ERRE Committee Report
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The late pioneering social worker, feminist, and 1931 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jane Addams wrote (in reference to her experience trying to secure peace and providing relief supplies to women and children of enemy nations in the First World War) that “social advance depends as much upon the process through which it is secured as upon the result itself.” Indeed, the perceived democratic legitimacy of the process of electoral system reform has been a fundamental consideration throughout the Committee’s study. Time and again witnesses appearing before the Committee emphasized that the merits of any electoral reform proposal made by the Committee would be evaluated, in Ms. Addams’ words, “upon the process through which it is secured.”
The work of the Committee has been focused on hearing from Canadians. The emphasis on consultation as a fundamental part of the electoral reform process was underscored in the Committee’s mandate, which directed the Committee to:
Indeed, as noted in the first chapter of this report, the Committee endeavoured to consult widely and broadly with Canadians. Over the course of its study, the Committee held 57 meetings with 196 expert witnesses across Canada. In addition to its meetings held in Ottawa, the Committee consulted directly with citizens (567 Canadians participated in open mic sessions) and experts in every province and territory. As well, the Committee created the E-Consultation on Electoral Reform to solicit Canadians’ views both on voting, electoral systems, online voting, mandatory voting and the process for electoral reform. The e-consultation was accessible online from the 19th of August until the 7th of October 2016. Over this period 22,247 Canadians completed the questionnaire. Additionally, the Committee received and considered 574 briefs and over 1000 pieces of correspondence from organizations, academics and individuals citizens. Finally, the Committee received 172 reports from MPs (as well as one from the Conservative Caucus and one from the New Democratic Party Caucus) regarding town halls and other consultations on electoral reform.
In this report the Committee has endeavoured to consolidate the information, briefs and testimony that the Committee received. The Committee has identified what issues electoral reform would try to address. The Committee has considered the trade-offs inherent in the five principles set out in the Committee’s mandate, and how they relate to the various electoral systems examined by the Committee. Based on all that the Committee has heard, the Committee has reached a number of conclusions and recommendations. This report is the product of the Committee’s collective deliberations.
The question that remains is what happens next? What process should be followed to gauge whether any electoral reform proposals have the support of Canadians?
The notion of seeking “broad support” for proposed electoral reforms received approval from respondents to the Committee’s online consultation. Indeed, 72% of respondents to the Committee’s online consultation either strongly agreed (55%) or agreed (17%) with the statement that “any plans for a future Canadian electoral system should require broad public support, in addition to parliamentary approval.”
Any plans for a future Canadian electoral system should require broad public support Scale: 1 (Strongly Disagree) – 5 (Strongly Agree); NA
Finally, in his remarks to the Committee, Graham Fox, President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, addressed the relationship between the Committee’s deliberations and what ought to come next. After first applauding the Committee’s efforts to “create more opportunities for people to express their views” on electoral reform through the Committee’s various consultation tools, he pivoted to what should follow. He observed that while the “consultation process that's been launched currently allows for the articulation of interests,” it is “less clear how those varied and sometimes competing interests will be aggregated into a public consensus on the best way forward.” The challenge of the next step “is how we graduate from public consultation to citizen engagement” in proposed electoral reforms.
One recommendation that was almost universal among witnesses who discussed the process of electoral system reform was the need for robust public education on the proposed reform (and on the democratic process more generally), as illustrated by the following examples:
A number of witnesses suggested that electoral reform is different than changing any other kind of legislation, as it gets to the crux of the relationship – the vote – that connects the citizenry to their representatives in Parliament and government. Indeed, Graham Fox noted that “the manner in which Canadians are engaged in this deliberative process is so critically important to any eventual proposal for reform and to the legitimacy that proposal will have in the eyes of voters.”
Yasmin Dawood indicated as much in her remarks to the Committee, in her observation that:
Electoral reform differs from the passage of ordinary legislation because it sets out the very ground rules by which political power is attained. For this reason, the process of electoral reform must be held to a higher standard of democratic legitimacy.
According to Professor Dawood, while no particular process is required to engage in electoral reform, three norms ought to be followed for the chosen process or processes to be considered “democratically legitimate”:
My main conclusion is that although no one process or mechanism is required for electoral reform, the process must be, and must appear to be, democratically legitimate. To achieve democratic legitimacy, the process should visibly follow three norms: first, political neutrality or non-partisanship; second, consultation; and third, deliberation.
She then explained that the first norm, “political neutrality or non-partisanship” is important as it “ensures that the process is as neutral as possible, which in turn helps to prevent the governing party from entrenching itself by selecting rules that favour itself at the expense of the other political parties.” This norm “is difficult to achieve” as a choice of process can impact what types of outcomes are ultimately considered. Professor Dawood added that “Any majority government, in particular, must guard against the perception of self-serving entrenchment by ensuring the process is as non-partisan as possible.”
