Yes Or No?

Post-Brexit thoughts on referenda, especially in the context of electoral reform

In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, there is renewed debate about the lessons, if any, that it might hold for other democratic polities on the use of the referendum generally, and in particular for Canada about an eventual referendum on electoral reform. Many of those opposed to such a referendum have seized on the political ignorance and the acrimony on display in the United Kingdom to bolster their arguments. The problems they point to are real, but the case against a referendum on electoral reform is still not compelling.

First of all, it is important to note that the question of whether a referendum is the right way to settle a political controversy does not arise in a vacuum. If the issue has impressed itself with sufficient urgency on the public debate ― and in the Brexit case, this may be an open question ― it has to be resolved somehow. If not by referendum, then by a parliamentary vote. (Sometimes, adjudication or a reference to a court are also available, but not that often, so let’s discount that possibility here.) To say that a referendum is not the way to resolve the issue, it is not enough to point to that procedure’s flaws. It is also necessary to show that they are worse than those of the alternative. Moreover, it is not enough to point to one referendum that turned out badly (whatever “badly means), or to one successful parliamentary debate, to settle the question. Examples are useful, but to be persuasive, they have to be related to some underlying features that the procedures in question will usually, if not always, have.

Now, that political ignorance affected the Brexit vote, and would affect any other referendum, is not exactly a surprise. Ilya Somin discussed the data on political ignorance’s effects on the Brexit referendum in a detailed post at the Volokh Conspiracy, but those looking for a tl;dr can refer to this tweet from Google Trends showing that, after it was announced that the UK voted to leave the European Union, its residents started looking for answers to questions such as “what is the EU?” and what leaving it entails. Presumably, more than a few of these suddenly-curious people had cast their ballots without having any idea of what they were doing. There was also anecdotal evidence of “leave” voters having second thoughts after their preferred option turned out to have won. And given how little informed voters generally are, there is no reason to think that this particular referendum was an outlier.

There was also plenty of evidence of bitter divisions in the British polity in the aftermath of the vote. That too may be a feature of many referendums, though it’s not clear to me that it has to be a feature of all. I may be missing relevant information, but I do not know that New Zealand’s series of referenda on electoral reform was particularly divisive, and it is not at all obvious to me that a referendum on this topic in Canada would cause “deep divisions within Canadian … societ[y], divisions which [would not be] easily healed,” as Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef has implied. Referenda about issues seen as well-nigh existential, such as Québec’s future within or outside Canada, are divisive because the issues themselves are. Those about relatively pedestrian matters, such as the electoral system, are unlikely to be.

A referendum is thus highly likely to be affected by voter ignorance, and may, depending on the issue, prove dangerously acrimonious. But what about the alternative? As prof. Somin points out in a post asking whether “the Brexit vote prove[s] democracies should not use referenda,”

Elected officials may, on average, know more about policy issues than voters. But they need to cater to an often ignorant electorate in order to get elected in the first place. For that reason, policymaking by elected officials is often influenced by public ignorance no less than referenda are.

He adds that

In [an] election, there are many different issues on the agenda, which makes it hard for rationally ignorant voters to follow more than a small fraction of them. By contrast, a referendum can focus the voters’ attention on a single discrete question, thereby reducing the information burden.

And for divisiveness, it seems to me that a close election between two (or perhaps more) stark alternatives can be as divisive as any referendum, if we control for the importance of the issue. (Few elections are seen as being as vitally important as some ― though not all ― referenda.) The 2000 election in the United States left bitterness and division enough to last for two presidential terms and even beyond; and even the 2011 election in Canada left in its wake plenty of people who were convinced that the end times of Canadian democracy were at hand. Nor do I see a reason to see that ― again allowing for the significance of an issue to the public opinion ― having it debated in Parliament will turn out to be less divisive. As Andrew Coyne notes in a National Post column,

[r]eferendums are not themselves inherently divisive; rather, they are usually called precisely when the public is most sharply divided — so divided that the issue cannot risk being decided by ordinary means. If you think Quebec was divided during the two referendums on separation, try to imagine the mayhem that would erupt were the Parti Québécois to try to rip the province out of the country by a simple vote of the legislature.

