On November 28, 2005 the voters of Prince Edward Island rejected a proposal
for the introduction of a Mixed Member Proportional electoral system by
a 2 to 1 majority. This culminated five years of discussion on electoral
reform in Canada's smallest province. It ended for the time being the chance
for PEI to make political history and be the first to adopt a new voting
system. Instead, the status quo was endorsed by a margin of 64% to 36%.
This article reviews the five years leading up to plebiscite day and discusses
the results and the lessons learned.
Throughout the history of Prince Edward Island there have been a number
of very lop-sided legislatures. Over the course of the last five elections
twice there was only one opposition member returned and once, two members
made up the opposition. I served in one of those legislatures under Premier
Catherine Callbeck. With 55% of the popular vote and the First Past the
Post system we were rewarded with 97% of the seats. The two opposition
parties, with a combined total of 45% of the popular vote, were awarded
one seat or three % of the seats so that legislature had 31 on the government
side and one in opposition.
A number of people found this situation disturbing. How can a Westminster
style parliamentary democracy, that has a strong role for the opposition
in holding government to account, work with only one person? Or, have
a government-in-waiting when there is only one person? Simply put, it cannot.
In December 2000 the Institute of Island Studies released a Discussion
Paper on Electoral Reform on PEI by Andrew Cousins1. This paper looked
at our past history, researched systems from other countries and suggested
some alternative models. It looked at several models and showed what a
different voting system might do in terms of our election results. It illuminated,
probably for the first time for many of us, the extent of the problem and
the exaggeration of the election results that our present First Past the
Post (FPTP) system produces. At the same time FPTP drastically minimizes
or shrinks the results for the losing side, the opposition parties. This
study also looked at the popular vote results from a number of elections
and started to analyze the patterns. We started to realize that the popular
vote was significant to the overall results and that the system had been
skewing the final results.
Winner-take-all systems are designed to deliver decisive wins and large
majority governments. They were designed for another era and a two party
system. Many in the province were of the view that FPTP no longer was doing
what we either wanted or needed. The thinking was, that in going forward,
we needed to modernize our systems that govern us, including the voting
In 2001 a legislative committee that was reviewing a number of issues relating
to elections had over half of the public presenters suggest that they consider
some form of PR for our province. (Many of these groups and individuals
later came together to form the Yes Coalition.) As a result the Chief Electoral
Officer was asked to look at PR which he did in a report in April 2002.2
As a result of this and work of groups such as Every Vote Counts ( a non-partisan
citizens group) the Premier announced in a speech from the throne that
he would appoint a commissioner to review this report and to recommend
a course of action.
In January 2003 former Chief Justice Norman Carruthers was appointed as
a one person Commission on Electoral Reform. He spent a year doing research
and consulting with the public across the province. His conclusions were
released in December 2003.3 He recommended that we consider moving to a
Mixed Member Proportions System (MMP) system and that there be; a citizens
assembly similar to that in British Columbia to choose a model; then an
education process; and that these be followed by a plebiscite to get the
views of the citizens of PEI. He also suggested that the issue of women
be given special consideration as well as minority populations such as
francophone and aboriginal islanders.
In the spring of 2005 another body was put in place called the Commission
on PEI's Electoral Future chaired by Leonard Russell a retired school superintendent.
He was joined by seven other islanders, two women and five men. The imbalance
of males to females was pointed out to government before the commissioners
started their work but there were no extra members added. It seemed to
some very ironic that a body that was to look at a new system that would
be fairer and more closely reflect our population was itself not a more
balanced group. This commission worked for about eight months developing
a model, educating the public and drawing up the question for the plebiscite.
They had asked government shortly after they started their work in April
2005 for an extension to their mandate as they were worried that they would
not have enough time to do their job properly. This request was denied
stating that there was no compelling reason to do so. This was the first
of a number of events and decisions that would eventually sink the possibility
The CBC strike in the late summer and early fall meant that they were not
available to cover the last few public meetings held by the commission.
They were the only local TV network and the main source for Islanders to
hear debate and discussion on the pros and cons of both the present system
and the proposed MMP one. Added to this challenge was the short time frame
of about four weeks for the final education process after the plebiscite
question and model were released in late October. The letters to the editor
page in our daily provincial paper became the main forum for discussion.