Finally, Professor Dawood made three observations to “further enhance democratic legitimacy and the norms of political neutrality, consultation, and deliberation”:
The Committee heard significant testimony with regard to all of Professor Dawood’s observations. This testimony can be grouped into three categories: the impact that the Committee’s ability to reach consensus (or not) on proposed reforms may have on the perceived legitimacy of the proposed reforms; the utility of citizen-focused deliberative processes to determine and evaluate possible reforms; and the perception that a plebiscite or referendum may be either the ultimate process to ensure the legitimacy of a proposed reform, or whether it would be, to paraphrase Professor Dawood, an option that is not politically neutral and may undermine the reform process.
It is important to note, though, that legitimacy is ultimately a subjective concept, one that perfectly reasonable people can reasonably disagree about. As noted by Louis Massicotte:
Legitimacy is not a scientific concept; it is a normative concept. As a saying goes, legitimacy is in the eye of the beholder. In order words, legitimacy depends on an individual's perspective.
Paul Thomas further observed that multiple pathways to reform may be legitimate, and that the term “legitimacy” should be used carefully:
As I said, legitimacy is a contentious notion that has been the subject of debate among philosophers and social scientists for centuries, and I don't like it when we have shallow statements in the media that if you fail to get this approval rating on a particular project, somehow it is illegitimate, or that a referendum is the one and only way you can arrive at a legitimate outcome to a process like this. There could be multiple methods for deliberation and decision-making on a topic as important and sensitive as electoral reform, and a referendum could or could not be part of it. I am almost of two minds on that. Legitimacy, use the term carefully.
While legitimacy may be in the eyes of the beholder, a number of witnesses noted that in Canada’s representative democracy, any ultimate decision on electoral reform would rest with Parliament (whether or not supported by a distinct deliberative process or referendum). For example, as noted by Éric Montigny:
I don't think there's any constitutional convention for holding a referendum. The broadest possible consensus must be sought. I understand your committee is trying to reach that consensus. That's what will be determined at the end of the exercise. That's the first thing to consider.
The second thing to consider in terms of legitimacy is that in a representative democracy, the political parties that appear before the voters have democratic reform proposals in their political platforms. In a system of representative democracy, if we add up the political parties elected with the promise of modifying the electoral system, it also provides legitimacy to the process.
Professor Massicotte highlighted the lessons learned from the history of electoral system reforms at the provincial level:
Let's look at our system's history lesson, which is something more solid. In Canadian history, a number of electoral reforms have been carried out. They began in 1920 in Manitoba and ended in 1956 in Alberta.
I have looked at the circumstances in which every one of those reforms was adopted. In each case—so in Alberta, in Manitoba and in British Columbia—the provincial Parliament implemented a reform without a referendum. At that time, holding a referendum was not even considered. Based on the customs of the time, it seems fine that it happened this way.
Those are the indications I can give regarding whether Parliament currently has the democratic legitimacy to proceed. Ours is a system of representative democracy. There is no legal obligation to hold a referendum, but it may occasionally happen that what can be done legally is perceived as illegitimate by a good portion of the population.
Alex Himelfarb, former Privy Council Clerk, observed that a referendum could be one of various tools to gauge political legitimacy. Committee consensus would be another indicator of legitimacy:
I was asked the same question, Mr. Chair, at a conference and I answered a referendum if necessary, but not necessarily a referendum, and the entire crowd groaned at me, but it is more or less my position. Clearly there are reasons for all of us to want public legitimacy and credibility for whatever decision is made. I think the composition and openness of this committee goes a long way toward doing that. The opportunities for people to participate and contribute would go a long way toward doing that. Whether that's enough or not will depend a lot on what kind of consensus the committee's able to develop. I think that matters and that over time one might change one's mind.
Numerous witnesses echoed the suggestion that within Parliament, consensus on the Committee as well as some level of cross-party support for any suggested electoral reform proposals would contribute to their perceived legitimacy. For example, Emmett Macfarlane suggested that “all-party consensus would alleviate some of those concerns” around perceived legitimacy. He added, that “We could lock you [the Committee members] all in a room and not let you out until you reached a compromise, which might be fun.”
Patricia Paradis noted that some form of consensus among members of the House of Commons on the Committee’s proposals for reform would “go a long way”:
First of all, as I understand it, this special committee will be tabling its report to the House. The extent to which the House itself can be brought to understand and appreciate the work that's been done by this committee, and to appreciate the number of Canadians who have stepped up to speak to you and give their points of view, and to consider your report, will be very important. If we could get some form of consensus or agreement within the House, that would certainly go a long way.
The Hon. Ed Broadbent suggested that more than one party would need to support a proposed reform for him to consider it democratically legitimate:
Parliamentary democracy entails not direct citizen participation but representative participation, so having more than one party is important. I strongly agree that it would be a fundamental mistake for the governing party alone to bring in a system that it alone favoured. That would not be legitimate in a democracy, as has already been suggested by my academic colleague as well.
Over the past two decades, governments and public service providers have increasingly reached out to the general public using a variety of engagement tools in order “create better public services, promote social cohesion and foster a thriving democracy.” Deliberative engagement enables people to come together to develop policies, plans, and programs:
Deliberation is an approach to decision-making that allows participants to consider relevant information, discuss the issues and options and develop their thinking together before coming to a view.
