Canada’s federal Liberal Party is currently in the midst of a leadership race. During a debate held on 19 January 2012, the issue of electoral reform was raised a few times. The party has adopted an official position endorsing preferential voting (or the Alternative Vote), and most of the candidates stated that they backed that option.
On Twitter, respected Canadian pollster Nik Nanos tweeted:
#LPCldr electoral reform – not likely hot with Canadians – Cdns want to hear about jobs and healthcare.
This comment reinforced two points for me.
The first is my strong opposition to trying to implement electoral reform via a referendum. Mr. Nanos is entirely correct – the majority of Canadians don’t care about electoral reform. Even among political geeks, electoral reform tends to be a bit of a fringe issue. This is one (certainly not the only) reason why a referendum on electoral reform is such a bad idea if you seriously want said reform to pass. Most people will not follow the debate, and so won’t really know what they’re being asked to vote on. And even those who will be more aware will be asked to choose between a system they know well, even if they’re not entirely happy with it, and one they’ve most likely never experienced. I like to use this analogy:
Electoral Reformer: What’s your favourite soft drink?
Average voter: 7-Up.
Electoral Reformer: 7-Up, yes, that’s pretty good, but you know what? I’ve got this drink that is way better than 7-Up. Do you want to have that instead?
Average Voter: Can I try it first before deciding?
Electoral Reformer: No, you just have to trust me. It’s way better than 7-Up. And if you vote for this new one, we’ll get rid of 7-Up forever. Trust me – it’s better.
How do you expect someone to vote when asked to choose between something they know and something totally new and foreign to them? Of course most people will stick with what they know. Three provinces in Canada have held referendums on electoral reform (one province has held two) and the reform was defeated each time. The Canadian media seems to be largely opposed to electoral reform, and the press was dominated by columns and opinion pieces warning of the chaos that would ensue if we dropped FPTP.
The second thing is, while electoral reform is not a priority issue for most Canadians, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be pursued. Just because something doesn’t crack the average voter’s Top 10 List of Important Things doesn’t mean it’s not important or necessary. Improving our democracy shouldn’t be contingent on whether or not it’s a popular issue. It should be pursued because it is necessary and the right thing to do.