Statement from Premier MacLauchlan regarding Plebiscite
Between October 29 and November 7, Prince Edward Islanders were invited through a plebiscite to express their views on electoral reform. The plebiscite was conducted with historic innovations in the methods and time-frame to cast a ballot. Islanders could vote online, by telephone or in-person over a 10-day period. The plebiscite format and voting options were based on the recommendations of an all-party special committee of the Legislative Assembly and made possible through unprecedented efforts by Elections PEI, with the objective of achieving a high level of voter participation, notably in light of the fact that only 33 per cent of Islanders cast a vote in the 2005 plebiscite. The Special Committee on Democratic Renewal in its April 15 report expressed the hope that “A clear expression of the will of the population of Prince Edward Island will be the result.”
Notwithstanding unprecedented measures taken to encourage voter turnout and to facilitate voting, just under 36.5 per cent of registered voters cast a ballot during the ten-day plebiscite voting period. On the other hand, 63.5 per cent of registered voters did not participate.
The Special Committee on Democratic Renewal, while declining to recommend a specific threshold for voter participation, expressed its belief that “the outcome of a plebiscite must be considered in concert with voter turnout.” An Oct. 21 CBC report states the Leader of the Third Party and member of the special committee “(Peter) Bevan-Baker is suggesting majority support for any one of the options to change the electoral system, together with voter turnout of at least 50 per cent, should be enough to compel government to act.” In the 1998 Secession Reference, the Supreme Court of Canada spoke of the desirability of having “broad support of an ‘enhanced majority’ to achieve constitutional change.” [p.259] The Court translated that principle into a requirement that there be a clear majority on a clear question.
The White Paper on Democratic Renewal of July 2015 that launched this process observed that Prince Edward Island has taken an evolutionary approach to electoral reform since achieving responsible government in 1851. And it acknowledged Prince Edward Island’s exemplary track record of voter turnout. Island voters participate at rates that lead regional, national and international standards. Prince Edward Islanders understand the value of a vote. In nine of our past ten PEI elections, voter participation rates have surpassed 80 per cent. In the 1988 plebiscite on the Fixed Link Crossing, 65 [64.95] per cent of eligible voters cast ballots.
In combination with the low voter turnout of 36.5 per cent, it is debatable whether the plebiscite conducted between October 29 and November 7 produced a clear majority. Among the five options on which Prince Edward Island voters were asked to express their preference, Mixed Member Proportional Representation received 52.42 per cent support during the fourth round of counting. During the first three rounds of counting, First-Past-the-Post (the current system) received the highest number of votes. By the fourth and final round of counting, the support for MMP represented 19 per cent of eligible voters, or fewer than one in five. It is doubtful whether these results can be said to constitute a clear expression of the will of Prince Edward Islanders, to adopt the language of the Special Committee on Democratic Renewal.
The results of the plebiscite confirm the continuing need for our Legislative Assembly and our province as a whole to work to enhance our democracy. We recognize, as did the 2015 White Paper, the appetite and room for change and enhancement, and will fully deliberate this as Members of the Legislative Assembly. The plebiscite was an exercise on representative democracy and bringing this discussion to the floor of the Assembly underscores this endeavour. Beyond the question of how we select MLAs, the Special Committee on Democratic Renewal noted that other issues had arisen in the course of its public consultations and Committee deliberations, including electoral financing, strategies for involving more women in public life and improvements to the Parliamentary calendar. As required by the Electoral Boundaries Act after every three elections, the Electoral Boundaries Commission will be constituted and commence its work of redrawing district boundaries.
When the Legislative Assembly meets in its fall session starting next Tuesday, the question of democratic renewal and the results of the plebiscite will be on the minds of all legislators. We look forward to learning in greater detail the results, including levels of support in various parts of the province, ideally by electoral district, as soon as Elections PEI can provide the information.
I want to acknowledge those Islanders who did participate in the plebiscite, as well as the work of Elections PEI, and look forward to further discussion during the Legislative Sitting.