There are a variety of means to engage the public in policy development or reform. Circumstances such as timeline and geography determine the way a particular deliberative process is formed, such as the citizens’ assemblies used in British Columbia and Ontario, or the Quebec Citizen’s Committee. The following considerations can help determine the nature and scope of a deliberative process:
A deliberative process can be scaled up or down to involve any number of participants, and the length of time over which such a process takes place can also be adjusted:
Deliberative public engagement processes can take place on any scale - from ten participants (for example, citizens’ juries) to thousands of participants (such as citizens’ summits). A process may be a one-off event, or part of a series of activities running over several years.
A number of witnesses suggested that some form of more engaged, citizen-focused deliberative process to evaluate or propose electoral reform options would add to their democratic legitimacy. For example, Yasmin Dawood posited that:
[I]t would enhance the real and perceived democratic legitimacy of the process if an additional process option such as a commission, citizens' assembly, or referendum were implemented.
A commission on electoral reform might be a better option as an additional process. Many recommendations from the 1989 Lortie Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, for example, were used to revise electoral laws, but there are other smaller-scale options for commissions. For example, New Brunswick and P.E.I. each established an eight-person commission, and the P.E.I. commission consisted in part of citizens. In Quebec, the parliamentary [commission] was assisted by an eight-person citizens' committee.
As elaborated in Chapter 3 of this report, the Committee had the opportunity to hear from individuals who were involved in the B.C. and Ontario citizens assemblies, in the electoral reform initiatives that took place over the past 15 years in New Brunswick, P.E.I., and Quebec, and who were part of the Law Commission of Canada when it studied electoral reform. Those involved in the citizens assemblies lauded the process as an “honour and a privilege.”
One drawback of a citizen’s assembly is that while it can be an intense learning and deliberative experience for the citizens involved, leading to comprehensive recommendations, it may be hard to replicate on a national scale, and would not work in a tight timeframe. Others noted the need following an assembly to be able to share learning with the public to bring the public along, for example as expressed by Maryantonett Flumian:
The value of a constituent assembly is highly deliberative. The problem with the constituent assembly is that it is deliberative for the people who are in the room; the rest of us think they've drunk the Kool-Aid. They didn't go through the same process and they don't understand it.
It is important to note that a variety of other deliberative mechanisms exist or could be designed to further engage the public in electoral reform. For example, Jean-Sébastien Dufresne suggested a “citizen jury”:
A citizen jury could be a compromise. I invite you to consider this. It is a type of process that allows random groups of citizens to express their views on these matters.
As well, Larry LeDuc suggested that some form of deliberative polling that included a deliberative process over time, could be a useful tool:
There is a mechanism called deliberative polling that I was going to mention. It hasn't been used all that much in Canada, but it's more feasible now with the increasing use of the Internet in polling. If you were to draw samples, the way you do for ordinary public opinion polls, and then extend them by having people deliberate the issue online and exchange thoughts about it, the technology is there to do that.
There are several good books in the U.S. written on deliberative polling, and it has been used in various places, but it has been on a model a little different from an Internet-based model. I could, however, see some of its principles being extended, because polls have some credibility, if the sampling is done right. If you could get a sample that was not just an instant snapshot of answers to a question but was based on some kind of built-in deliberative process that took place over a period of time, I think that's a possibility we might look at.
Finally, a majority of respondents to the Committee’s online consultation questionnaire (itself an engagement tool, though self-selected, used by almost 22,500 Canadians) either strongly agreed (31.9%) or agreed (24.6%) with the statement that “Broad public support should be gauged through … in person and online consultation with Canadians representative of Canadian society (demographically and geographically).”
Broad public support should be gauged through in-person and online consultation Scale: 1 (Strongly Disagree) – 5 (Strongly Agree); NA
Respondents expressed less support for the statement that “Broad public support should be gauged through … the creation of a citizens’ assembly,” with roughly the same number of respondents agreeing or disagreeing with the statement, and a further 18.9% of respondents neither agreeing nor disagreeing.
Broad public support should be gauged through the creation of a citizens’ assembly Scale: 1 (Strongly Disagree) – 5 (Strongly Agree); NA
As alluded to above, the question of whether or not a referendum or plebiscite should be used to validate or legitimize a proposal to reform the electoral system was frequently discussed throughout the Committee’s study.
Two pollsters presented findings to the Committee, regarding the views of Canadians on the need for a referendum. In his appearance before the Committee on 31 August 2016, Darrell Bricker of Ipsos Research cited a poll, in which respondents were asked:
Some people say that any change to the electoral system is so fundamental that it would require a national referendum. Others say that a rigorous program of public engagement and parliamentary review should be sufficient. Which statement is closest to your point of view?
He noted that the result was a statistical tie: 49% stated that a referendum was necessary, while 51% stated that a rigorous program of public engagement and parliamentary review would be sufficient.
