Open Ballot Access for Electoral Reform Referendum

Dear Members of the ERRE Committee,

I am very encouraged by your recent remarks in favour of holding a referendum on electoral reform.  I believe the committee would be right to conclude that there has been a strong public demand for holding a referendum, as well as a strong general endorsement for proportional representation.

I write to you today in the hope that the referendum will be held to the highest possible standard.  There is much to be learned from the recent experience in Prince Edward Island.  During their recent plebiscite, the five options that were included on the ballot were decided by a legislative committee.  Their provincial electoral commission was tasked with educating the electorate about the details of each system, without advocating in favour of any of them.  There were third party groups, PR on PEI being the most notable, who did advocate in favour of one or more of the options.  There was no requirement, however, for these groups to report on their spending or the sources of their contributions; neither was a maximum dollar amount established for such spending or contributions.

I believe that holding the referendum itself as a ranked ballot is the best approach to allowing voters to express their preferences among multiple systems.  I also believe it is important for the referendum not to be held concurrently with a general election, during which it may not attract the attention that it deserves.

As you know, the devil of electoral reform is in the details of its implementation.  Therefore, I strongly believe that the only just approach would be to allow open ballot access to any option proposed by a citizen that collects enough signatures.  The promoters of these options must be allowed to organize their own campaigns, prepare and distribute their own material, and mobilize their own supporters to get out to the polls.  The expenses they incur should be tracked (and capped) and the sources of their donations must be publicly reported.

For my part, I have advocated a “Balanced Bicameral” approach to ensure both proportional representation and local accountability.  The House of Commons would be elected by optional preferential ballot, without party affiliation being printed on the ballot.  The Senate would also be elected concurrently using the closed-list proportional method, with only the party being printed on the ballot.  In effect, it “unmixes” the Mixed Member Proportional model, making use of both Houses of Parliament.  It also enables the Senate to more effectively fulfill its role as a chamber for “sober second thought”.

Finally, for reasons that you have already acknowledged, the referendum should be held using an in-person paper ballot, primarily for security considerations.  The PEI plebiscite results confirm that internet voting does not measurably increase voter turnout but simply diverts otherwise paper voters.

This exercise is about strengthening our democracy.  Let’s ensure that the procedures used are themselves democratic.

My brief to the committee is available at: http://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/HOC/Committee/421/ERRE/Brief/BR8535918/br-external/ManougianHarout-e.pdf

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