaning that the majority do not want any change is not accurate.

Secondly, holding the referendum at the same time as a regular election, although much more cost-efficient, may serve to limit discussion and education on the subject at hand.  In Ontario, many voters (I personally know several) did not even know they would be faced with a referendum in 2007.  When they went to vote for their MPP, they were given a second ballot and needed to decide on the spot.  Many chose the status quo because they just hadn’t been told what the alternative was.

This effect of a dominant election overshadowing a less-publicized concurrent one can be seen in Ontario municipal elections, where mayors and councillors are chosen at the same time as school board trustees.  Typically, you would think it is rare for someone to show up at the polling station without having already decided how they will vote.  However, it can be quite common.  As people show up to vote for the mayor, they realize they also need to choose a school board trustee.  They may well choose a name at random, or based on how it sounds.  As a test ask a friend which party they voted for in a past provincial election, who they voted for mayor in the last municipal election, and who they voted for trustee.


A referendum is absolutely required to dramatically change the way we vote and how our representatives get elected.

The referendum itself should be by ranked ballot where voters get to identify their preferences, including the status quo, in order.  (Only one election required, as opposed to New Zealand’s approach.)

Any citizen should be able to propose a system of electoral reform and gain ballot access through petition drives.  For example, 10,000 signatures are required to be included as one of the choices that gets voted on.

The threshold for adoption should be a simple majority to avoid the controversy of a potential result greater than 50% but below an arbitrary super-majority.  (Why didn’t BC choose 55% or 61%?)

Reform proposals that require constitutional changes (including my proposal for the Senate) should be handled separately, following the established formula.

The referendum should not take place together with a general election.  It should have its own set date with a one year proposal submission period and a six month campaign period.


Or… we could just leave it completely up to politicians elected under the current system, who have majority control of the parliament with only 39% of the vote, who said at campaign that they would change something but still haven’t told us what that change would be.  Which would you prefer?

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