In that same poll, respondents were then informed of the Committee’s public engagement process and were then asked:
In your view, is the process of public engagement and parliamentary review now being undertaken by the federal government sufficient to give them public consent to fundamentally change our federal election system without a national referendum, or, do you want them to seek public consent for the changes they come up with through a national referendum?
Dr. Bricker summarized the responses as follows:
To this question, ‘consultations are sufficient’ dropped by six percentage points to 45%, and ‘national referendum’ increased by six percentage points to 55%. What this suggests to me is that the more people know about this, the more they actually want to have a direct say themselves.
A majority in every demographic category we looked at supported a referendum—by gender, age, education level, income, and whether or not you had kids in your house. A majority of the people who had kids in their house—or didn't have kids in their house—also supported having a referendum.
In his appearance before the Committee on 28 September 2016, Mario Canseco of Insights West released the results of a poll, conducted by his firm earlier that month, in which respondents were asked:
Regardless of how you feel about electoral reform, do you think a change in the current system should be put to a nationwide referendum, or do you think a vote in the House of Commons is enough to settle the issue?
He noted that 68% responded that a change to the current system should be put to a referendum, while only 21% indicated that a vote in the House of Commons would be sufficient (11% were undecided).
When asked to interpret these results, Mr. Canseco stated:
Regardless of which system is ultimately adopted, 68% of Canadians believe a referendum is required to settle the issue of electoral reform. This majority of Canadians encompasses both genders, all age groups, every region, and supporters of the three main political parties represented in the House of Commons. The call for a referendum is not unique to a particular party.
Mr. Canseco also noted that this result “has consistently been at roughly the same level, given the margin of error that we operate under,”  over the course of three polls conducted by his firm in February, June, and September.
Of note, a majority (almost 55%) of respondents to the Committee’s online questionnaire were supportive of the idea of holding a referendum on electoral system reform. Indeed, 43.9% strongly agreed, and a further 10.8% agreed, with the statement that “Broad public support should be gauged through.… A direct vote by Canadians on an option or various options for a future Canadian electoral system (through a plebiscite or referendum).”
Broad public support should be gauged through a direct vote by Canadians Scale: 1 (Strongly Disagree) – 5 (Strongly Agree); NA
The primary arguments raised in favour of a referendum are that Canadians should have the final say on a change to the electoral system, and that politicians and political parties are too self-interested to be trusted with the decision. For example, as expressed by Emmett Macfarlane:
The question becomes one of who gets to make the final call. With respect, political parties have too much self-interest to be trusted with the end decision. There is already sufficient anecdotal evidence that the parties each of you belong to are already entrenched in their views about the outcome of this process. It would be absurd, especially considering the arguments against first past the post, to enact an electoral system against the wishes of a majority of Canadians.
The government's campaign promises gave it a mandate to pursue reform, but they do not provide a mandate to enact any particular electoral system. An electoral change is not like any other ordinary legislation. Canadians should have a say in the design of the fundamental thing that links them to the state.
Other witnesses, such as David McLaughlin, posited that a referendum would confer legitimacy to the electoral reform process:
[P]ublic legitimacy of a new electoral system is highly desirable and surmounts party and politician interests. It is about the citizen and voter in a citizen-centred democracy. A referendum is the simplest, clearest, and most acceptable way of conferring legitimacy for the long term, not just on the system but more importantly on the outcomes it produces.
From a comparative perspective, Arthur Lupia stated, “Democracies around the world use referenda to offer legitimacy and elevated legal status to a range of statutory and constitutional proposals.”
Benoît Pelletier suggested that a referendum on electoral reform could increase Canadians’ confidence in their democratic institutions:
I am very much in favour of holding a referendum on the matter like this. One of the main reasons is that, if we want to reform the method of voting, it is for the benefit of Canadians themselves so that they have more confidence in their democratic institutions. In that sense, I have a hard time seeing how we could carry out a reform in the method of voting worthy of the name, in other words something significant and substantial, without asking Canadians for their opinion.
Several others argued that a decision of such magnitude should only be decided directly by the people, not by politicians. As Rodney Williams indicated, “[m]y view on electoral reform is that you have to let the people decide this. That's what you take back to the House of Commons.” Suzanne Sexton echoed this sentiment, stating:
You've been put here by your constituents …, and they had faith in you to do your jobs. Give them that same right to vote on changing our democracy. If they trusted you, you should trust them to choose the system and you should have a very clear question.
On a related note, Rémy Trudel posited that a referendum campaign could be a tool for needed public education on the proposed electoral reform:
Yes, in my opinion, Canadians have to be consulted because any change would be significant. It would mean turning the page on a system that has been in place for over 200 years. Our democratic institutions will be affected by the change. The population must be consulted, but I really think that a referendum is an outstanding tool for public education.
Others, such as Arthur Lupia, suggested that just because voters voted for candidates or parties who supported electoral reform in their campaign platforms does not necessarily mean that the voters gave the parties the mandate to engage in reform:
[I]n an election it's very difficult to say that the reason that the electorate chose a particular candidate is because they had a strong feeling about a particular issue. Some people may have felt very strongly about change but other people may have felt strongly about the economy or inequality or social issues or things of that nature. So, as a general matter, it's hard to find one issue that is the reason that a majority cast a vote and for me it's impossible to do without data.