When CBC came back on the air they did pick up the ball and just the week
before the vote hosted a very successful debate featuring both a representative
from the Yes and No side; a representative of cabinet Mitch Murphy
and Commission chair Leonard Russell. The spokesperson or face of the Yes
side was a young, passionate Islander, Mark Greenan, who took time off
from finishing a Masters in Political Science to throw himself into the
campaign. The No side was represented by the former leader of the PC party
and former cabinet minister Pat Mella.
Following the release of the final recommendations in mid- October, and
one month before the plebiscite, a Yes coalition was formed. It consisted
of a number of organizations and individuals who came together to promote
voting Yes. They included organizations representing labor; women; francophones;
anti poverty groups; individuals and Every Vote Counts. In response to
this a No group was formed consisting mainly of former politicians and
active party members. They claimed to support change but not this model.
A number of them had unsuccessfully tried to influence the commissioners
to modify their model and when that did not happen they worked against
it. Because the final model came out so close to plebiscite day the Russell
Commission had decided not to make any substantive changes to their proposed
model for fear of confusing people. In my mind and in hindsight (which
is always so clear) a few fairly minor changes might have satisfied some
of these concerns. It would be interesting post plebiscite to find out
if the No side really did support change but a different model or if
this was just part of their strategy to get Islanders to support their
campaign of voting no. In speaking to people from BC who voted on an entirely
different system, that of the Single Transferable Vote, the No side also
said that they did not support this model for many of the same reasons.
A number of excellent events were held in the last few weeks before voting
day that helped to engage people in the discussion. It was then that people
really started to take notice and find out more about this MMP model. The
Charlottetown Chamber of Commerce held a breakfast debate that included
former Commissioner Carruthers with others representing various points
of view. I was one of the panelists and interestingly all four of us said
the system needed fixing and three of us supported electoral reform. In
the final week, CBC TV and radio organized a public forum that was well
covered both on radio and television. Various other events happened all
across the province that were smaller in size but kept the education process
and discussions going.
Adding another dimension to this were people from outside of the province
publicly supporting the Yes side and encouraging Island voters to make
history and lead the country down the path of electoral reform. These included
many prominent Canadian women including Doris Anderson, former UPEI Chancellor,
leading Canadian feminist and author. Several people even traveled to the
island to show their support such as Senator Hugh Segal, former President
of Institute of Research on Public Policy; Maude Barlow of the Council
of Canadians; Troy Lanigan the Canadian Taxpayers Federation; and Adriane
Carr, Leader of the Green Party in BC. Others through letters to the editor
also encouraged us to adopt this new MMP system and lead the way citing
our role in the birthplace of Canada and now the opportunity to be the
birthplace a of renewed Canadian democracy.
Another set of hurdles that turned out to be insurmountable and I think
delivered the final blow was a new set of rules for the plebiscite. About
a month before the voting day the Premier announced that he was imposing
the same super majority rules that had been used in the earlier BC referendum.
For this to have any chance of being implemented a 60% overall popular
vote support and 60% of the ridings must support this by a majority vote
(50% plus1). The problem with this is not only the deviation from the normal
rules of 50% plus one needed for something to pass, but also that this
was a stand alone plebiscite unlike BC where it was held in conjunction
with a provincial election. In BC they had adopted fixed election dates
so voters knew the date well in advance and the Premier had announced at
least two years prior that the referendum would be held in conjunction
with the election. To add even more of a challenge, in what government
stated was an effort to save money, only 20% of the normal number of polling
stations were to be used and there would be no voters list. Further, neither
the Yes or No side was funded through public dollars as had happened in
In PEI we had the following situation: a very high threshold had been set;
an abbreviated time frame for an education process; and a reduced number
of polling stations. Although a number of advanced polls were open for
a week preceding November 28th, Islanders do not typically take advantage
of these. Because of the reduced number of polling stations and no voters
list and add to this the fact that people were also voting at different
places than they normally would, many had no idea where to go to vote.
There was a series of ads in the local paper which I would say many did
not see. One person told me that they felt that they were in a third world
country with the confusion and long lineups at the polling stations. The
chief electoral officer had over 700 calls from people looking for help
on plebiscite day. People in PEI are accustomed to receiving a piece of
paper that tells them the riding they are in and where to vote. Without
this many were even confused about what riding they were in let alone where
to go to vote. All of this added up to a less than level playing field
as far as the Yes side was concerned. Many including Commissioner Carruthers
expressed strong concerns over what they saw as manipulation to negatively
affect the outcome. Some of the Yes coalition members were considering
a law suit over what they saw as a flawed, unfair process, however this
idea was later dropped.
