A referendum on electoral reform will begin this Saturday, October 29, 2016. No, not a federal referendum to decide the electoral system for all of Canada, but it may well have a big impact on how things might play out federally.
Prince Edward Island is holding a referendum (actually, it’s a plebiscite, meaning it is non-binding) like no one has ever done before… ever… in the history of mankind.
Much has been said about referenda in the federal conversation on electoral systems. There is an assumption on all sides that a referendum is not likely to result in changing our current First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting system. If voters are asked to choose between one new system and the status quo, I would agree. In a previous post, I made a few recommendations for a federal referendum, which I do believe should be held, including:
1. Do not hold it simultaneously with a general election
2. Allow ballot access to any proposal by citizens that gets enough signatures
3. Allow voters to rank their preferred options, including the status quo, and count the results using an instant run-off.
PEI is doing two of those three things. Bravo.
First some history: PEI used to have an upper and lower house of Parliament. In 1893, it merged these two houses into a unicameral parliament, where each of the 15 districts elected two members each. The two positions were distinct from each other, meaning they were held (at the same time) as two separate elections with different sets of candidates.
Between 1893 and 1996, the only change to the district boundaries was the splitting of one district in Charlottetown into two in 1966.
By 1996, demographics had shifted. The system was overhauled into 27 single member districts with roughly equal populations. However, that did not solve another issue that the PEI Legislature regularly dealt with. With a relatively small number of elected representatives, it was common for one party to completely dominate. In 1935, the Liberal Party had won every single seat in the PEI legislature, the first time this had happened in any Westminster system in the Commonwealth.
In 1993, the Liberals had won every seat except one. After the move to single member districts, in 2000, the tables were turned as the PC Party won every seat except one (with 58% of the overall vote). It made Question Period very difficult when the one opposition member got sick with the flu. As a result, a referendum was eventually called in 2005, which gave Islanders the option of sticking with the current system, or moving to a Mixed Member Proportional system. They voted for the status quo by 64%-36%, with voter turnout at less than half what it usually was for a general election.
Of note, unlike the later referenda in BC and Ontario, the PEI plebiscite was not held concurrently with a provincial general election. Although this approach does result in a reduced overall turnout and higher cost, it should ensure that voters who do participate have actually considered the options and made a decision on the electoral reform question before arriving at the polling station, resulting in more meaningful results.
A weakness, however, is that it only asked about one alternative: Mixed Member Proportional (MMP). Every system has its drawbacks. One cannot interpret the results to mean that Islanders prefer FPTP to any alternative system, just that they prefer it to the one that was offered.
This time, things will be different. Five options, including FPTP will appear on the ballot. Voters will be able to rank them in their preferred order. An instant runoff will be used to find the ultimate winner if no one option is the first choice of more than 50% of voters. I have not been able to find another example of a referendum on electoral reform being held this way ever before. But that is not the only way in which it will be historic.
The plebiscite (remember, it’s non-binding) will predominantly be held over the Internet over 10 days from October 29 to November 7, 2016. Voters will also be able to vote in-person on November 4 and 5. Also, 16-year-olds will also be able to vote using the argument that they will be 18 by the next general election. Two of the five options have never been used before. They were selected for inclusion by a parliamentary committee of elected MLAs.
Electors can vote online using a PIN that they will receive in the mail. The online voting aspect will be conducted by a company called Simply Voting, based in Montreal, which has fewer than 10 employees.
Online voting presents a number of issues, many of which I have discussed in another post. For one, there are no paper ballots to recount so the electoral commission must accept the results as reported by this private company at face value. This is an issue as, even if the underlying code is audited for bugs, and even if the right version of the code is actually loaded for the execution of the election, no system is 100% secure from external hackers. Worse still, it may not be possible to know if the system was hacked or not. Yahoo recently found out that its systems had been compromised two years earlier (and they have more than 10 employees).
Ballot secrecy is compromised in two ways. Firstly, the private company must know how a person votes as they must be prevented from voting both online and in-person. Secondly, as online voting can take place in the home, it is highly likely for one enthusiastic family member to insist on viewing another casting their vote. This is technically illegal with a maximum penalty of $2000 and two years in prison… but… is a wife or a sixteen-year-old really going to report their father to the authorities? Or vice-versa?
Hacking or DDoS-ing the system is subject to the same penalty… if you get caught… and if you live in a jurisdiction with a reciprocity arrangement with the provincial government of PEI. Hopefully, it will be enough to deter the CIA, Vladimir Putin, Anonymous, and computer science students the world over. Although, if they were smart, they would leave this one alone in the hopes that its success may result in online voting in federal general elections, which would be a much more valuable target.
One last aspect of the plebiscite is that no campaigners are required to register with the Electoral Commission (or report their campaign spending). Elections PEI has been tasked with the public education campaign. They have created a series of videos and hired staff to tour the province to answer voters’ questions. I consider this to be a flaw. Firstly, as Elections PEI must remain non-partisan, they are hindered from fully expressing the drawbacks and advantages of the five different options. To my knowledge, no debate will take place where these will be discussed. It also technically allows unlimited spending by any interested party, with no oversight. The NDP and Green Party have a lot riding on the outcome and have publicly endorsed two of the five options to be ranked as first and second. Any individual, corporation, or union is allowed to spend as much as they would like on ads, staff, and phonebanking.
My preference would have been for the options to be proposed by campaign teams who gain ballot access through a signature drive. That way, they would have public proponents who can debate freely, develop their own campaign materials, mobilize volunteers to convince potential voters, organize get-out-the-vote efforts, scrutineer the count (I would not provide an online option), and report their total expenditures and donations within a set maximum.
Nevertheless, and no matter what the outcome, history will be made in PEI over the next couple weeks. Check out www.yourchoicepei.ca.