A referendum, it follows, would be the clearest way to know that the public approves a mandate for reform. However, other witnesses, such as James T. Arreak, suggested that having a subsequent election, with proposed reforms clearly laid out, could be a preferable way to proceed:
Rather than having a referendum, due respect for democratic process and for our parliamentary history would be shown by having each majority party adopt a clear position on a detailed program for electoral reform prior to the next federal election and then let the voters make their judgments on those proposals as part of casting their votes. In that fashion, the next Parliament would have a mandate to proceed.
As detailed below, the primary arguments that witnesses who appeared before the Committee made against holding a referendum or plebiscite on electoral system reform are that it is a flawed instrument that does not lend itself well to the reform process; they tend to breed misinformation and favour the status quo; they are divisive; and that the cost is not worth the effort.
Maryantonett Flumian commented on how referendums tend to be blunt, and less useful, instruments to decide complex policy matters:
It's [a referendum] a very blunt instrument that leads to binary choices on very complicated matters when we haven't even figured out what the questions are yet in a governance ecosystem.
When I look around the room, I look at the age of this committee and at my own age. I am the generation, as you are the generation, of people who are the recipients of national referenda and referenda recovery in a world where our national referenda have tended to be extremely divisive, not leading to goodwill and greater understanding on the importance of the issue. This is why it's so important that all of you, as parliamentarians, take this role seriously in what you're going to be doing. There's nothing more important.
A number of witnesses and open mic participants expressed concern about the potentially divisive nature of referendums. For example, James T Arreak, speaking from Iqaluit, noted that:
Given the small population weight of Nunavut in Canada, our voice would be a very small one in any national referendum or plebiscite. That would be an important drawback in itself. The larger and more compelling drawback to a referendum would be its potential to divide Canadians from one another, reopen old lines of division, and create new ones.
Other witnesses, such as Arthur Lupia, commented on the prevalence of misinformation and confusion that often exists in referendum campaigns, particularly on issues deemed “arcane” or “abstract.” As well, in consequence, groups that are already underrepresented in the political process tend to not participate:
If it seems like this arcane and abstract type of thing that really isn't connected to their life. It might be something that just the elites are arguing about. That's when they stay away. Even if they go to the polls to vote for another candidate, there's this idea of drop-off, where referendum is just too confusing or too abstract, they just wash their hands of it. That's the main variation. The other thing that I'll say is, when that happens, the people who are more likely not to turn out, tend to be people who are lower in socio-economic scales. If you're worried about people who have less education or less income being part of this process, then if you have a situation where the referendum is confusing and the interests groups aren't telling people what's going on, the folks who that are most likely not to participate would be lower SEC, and of lower education.
Arend Lijphart suggested that the misinformation and emotion found in referendums renders their outcomes volatile and unpredictable:
I am skeptical because outcomes of referendums are often highly volatile and unpredictable. They often involve a lot of emotion, demagoguery, and outright lies.
On a related note, witnesses such as Yasmin Dawood commented on how referendum education campaigns often do not sufficiently enable voters to make informed decisions:
[W]hat the research seems to show in a number of studies is that there isn’t sufficient education or money put into educating people in terms of what is at stake in a referendum. Given that fact, people often tend to favour the status quo.
The notion that referendums tend to favour the status quo was further explained by Arthur Lupia:
In terms of campaigning, the no campaign always has this advantage if they can make their case well, because if you vote no, you continue with something known. At the time of the campaign, yes is an imaginary thing. Yes is this virtual world, this thing that has to be described to you. No one has lived it before. The modus operandi for a no campaign is to find a worst-case scenario and run with it. It's very easy to do that if you know what scares voters. The yes campaign has to find a simple, urgent, and direct message to try to relate it to people's lives. It can be done, but it's harder. I would say that, if two sides are given equal amounts of money, the no side still has this advantage because it's just built in. They are advocating for something that people have lived through, while the yes side is advocating for something that, at least at the moment, people can only imagine.
He added that a referendum that did not include the status quo as an option would be non-traditional and would challenge the usual dynamic:
[If a referendum does not include status quo option] That's a non-traditional referendum. Usually, there's one proposal put forward and people vote Yes or No. If that wasn't on the table, then the status quo...that dynamic would not be present. Then it would be more like a candidate campaign, where you have ostensibly two new people.
One area of discussion was the logistics associated with holding a referendum to approve a new electoral system. Two issues raised by witnesses were the financial cost of a referendum, and the time constraints associated with holding a referendum on a new electoral system, and then implementing the system in time for the 2019 election.
At his 7 July appearance before the Committee, Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand stated, “Our estimate is that it would be around $300 million to run a referendum.” However, Mr. Mayrand indicated that these costs could be lowered, if legislation were enacted to permit innovations. In response to a question at the same meeting, he observed:
[M]ore and more, referendums are being conducted by mail, and that significantly reduces the cost. As I said, all sorts of scenarios are possible, but it will be necessary to revisit the legislation.