In an op-ed in the Globe and Mail, Mel Cappe and Janice Gross Stein cite “the debate on the right to assisted death in Canada [as] an example” of enlightened parliamentarism, concerned at once “with interests of the majority” and “the rights of minorities.” But they conveniently forget to mention the fact that this debate only happened because of, and took place within the bounds defined by, a decision of the Supreme Court. Moreover, assisted death is an issue on which there seems to be, a fairly broad, if vague, consensus (though there is probably less agreement on the details than on general principles). If the debate in question was a relatively dignified one, that likely had a good deal to do with this consensus, and not only with the form it took.

There is another characteristic of parliamentary decision-making worth mentioning here. Not always, but more often than not, parliamentary votes are whipped party-line votes. If the leaders of the parliamentary majority decide that they want their caucus to vote a certain way, they will almost invariably get their way. In such cases, meaningful deliberation before a vote is a parliamentary ideal, but not a parliamentary reality. Thus, on an issue decided by party-line votes, parliamentary decision-making amounts to treating the last election ― in which that issue may well have featured only peripherally if at all ― as a sort of referendum-by-proxy on that issue.

So I don’t think that, as a general matter, referenda can be ruled out as a democratic decision-making procedure, as profs. Cappe and Stein suggest. At the same time, there issues that lend themselves to resolution by referendum much better than others. I am skeptical of arguments to the effect there that “constitutional,” or “very important,” issues, or those decisions on which are irreversible, should never be decided by referendum, not least because these categories are  vague and therefore liable to be twisted an abused in public debate. I have argued here that even the contention that issues of rights should not be put to a vote in a referendum is a dubious one. However, Prof. Somin has identified a couple of other factors that are more useful to draw the line.

First, prof. Somin writes that

referenda are often likely to be particularly poor mechanisms for making decisions on issues that involve complex tradeoffs with other priorities. … Legislators are more likely to have the time and expertise needed to study the tradeoffs in at least some detail.

Put another way, a referendum is only appropriate when it should be reasonably clear to at least a modestly diligent voter what each option involves. In a post on his (excellent) Public Law for Everyone blog, Mark Elliott points out that in the Brexit case,

[a] slim majority of those who voted may have expressed a desire to “leave”, but what that means is such an open question as to render the referendum outcome largely meaningless. … [T]hose who voted ‘leave’ … could not have been expressing, and did not express, any clear view about what the UK’s future relationship with the EU should look like precisely because no vision of that relationship was on the table.

The same was arguably true in the 1995 referendum on Québec’s separation. When one ― or more ― of the options on offer in a referendum is too vague, whether because it involves complex tradeoffs or because no one has bothered clarifying it, a referendum is not going to be a good idea. (It is worth noting, by the way, that this problem can affect elections if they are treated as referenda by proxy. As Emmett Macfarlane has been pointing out on Twitter, those who insist that Canadians want electoral reform because a clear majority of them voted for parties that supported it fail to mention that these parties were not very clear on what version of reform they favoured, and did not agree among themselves.) But if all the options are reasonably clear ― as they could be in a referendum on electoral reform, provided that the alternative(s) to the current system were actually specified in advance ― that objection is irrelevant.

Second, prof. Somin points out that

[r]eferenda might also be useful when it comes to issues where there is a serious conflict between the interests of elected officials and those of the general public. Most obviously, the former often can’t be trusted to deal objectively with issues that directly affect their own grip on power: electoral districting, campaign finance, and so forth. In such cases, the superior knowledge of politicians often actually does more harm than good, since they can use it to advance their own interests and the expense of the people.

This warning is relevant to the issue of electoral reform in Canada. Indeed, this should be blindingly obvious, given that every single party in the House of Commons (with the possible exception of the Bloc québécois) is supporting that electoral system which it believes will maximize its political power. Even profs. Gross and Stein concede that parliamentarians will “not always” have the best interests of the majority in mind. When we can tell that they do not, the case for a referendum becomes much stronger.

In my post on whether minority rights can be put to a referendum vote, I wrote that I was happy to live in a representative, not a direct, democracy. Many public decisions do involve such tradeoffs and uncertainty that resolving them by referendum is likely to be a bad idea. But that is not always true. In particular, it is not true of electoral reform. And sometimes, we can tell that our elected representatives are trying to help themselves at our expense. Again, that is true of electoral reform. When both of these factors are present at the same time, a referendum sounds like a very good idea. Let’s vote.

