Super-majorities and minimum turnouts

After a protracted battle between the House of Commons and the Lords, the AV-Constituencies bill finally received Royal Assent yesterday, meeting the deadline to ensure that the referendum on AV will take place as scheduled on May 5.

The last sticking point was the Lords’ insistence on requiring a minimum turnout of at least 40% for the referendum to make it binding on the government. The House of Commons rejected this, and the Lords finally bowed to the pressure of respecting the will of elected parliamentarians.

There have been four referendums in various Canadian provinces (PEI [2005], Ontario [2007] and twice in BC [2005 and 2009]) on adopting different forms of PR, and in each case, a super-majority was required for the adoption of a new voting system: 60% overall, plus a simple majority in at least 60% of the province’s electoral districts. Each referendum failed, although it came close to passing in BC the first time, falling just short of the 60% mark (57%). It wasn’t the requirement of a super-majority alone that doomed any hope of adopting some form of PR, but it certainly didn’t help matters.

It has always puzzled me why there was insistence that a change of electoral systems should require a super-majority, when it’s perfectly fine for an MP or provincial MLA to be elected with less than 30% support, or for a majority government to be elected with well below 50% of the total vote. Truth be told, I even wonder why there is a need for a referendum in the first place. As far as I can tell, no vote was ever held on which voting system to adopt the first time around, why do we need one to change from FPTP to something else?

What the Lords were requiring wasn’t quite the same as a super-majority, but requiring a minimum 40% turnout to legitimise the outcome of the vote is in itself problematic. In essence, it was treating non-voters as a vote for the “No” side, which I don’t think is a very fair thing to do. One should not equate political apathy with being against a measure. The reality of electoral reform is that it isn’t a very important issue for most people. People aren’t necessarily against it, they simply don’t care. In some instances, they might not really understand the issue, but not understanding something should not be interpreted as being against it. You can’t force people to care about something that seems remote and unimportant to them, and their indifference should not be counted against the interests of those who do care about the issue enough to come out and vote.

Referendums are quite rare in the UK – the vote on AV will be only the 2nd one, I believe. Canada and its provinces have held numerous referendums, and to the best of my knowledge, only the votes on electoral reform required more than a simple majority. The province of Quebec has held two referendums on the province separating from the rest of the country, and 50% plus one vote would have sufficed for a “Yes” victory – just as the “No” side managed a 50.56% victory in the 1995 referendum. Since that last referendum in 1995, the federal government passed the Clarity Act which would require any future referendum on Quebec sovereignty to achieve a “clear majority” but does not define what that would be – other than more than 50% plus one.

I don’t give changing electoral systems the same weight, constitutionally-speaking, as breaking up a country. Consequently, if one is going to insist that a referendum on switching from FPTP to something else requires a super-majority, then one would have to be as demanding – perhaps more so, to accept a “Yes” outcome in a vote on independence for Quebec. But if Quebec could theoretically separate on something as vague as a “clear majority”, then I don’t see how one could justify anything other than a simple majority to change how people vote.

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