In testimony delivered to the Procedure and House Affairs Committee on 4 October, Mr. Mayrand stated:
The other question for this committee to consider---and it’s not for Elections Canada---is whether in this modern age there are alternatives to how we run a referendum. I understand that in B.C. they run plebiscites by mail. I understand that in P.E.I. next month they will be running a plebiscite online and by phone. There’s nothing about those modern alternatives that’s available under our federal statutes, which causes a significant cost to a federal referendum.
Some indication of the degree to which the costs associated with a referendum might be reduced via the use of a postal ballot was given by British Columbia’s chief electoral officer, Keith Archer, who described to the Committee of his experience administering a mail-in referendum on the province’s Harmonized Sales Tax (HST):
One of the arguments that has been used in British Columbia for the mail-in ballot is its cost-effectiveness. Our budget for the last provincial general election was about $35 million. The HST referendum that was conducted with mail-in balloting was just over $8 million. It's a much less expensive option and in British Columbia we have confidence in the integrity of a referendum process that uses mail-in ballots.
He noted, in addition, “[t]he cost of the plebiscite in 2015 was $5.4 million, or $3.44 per registered voter.”
Dr. Archer also noted that the cost of holding a referendum at the same time as a general election – something not currently permitted at the federal level – could reduce the costs still further:
In 2005, Elections BC's total costs in administering the general elections were $22.9 million, or just over $8 per registered voter. The cost of the referendum was just over $1 million, or an additional 37¢ per registered voter, so this thin layer is very inexpensive to administer.
Finally, one idea, which was raised by several witnesses, and by more than 20 open mic participants, was to implement a new electoral system by means of ordinary legislation (i.e. without a referendum), and then to hold a referendum after one or more elections had been held under the new electoral system. The rationale for this approach is that it eliminates the perceived tendency of voters to reflexively vote in favour of the status quo and against any new or novel electoral system. Lee Ward expressed this view as follows:
I support a referendum. I support a referendum on all kinds of issues. I think the referendum has to be an intelligent one, though, and it has to be comparing apples with apples. I think there should be a sunset clause in the legislation whereby, after two elections with a new system, we have a referendum to compare it with the old one so that the public has a genuine choice. I wouldn't buy a car without a test drive.
This kind of post facto referendum has never been attempted in Canada or in the United States. When asked about holding a referendum only after one or more election cycles under a new electoral system, Professor Lupia responded,
The situation you’ve described is quite rare, that you enact the change and then ask for a vote later. What’s more common is that you would have an advisory referendum. First you say that you’re going to put this out to a vote, but we’re not going to implement it yet and it’s not going to count; we just want to get a sense of the people. That’s a little more common as an alternative to the normal referenda where you vote on it and they implement it.
The case that you’ve described happens, but it’s pretty rare. Once governments invest in a change like this, typically there’s a reticence to put it out there and change it. It has happened, but it’s really rare.
Finally, recent experience suggests that the extent to which voters may opt against changing the electoral system in a referendum or plebiscite may be overstated. Indeed, following the November 2016 plebiscite in P.E.I., where a majority of those who voted opted for electoral system reform, proposals to replace FPTP have received majority support in two out of five such votes held since 2005 (as discussed above, the 2005 referendum in B.C. on BC-STV was supported by over 57% of voters).
If a decision is made to hold a referendum, the natural next question is how the referendum ought to be conducted. As elaborated more fully in Chapter 3 (regarding the history of reform at the federal and provincial levels), provincial plebiscite experiences in British Columbia, Ontario and P.E.I. offer useful lessons.
A number of witnesses highlighted the importance of educating the public about the alternatives being considered in a referendum or plebiscite. For example, in preparation for the 2016 plebiscite in P.E.I., the Chief Electoral Officer set up a website dedicated to explaining the technical aspects of each of the options on the ballot. According to P.E.I. Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) Jordan Brown, who chaired the legislature’s Special Legislative Committee on Democratic Renewal, this educational initiative was designed, in part, as a response to complaints following the 2005 plebiscite, that the MMP option being considered at the time was overly complex and insufficiently explained.
Turning to the experiences of other provinces that have conducted referendums on electoral reform, Brian Tanguay noted that a “lack of education, a lack of information, and confusing signals sent out by the parties themselves, all … led to a less than optimal context for the conduct of the referendum vote itself.” Professor Tanguay had served as the lead author on the Law Commission of Canada’s 2004 report titled Voting Counts: Electoral Reform in Canada, and had appeared as an expert witness before the Ontario and Quebec legislatures to discuss electoral reform.
In a similar vein, Leslie Seidle noted, “you cannot divorce a referendum from a public education campaign.” Nicole Goodman added that “[e]ducation and outreach need to be key elements of the referendum process.” Irish Professor Michael Marsh emphasized the importance of setting aside significant resources to inform the public during a referendum campaign:
If you do have referendums, I think you need an awful lot of resources going in to inform people. We have a referendum commission charged with mobilizing voters and occasionally with disentangling truth from fiction. It doesn’t campaign and it no longer puts out a booklet telling you exactly what the referendum is about in fine detail … we leave that to parties and civil society groups, and the one control over that is that no public money is spent.