Yes They Can II

Does existing legislation allow a referendum on electoral reform?

The former Chief Electoral Officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, has caused some ongoing confusion on Twitter about whether a referendum on electoral reform would be legal. The source of this confusion is section 3 of the federal Referendum Act, which provides that

Where the Governor in Council considers that it is in the public interest to obtain by means of a referendum the opinion of electors on any question relating to the Constitution of Canada, the Governor in Council may, by proclamation, direct that the opinion of electors be obtained by putting the question to the electors of Canada … at a referendum called for that purpose.

Mr. Kingsley appears to believe that that the desirability of electoral reform is not a “question relating to the Constitution of Canada.” As Emmett Macfarlane has pointed out, he is wrong.

The electoral system is a constitutional matter. Substantively, it is one of the fundamental issues relating to the organization of one of the branches of government (or, more precisely, of a component of the legislative branch). Formally, electoral arrangements were originally provided for in the Constitution Act, 1867 ― federal ones, in Part IV, “Legislative Power,” under the heading “The House of Commons,” (notably at sections 40 and 41) and those of Ontario and Québec in Part V, “Provincial Constitutions,” under the heading “Legislative Power” (notably at sections 70, 80, 83, and 84). To be sure, these provisions partly referred to existing electoral legislation, and enable Parliament and the provincial legislatures to enact such legislation in the future, but they show that the Fathers of Confederation understood that the electoral system is a constitutional issue.

Now, as I have argued here, electoral reform does not require a constitutional amendment enacted with provincial support. It can be implemented by Parliament legislating alone. But that’s because section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982 provides that “[s]ubject to sections 41 and 42, Parliament may exclusively make laws amending the Constitution of Canada in relation to … the … House of Commons.” Electoral reform is an amendment to the constitution “in relation to the House of Commons.” So long as it does not affect “the right of a province to a number of members in the House of Commons not less than the number of Senators by which the province [was] entitled to be represented [in 1982]” or “the principle of proportionate representation of the provinces in the House of Commons prescribed by the Constitution of Canada” protected respectively by paragraphs 41(b) and 41(a) of the Constitution Act, 1982, such an amendment can and must be made by an Act of Parliament. Yet the fact that it does not require provincial consent or participation does not make it any less of a constitutional amendment, and its desirability any less of “an issue relating to the Constitution of Canada.”

The only way a referendum on electoral reform ― or any other constitutional issue ― might be illegal, and indeed unconstitutional, is if holding it is seen to be a modification to the amending formula set out in Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 (which includes section 44). The Supreme Court’s rather vague opinion in Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704, which held among other things that ostensibly consultative elections to the Senate would be unconstitutional modification of the constitution’s “architecture” leaves that possibility open ― depending on what “architecture” means. In the interests of time, I will assert ― and perhaps defend my assertion at some later date ― that the Senate Reform reference does not preclude a referendum of electoral reform, but I think that the matter is not free from doubt.

Be that as it may, it is quite clear that the Referendum Act itself is not an obstacle to such a referendum. Of course, as others have pointed out, Parliament could also legislate to permit such a referendum, whether enacting a statute for that specific purpose in derogation of the Referendum Act, or amending the Referendum Act itself. But such legislation is not necessary. Electoral reform is a constitutional issue and can be the subject of a referendum under existing legislation.

Rights and Votes, Again

The Irish referendum on same-sex marriage has brought a common trope back into the public discourse: rights should not be subject to voting. There are actually a number of distinct claims that can be advanced under this heading, although they are often run together, as for instance in this piece by Saeed Kamal Dehghan in the Guardian. These claims range from plausible (although far from certain) to outright silly.

The plausible version of the rights-should-not-be-subject-to-voting position is the claim that rights should not be subject to voting in a referendum. (Perhaps this is the view that Mr. Dehghan really wants to advance in his article, although, as I will explain, this is not very clear.) A referendum campaign may indeed be a poor way of debating about rights. The ignorance of much of the electorate ― which of course goes hand in hand with the prevalence of stereotypes, usually unflattering ones, about minorities ― may make it unfit to decide important issues, even assuming that it is fit to choose representatives who eventually decide them. I have some sympathy for this view; I certainly have no desire to live in a direct, rather than a representative, democracy.

