The Referendum Question
My absentee ballot for the U.S. election recently arrived in the mail from Seattle. I’m a dual citizen, and with little surprise to anyone, I’m voting for Barack Obama.
What is a surprise are all the other questions on the ballot. Along with elections for state positions from governor to commissioner of public lands, and several judges, I’m supposed to vote on eight different amendments to the King County charter. I’m asked to consider a sales-tax increase to expand Seattle’s rapid transit, and a property-tax levy to upgrade Pike Place Market. There are three citizen-initiated propositions too – including a law permitting assisted suicide.
Quite a contrast to elections on this side of the border, where we do little more than mark an X beside a name, then go home and sulk for another four years.
Political scientists say this difference exists because Canadians retain the British tendency to defer to the Crown, whereas revolutionary Americans make a point of leaving decisions to We The People. But as I noted last month, democracy in Victoria 50 or 100 years ago was far more American in practice, especially in municipal elections. Victorians went to the polls every year to elect their councillors (and police commissioner) until 1973, and the ballot nearly always included one or more referendum questions, asking for voter authorization on everything from construction of the Johnston Street bridge (approved in 1920) to Sunday shopping (1981).
Consider the variety of referenda held in our region’s four core municipalities, over the space of a decade:
1956: Voters in Victoria, Saanich, Esquimalt and Oak Bay turn down a $5.6-million region-wide school construction program. Saanich residents vote in favour of refinancing their waterworks, and building another library. Oak Bay voters approve construction of a new municipal hall, and ban the sale of raw milk.(A detailed timeline of all the referendums held in Greater Victoria over the past century can be downloaded here.)
1957: Victorians approve a new library agreement with surrounding municipalities.
1958: Victorians vote 3,992 to 1,994 in favour of amalgamation with Saanich, but Saanich residents are two-to-one against it, 5,090 votes to 2,731. Victorians also approve construction of the View Street parkade, and downtown pedestrian malls.
1959: Although dentists call for fluoride to be added to city water, Victorians vote against it 6,833 to 4,031. A week later, Saanich, Esquimalt and Oak Bay residents also refuse fluoridation.
1961: Saanich voters approve sale of beer by the glass.
1962: Victorians approve spending $950,000 to create Centennial Square, including renovations of the Pantages Theatre (now the Macpherson Playhouse). Saanich residents refuse amalgamation again, but with only 55% opposed.
1963: Victorians approve a $375,000 renovation of the Fisgard Street police station.
1964: Esquimalt residents vote to amalgamate the “panhandle” region of View Royal into their municipality.
1965: Voters in five out of seven municipalities reject creation of a regional hospital authority, limiting the power of the new Capital Regional District.
Since then, the capital has been returning to its deferential British roots. Victoria last went to its voters in 2002 to approve the deal for the Save-On Foods Memorial Centre, Esquimalt in 2003 for sewers, and Saanich and Oak Bay in 1999 for the $10 CRD parks levy. This election year, none of the four are asking referendum questions.
Westshore municipalities, on the other hand, are keen on direct democracy. This November 15, Sooke is asking residents whether they want to create an endowment for their regional museum. Metchosin's asking whether it should push ahead with plans to extend its boundaries. Colwood and Langford are asking residents whether they want the B.C. government to upgrade the E&N railway. A positive result in that referendum won’t legally bind Campbell’s Liberals, but it will send a message – in advance of next spring’s provincial election – that voters want action on rail transit.
“Often it’s a political decision: ‘Let’s ask our citizens’,” says Rob Buchan, Langford’s clerk-administrator, explaining Langford’s use of referenda. “A question builds interest, and we’re very active in terms of community-building.” (Notably, Langford didn’t ask voters whether they wanted the controversial Spencer Road interchange.) Besides, all municipalities use voting machines, so the cost of adding a question to the ballot is negligible. “People are coming out to vote anyway.”
Councils certainly have reason to be afraid of giving the public the last word. Why spend months planning a project if it can be nixed by cranky, lazy voters? In 2001, Westshore municipalities asked to borrow $8.5 million for water system upgrades, but the residents refused – and less than 10% of those eligible bothered to vote. Cities are also more complex than they were a century ago. Councillors oversee development planning, transit, parks and rec facilities, policing, sewage, water, and many other concerns. How could an ordinary citizen know enough about such operations to intelligently vote on them?
But that’s the cynical view. “People want to be asked. Then they’ll do the work,” says Sher Morgan, chair of the Saanich Civic League, a voters’ group that sprang up in response to the abysmal 19% turnout in Saanich’s 2005 election. Morgan did 300 door-to-door surveys of her district, and she repeatedly heard that people wanted to be more involved in municipal affairs, but didn’t know how. “Referenda are a great form of inclusion. They get people thinking,” she says. “And they might make us more respective of what councillors do.”
Most importantly, referenda might actually help the councils themselves. All too often, our councillors seem only to react to announcements or court decisions, allowing the evolution of Victoria to be dictated by developers, interest groups, city staff, or other levels of government. Many of the historic votes described above, by contrast, required politicians to draw up their own strategic plans and present them to the voters. If municipal councils started declaring their priorities – and backing them up with votes of public confidence – they might actually regain some authority.
Would you agree to a $20-per-household annual levy across the CRD to build affordable housing? Do you support a ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags and takeout food containers? Should Victoria create a network of bicycle-only streets? Considering the dire state of our oceans, would you agree to a ban on the local fishing and commercial sale of salmon? Do you approve rewriting the Beacon Hill Park trust to permit commercial events? Are you in favour of: A) amalgamating all of greater Victoria into one municipality; B) amalgamating the current municipalities into three bodies (Westshore, Victoria, Saanich Peninsula) or; C) the status quo of 13 separate civic governments plus the CRD?
Lord knows, some questions need asking.
UPDATE (November 13, 2008): A nice article by Jack Knox in the Times Colonist today about referendums and this blog. (Thanks for the hits, Jack!) If you want to pursue the debate further, there's a discussion about referendum questions on the Vibrant Victoria forum, starting here.
UPDATE (November 25, 2008): This week's Maclean's magazine has an article about ballot initiatives in the United States. Most interesting is this bit:
Ballot initiatives got their start in the U.S. in the late 1880s in mostly western and some southern rural states, often driven by farmers wanting to wrestle some power away from state legislators they considered to be dominated by railroad interests, according to Smith. The first state to allow ballot initiatives was South Dakota in 1898, but the first state to actually use the process was Oregon in 1904.Seems direct democracy has a strong pedigree in the Pacific Northwest. Read more here.