This advice regarding the importance of robust public education was offered to the Committee in the interest of achieving a well-informed electorate. However, one witness articulated the fundamental challenge for advocates of electoral system reform to persuade voters in a referendum. Professor Lupia explained the challenge facing the pro-change campaign:
As a general matter, ‘Yes’ campaigns are more difficult to wage than ‘No’ campaigns. ‘Yes’ campaigns seek to persuade citizens that invisible and unprecedented change will improve their lives. ‘No’ campaigns seek to persuade citizens that change is dangerous and scary.
So if your members want electoral reform to pass, the ‘Yes’ campaign will need to focus on relating consequences of the change to the aspirations and daily struggles of Canadian citizens. If the ‘Yes’ campaign offers intellectual abstractions while the ‘No’ campaign offers emotionally salient reasons to fear change, ‘No’ will have an important advantage.
Another concern raised by witnesses was the prospect of one side in a referendum campaign spending far more than the other side. The most remarkable example of this kind of large-scale referendum spending was related to the Committee by Professor Lupia:
[In 1988] there were five different referenda [on the ballot at the same time] in one state, in California, and the amount of money spent for and against these five referenda was more money than was spent in the presidential election nationally that was happening at the same time…. [Y]ou can get in the $150 million to $200 million range at the top end.
While no witness suggested that the spending on either side in a referendum on electoral reform would be anywhere close to the levels recorded in California, the issue was raised regarding the need to update or replace the federal Referendum Act. One such update would be to set spending limits on the participants as currently no such limits exist.
In addition to public education, any referendum campaign should make voting as accessible as possible. Jordan Brown suggested to the Committee that the reduced number of polling stations, and the fact that there was only one day to vote, resulted in lower voter turnout in P.E.I.’s 2005 plebiscite. For the 2016 plebiscite, voting was allowed over a number of days, and in addition, voters were able to cast their votes electronically or by telephone.
As well, Elections Canada must be given sufficient time to address the technical issues associated with conducting a referendum. Marc Mayrand outlined these issues to the Committee as follows:
[W]e would have to prepare the ballot, setting out the question to Canadians. We would need to revise all the material that hasn’t been reviewed since 1992 and redo all the training manuals for elections staff. Basically, we would have to prepare the materials to train the 255,000 Canadians who help administer elections.
We would also need to review all of our systems that are not yet tailored to a referendum. We estimate that about 15 computer systems would need to be adapted. What’s more, certain contracting arrangements would be necessary as far as supplies and equipment were concerned.
Mr. Mayrand estimated that these changes would take about six months, and so conducting a referendum would add to the overall timeframe for implementing a new electoral system. He indicated in an appearance on 4 October 2016 at the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs:
First, we need to update the regulation under the Referendum Act. That’s the very first thing that needs to be done, because that sets out the specific tasks and the variances that exist with the normal conduct of an election. Bringing that regulation up do date would be the top priority for Elections Canada. It has been done once in the last 10 years, so it needs to be revised, updated, and tabled before Parliament.
Another issue that was raised during Committee testimony was the 60% threshold set for the B.C. referendum on electoral reform. As observed by Gordon Gibson, the B.C. referendum did not fail, as it “received the affirmative support of almost 58% of the electorate,” had a turnout of 61.5%, and “secured an absolute majority in 77 of 79 ridings.” Craig Henschel added that members of the Citizens’ Assembly were particularly concerned about the 60% threshold, and fellow Citizens’ Assembly member Diana Byford saw the threshold as a failure on the part of the B.C. government.
By contrast, New Zealand Chief Electoral Officer reiterated that in New Zealand, the referendum threshold is 50%, the same basis for the elections of members of Parliament (MPs).
One idea raised over the course of the Committee’s study was to open the vote on any referendum on electoral system reform to 16 and 17 year olds. Indeed, 16 and 17 year olds were able to vote in the November 2016 P.E.I. electoral reform plebiscite. Mr Brown further explained that the vote was opened to 16 and 17 years olds as “they will vote in the next election,” they are in school, and “they will be engaged in a setting where, effectively, there's some structure to how they learn about politics and democracy and they're able to participate in it.” As well, Scotland lowered its voting age to include 16 and 17 year olds in its September 2014 referendum on independence, and there was high turnout in the new age bracket. Subsequently, the British Prime Minister agreed to set a separate voting age, of 16 rather than 18, for all elections to the Scottish Parliament and local Scottish authorities.
Finally, Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society UK shared the Society’s reflections on recent referendums held in the UK. She concluded that:
Done well, referendums can hope to achieve high-quality public information and debate in the run-up to polling day. Done badly, a referendum can obliterate any chance of meaningful public and political debate, as the ballot topic is completely overtaken by proxy issues.