That said, even the claim that issues of rights should not settled by popular vote is both under- and over-inclusive. It is under-inclusive because all sorts of other issues should not be settled by popular vote either, for very similar reasons. I would not want income tax rates set in a referendum, for instance. If anything, rights issues may be simpler, and thus more amenable to resolution by way of referendum, than some policy matters. On the other hand, there seems to be something like an international consensus that secession of political communities is a matter that must be settled by referendum, and secession, as the Supreme Court of Canada has rightly pointed out, necessarily has an impact on minority rights. In short, the issue of whether a given topic can be resolved by referendum, and why, is not an easy one, and we must be wary of rushing to conclusions based on nothing more than hunches.

A stronger version of the rights-should-not-be-subject-to-voting position holds that rights should not be subject to any sort of democratic vote, including that of a legislature. Thus Mr. Dehghan quotes Ayn Rand’s assertion that “individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority.” This claim, in my view, is quite clearly wrong. Legislation enacted in the normal course of governance will often affect rights. Must every bill that could conceivably affect someone’s rights be stopped in its tracks so that a court can rule ― in the abstract, without knowing how the bill would be applied in real life ― on the rights issues it raises? France actually has something like that system, but of course even there, it takes a group of (democratically elected) politicians to refer a bill to the Conseil constitutionnel. (A few years, France has authorized the Conseil constitutionnel to also rule on the constitutionality of a statute after its enactment, on reference by a court.)

Now it is certainly possible to argue that courts, rather than legislatures, should have the last word on issues of rights. But the last word isn’t the same thing as exclusive competence. Legislatures can debate and vote on rights ― as they have long done ― and the courts should be available as a last resort, to respond to legislative abuse or inaction. We should not forget that legislatures have done much for rights. In much of the world, including in Canada, it was legislatures that, for instance, created (almost) universal suffrage, decriminalized homosexuality, or abolished the death penalty. All of this involved individual rights being subject to public votes. Were those votes somehow wrong?

And then, there is the paradox that ought really to be embarrassing to the defenders of the claim that rights should not be subject to democratic votes. Judicial review, which they presumably think the proper mechanism for settling issues of rights, is normally itself a creature of a democratic constitution-making process. The rights which it enforces may (or may not) be natural rights, but they are still recognized, expressly or by implication, in constitutional texts enacted through some sort of democratic process.

The strongest version of the rights-should-not-be-subject-to-voting position is the contention that rights should not be subject to any sort of vote at all. I’m not sure whether anybody seriously thinks that, although Mr. Dehghan concludes his article by endorsing Rachel Maddow’s insistence that “[h]ere’s the thing about rights – they’re not actually supposed to be voted on.” There is no qualification here about who isn’t supposed to vote on rights. On its face, this statement applies to judges as well as to voters and legislators. Yet if it really means what it says, this claim is not just wrong, but actually silly. If people are to live together, issues of rights need to be settled somehow. Negotiation is unlikely to be of much assistance, because there are too many individuals affected. Realistically, there are only two options: legislation, or adjudication. And, as Jeremy Waldron points out in a recent essay which I discussed earlier this week, the latter mechanism, no less than the former, ultimately relies on voting.

The dirty little secret of judicial review ― not much of a secret, really, but something that we try not to think about unless prof. Waldron forces us to ― is that it sometimes leaves issues of rights to be settled by a single person’s vote. That person wears an impressive-looking robe to work, but he or she is still only a human being, and not necessarily a human being of superior wisdom or virtue. The idea of the right of Irish gays and lesbians to marry being dependent on the vote of a popular majority may be unsettling. But is the idea of that right of their American fellows being dependent on the vote of a single 78 year-old man of no discernible towering intellectual abilities ought to be unsettling too.

Here’s the thing about rights ― we disagree about them, as about everything else, more or less. It may be that rights are the inalienable endowments bestowed on us by our Creator. But even if that is so, He has not left us a very clear description of just what it is that He gave us. We have to figure it out for ourselves ― and not just individually, but collectively too. Unfortunately, our ability to figure things out is pretty limited. We set up procedures that are supposed to help us do it, but none of these is fail-safe or fool-proof. As unsettling as they may be, they may also be the best we can do, at least at this point in our history.

What Matters in the Province?

