The claim has been made generally, and specifically in relation to Defend Democracy, that a referendum isn’t needed on electoral reform because 65% of Canadians voted for it in the last general election.
Let’s start with the basic, is the claim true?
No, it’s not. Not even a little.
To make sense of this, first, let’s understand the basis of the claim:
Those who argue that 65% of Canadians voted for electoral reform arrive at that number by adding together the total votes for the Liberals (39.5%), the NDP (19.7%), the Bloc (4.7%) and the Green Party (3.9%).
Why add together those numbers? Because each of those parties had something in their platforms (and generally not the same thing as each other) regarding electoral reform.
As the no-referendum argument goes, since 65% of Canadians voted for parties that favoured some kind of electoral reform, therefore the Liberals now have a mandate to implement electoral reform however they please.
The argument falls short, and here’s why:
First, the argument assumes that everyone who voted Liberal, NDP, Bloc, and Green did so based on the issue of electoral reform. Not the economy, not infrastructure investments, not a change in leadership style, not “it’s time to throw the bums out,” not Mike Duffy – but purely electoral reform. Even without looking at any data, no serious person would really argue this to be true.
Canadians made their decisions on myriad of reasons. Electoral reform was undoubtedly one of them, but it was hardly a turning point issue in the campaign for any of the parties.
Looking at data confirms this (and polls certainly aren’t perfect, but they at least provide some insight). Electoral reform was way down the list of issues important to Canadians.
– CBC Poll Tracker found 2% of Canadians that identified “democratic reform” as an “important” issue in deciding their vote mid-way through the campaign. Source.
– Forum Research conducted a post-election poll and asked Canadians how they decided to vote. Electoral reform didn’t even make the list (though there was a large “other” category used as a catch-all, which 17% identified with, and presumably electoral reform was the answer for some sub-set of that group). Source (PDF).
In all the data, issues related to the economy, jobs, security, and the need for a change in leadership style were at the top. Simply put, Canadians were not voting on electoral reform – either in favour of it or against it.
And that last point is also relevant: the polling data does not indicate whether those who identified electoral reform as important did so because they felt implementing it was important, or blocking it was important.
Now this isn’t to say that electoral reform isn’t important. On the contrary, how Canada’s democracy works is among the most fundamentally important issues our country can face. This is simply to point out that electoral reform wasn’t top of mind for the vast majority of the 17,592,778 Canadians who voted on October 19.
Finally, it is important to underscore once again that Defend Democracy isn’t opposed to electoral reform (or in favour of it). We are however adamant that for any potential reforms to have legitimacy, Canadians must truly have a say – and the only way to accomplish that in a democratic country like ours is through a national yes/no vote on a reform package, once it’s complete.
In sum, we have no idea how many Canadians believe in electoral reform because the vast, vast majority of us have never voted on it. The 65% claim holds no water, and the need for a referendum is clear – wherever you fall on the electoral reform spectrum.