The Committee recommends that electoral system reform be accompanied by a comprehensive study of the effects on other aspects of Canada’s “governance ecosystem”, namely:
Observation: The Committee acknowledges that, of those who wanted change, the overwhelming majority of testimony was in favour of proportional representation. The Committee recognizes the utility of the Gallagher Index, a tool that has been developed to measure an electoral system’s relative disproportionality between votes received and seats allotted in a legislature, as a means of assessing the proportionality of different electoral system options.
The Committee recommends that:
The Committee recommends that Elections Canada should produce and make available to the public materials describing any option, including maps depicting potential electoral district boundaries applicable under that option and sample ballot design, prior to the start of the referendum campaign period.
 Jane Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War. New York, Macmillan, 1922.
 It is important to note that the online consultation was an engagement tool for interested individuals to partake it. As such it was not intended to be a survey; respondents were necessarily self-selected, and were not a representative sample of the Canadian population. The full report on the e-consultation can be found in Appendix X.
 Appendix F, “E-Consultation on Electoral Reform, Summary of Responses”, Table 40 and Figure 37.
 Ibid., 1020.
 Ibid., 1450.
 Based on a forthcoming article entitled “The Process of Electoral Reform in Canada: Democratic and Constitutional Constraints” forthcoming in the Supreme Court Law Review.
 Ibid., 1430–1435.
 Subject to constitutional limits as discussed in Chapter 2 of this report. One witness did, however, suggest the existence of a convention for holding a referendum.
 ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 23 August 2016, 1120 (Emmett Macfarlane). He added, half-jokingly, that “We could lock you [the Committee members] all in a room and not let you out until you reached a compromise, which might be fun.” (Of note, elsewhere in his remarks he indicated his support for a referendum not as a legal requirement but a political one).
 Ibid., p. 2.
 Ibid., p. 3.
 ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 27 September 2016, 1520 (Craig Henschel): “In 2004 I had the honour and privilege of serving for 11 months on the British Columbia Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform with 159 other randomly selected voters. Diana Byford and other assembly members are also here. She will be speaking more about the assembly process in the second session today.”
ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 27 September 2016, 1650 (Diana Byford):
Ladies and gentlemen, you are on a journey that I have already undertaken. In 2004 I was privileged to be a member of the B.C. Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform. As you've heard previously, 160 ordinary citizens randomly selected from every riding in this province, including two first nations people, came together to examine our current first-past-the-post system to see if it met the needs of the people or if it needed to be changed.
 A citizens’ assembly is a body formed from a cross-section of the public, randomly selected and representative of Canadian society (demographically and geographically), to study the options available on an issue or issues of national importance.
 ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 1 September 2016, 1040 (Graham Fox): “A pan-Canadian citizens' assembly is probably unworkable, given geography and those things, but I think there are other ways you can build a process.”
 ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 27 July 2016, 1535 (Larry LeDuc); National Capital Region Chapter of Fair Vote Canada’s submission to the Committee, “Could Deliberative Polling Fill a Gap in the Public Consultation Process?”, undated.
 Appendix F, “E-Consultation on Electoral Reform, Summary of Responses”, Table 41 and Figure 38.
 Ibid., Table 42 and Figure 39.
 Ibid., 1420.
 Mario Canseco, Insights West, Presentation to the Special Committee on Electoral Reform, 28 September 2016.
 Ibid, 1535.
 Appendix F, “E-Consultation on Electoral Reform, Summary of Responses”, Table 43 and Figure 40.
 Ibid., 1915.
 Ibid., 1125.
 Ibid., 1515.
 Arthur Lupia, “What Citizens Know about Referenda: Facts and Implications,” submission to the Special Committee on Electoral Reform, October 2016, p. 2.
First we need to update the regulation under the Referendum Act. That's the very first thing that needs to be done, because that sets out the specific tasks and the variances that exist with the normal conduct of an election. Bringing that regulation up to date would be the top priority for Elections Canada. It has been done once in the last 10 years, so it needs to be revised, updated, and tabled before Parliament.
 Ibid., 1045–1050.
Given the short timeline involved, the “likely approach” to updating the regulations under Referendum Act, would be for the Chief Electoral Officer to exercise his power to recommend changes to the regulations, as he has done from time to time in the past. These changes would then be incorporated by Order in Council into the regulations. For example, with regard to the tariff of fees paid to referendum workers, “to the extent that the tasks are similar under an election or a referendum, we would propose the same tariff.”
 Ibid., 1650 (Diana Byford).
 By experts from the Electoral Commission UK in Scotland, the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, by witnesses in P.E.I., as well as in submissions made to the Committee.
 “David Cameron accepts Scottish Parliament votes at 16,” BBC News, 15 December 2014.
 ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 19 October 2016, 1935 (Katie Ghose, Chief Executive, Electoral Reform Society United Kingdom). She also shared the Electoral Reform Society UK’s recent publication: Will Brett, It’s Good to Talk Doing referendums differently after the EU Vote, Electoral Reform Society UK, UK, September 2016. Pages 9 and 10 contain recommendations on how to conduct a successful referendum.