I mentioned, in my discussion of my doubts regarding the constitutionality of consultative elections for Senate nominees under the “Peace, Order and Good Government”  (POGG) power of s. 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867, that I also had doubts about authority of the provinces to set up such elections. As in that post, my thoughts here are tentative and, perhaps, a little crazy. I would very much welcome corrections.

The problem is similar in the case of federally- and provincially-organized consultative elections: it is by no means obvious what constitutional provision authorizes the relevant legislature to take such action. Indeed the problem is worse for provincial legislatures, because there is not even a remotely plausible candidate provision, like the POGG power for Parliament. The trouble with this claim is also similar, however. It seems to go very far, and to call into question the constitutionality of practices long assumed by political actors and probably by the Supreme Court to be perfectly permissible.

The authority of provincial legislatures to enact laws, including the laws that set up consultative elections, such as Alberta’s Senatorial Selection Act, RSA 2000, c S-5, comes mostly from s. 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867. (Other constitutional provisions grant further legislative authority to the provinces, but they are mostly not relevant here. The only significant one ― for my present purposes ― is s. 45 of the Constitution Act, 1982, which authorizes a province to amend its own constitution, except the office of the lieutenant-governor.) But consultative elections do not seem to me to come anywhere close to any “class of subjects” listed in s. 92. “The Establishment and Tenure of Provincial Offices” (subs. 92(4))? But Senators are federal, not provincial officers. “Property and Civil Rights” (subs. 92(13))? But that refers to private law. “Matters of a merely local or private Nature in the Province” (subs. 92(16))? But the Senate is not a local or private matter, nor a strictly provincial one. For the same reason the  power to amend the constitution of the province cannot be the answer ― the Senate is, to some extent, part of the federal constitution, and to some extent of the constitution of Canada as a whole, but not of the provinces.

So provincial legislatures seem to me to lack the competence to set up consultative elections. And, by the way, even if I am wrong and Parliament has the power to do so under s. 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867, it cannot delegate this power to provincial legislatures, such inter-delegation being unconstitutional according to the Supreme Court’s decision in Attorney General of Nova Scotia v. Attorney General of Canada, [1951] S.C.R. 31. As Chief Justice Rinfret pointed out,

The constitution of Canada does not belong either to Parliament, or to the Legislatures; it belongs to the country and it is there that the citizens of the country will find the protection of the rights to which they are entitled. It is part of that protection that Parliament can legislate only on the subject matters referred to it by section 91 and that each Province can legislate exclusively on the subject matters referred to it by section 92.

But, as with my argument about the limit of the POGG power in this area, the problem is how far my claims go. If I am right that legislation whereby a legislature “consults” the people is subject to the federal/provincial division of powers so that it is only constitutional if and insofar as the subject of consultation is within the competence of the legislature in question, then certain practices which have so far been unquestioningly accepted and historically significant appear unconstitutional. In the case of the provinces, I am thinking in particular about Québec’s two referenda on separation from Canada. Separation, as the Supreme Court confirmed in the Secession Reference, is not a purely provincial matter. It requires the amendment of the constitution of Canada as a whole. The conclusion of the Secession Reference is that a province cannot unilaterally secede. What, then, in the constitution, gives its legislature the power to consult the voters on the matter? By my logic, the answer is “nothing.” Yet of course the Supreme Court’s decision not only assumes the permissibility of a referendum ― its holding that “a decision of a clear majority of the population of Quebec on a clear question to pursue secession” (par. 93, emphasis mine) triggers a duty on the part of the rest of Canada to negotiate secession seems to require one. Is my logic faulty, then? That would be a sensible guess, of course, though it does not tell me (or anyone) where the fault lies, and I would be very curious to hear that.

Alternatively though, there might be some distinctions between the case of a referendum on secession and that of consultative elections, or maybe even referenda on other constitution issues. Perhaps the principle of democracy, which is the main source of the duty to negotiate, is in itself sufficient to ground a province’s right to hold a referendum on secession, without any additional and specific grant of legislative power. However, one can at least argue that the principles of constitutionalism and the Rule of Law, which suggest that legislative power cannot be exercised except as provided by the constitution, weigh more heavily with respect to other, less momentous questions, on which consultation with the electorate regardless of constitutional fetters is less crucial.

As I said above, these are tentative thoughts, and I would welcome contradiction and correction.