It was very unfortunate that over a year went by between the original Carruthers
Commission and setting up the implementation commission. In hindsight,
this was a mistake as many people did indeed feel that they did not have
enough time to really grasp the details of the MMP model and its implications.
This extra time would have been extremely helpful to allow the second commission
to do a longer, more extensive public education campaign and perhaps the
commissioners might have considered some tweaking of the model in response
to public input. All of this meant that time that could have been spent
on public education and consultation to get people ready for the decision
on whether to support a new model was lost.
Another factor in all of this was a report of an electoral boundaries commission
that had been released during the same time period. This report was a requirement
that had been put in place after the last major change to our system. After
a charter challenge in 1996, the legislature of the day voted to change
from 16 dual member ridings to 27 single member ridings as per the direction
of a court ruling to make the ridings closer in size. It was also mandated
that after every three elections these ridings be reviewed and adjusted
to keep them more or less the same size. There were and still are some
very large discrepancies, as some of the smaller rural ridings have a variance
of plus or minus 25% in comparison to some of the larger ridings. Government
put off the response and implementation of these suggested boundary changes
and decided to have the education process and plebiscite first. This seemed
to make sense because if the MMP model was adopted the ridings would have
to be changed, so why do it twice. However, in some peoples view this muddied
the waters and it was speculated by others that the whole exercise of looking
at electoral reform had been done to delay the required boundary changes.
This did create some skepticism and questioning about how serious government
was about the whole process in the first place.
The Proposed Model
The model proposed was a mixed member proportional model similar to that
in New Zealand and Scotland. It would have 17 constituency seats across
the island (down from 27) and 10 list seats that would be used to balance
the legislature. There would be two ballots; one for the local member using
the FPTP system and the second would be a vote for the preferred party
list. The percent of votes that each party would again on this second
ballot would determine the makeup of each party in the house. The D'Hondt
formula would be used to determine the distribution of the ten list seats.
There would be a threshold of five % of the popular vote required for a
smaller party to gain a seat through the lists. The lists would be closed
and selected by each party through some open process that they would control.
The commission also recommended a review of the model and results after
three elections similar to what had happened in New Zealand.
The Yes side stated that this would be first and foremost a fairer system
that would actually reflect how people vote. It would make every vote count
in determining the make up of the legislature. It would ensure a decent
sized opposition that would do a better job of holding government to account
and also be a government in waiting. Both of these are considered to be
critical components of a representative democracy. The MMP system would
see more diversity in the legislature including more women and minority
sectors of our population. It would allow smaller parties such as the NDP
to have a fairer chance at gaining a seat. In the history of the province
only one NDP candidate has ever been elected. It would move us towards
a legislature where cooperation and collaboration would come to predominate.
Also, it would give us the kind of system that the vast majority of democratic
countries use and that many former British styled FPTP systems have now
The main arguments made by the No side were that they wanted open lists
where voters could actually vote directly for the candidates of their choice
on the list. They stated that the list members would be appointed and it
would be a step backwards for our democratic rights. That the system would
lower the number of rural seats and that it would produce endless minority
governments. They also claimed that it would not of itself see more women
elected. Some prominent women involved on the No side stated that they
were insulted to think that women would need changes to the voting system
to get elected.
Members of the Yes side countered this argument by stating that the numbers
show it all. In the history of the province only 18 women have ever been
elected compared to over 1100 men.
The Yes side claimed that the No side was misrepresenting the model. Even
the chair of the commission Leonard Russell stated the same thing at the
CBC debate. They both stated that the list candidates would first be elected
by party members and then elected by all Islanders with their party vote
in the general election and therefore would not be appointed. Also, not
only were rural seats were being reduced but also urban seats. The parties
should and would ensure that people from across the province would be
on their lists and that no one would see their comparative influence reduced.
The Yes side acknowledged that there would be minority governments but
also pointed out that minorities can also happen under our present system.
Further, they stated that minority governments in themselves are not bad
or to be feared and that many minority governments have been very successful,
citing the Pearson era in our own country. Finally, almost every other
PR system in the world has more women serving than we do. In New Zealand
the number of women went up after the first election under MMP as it did
in Scotland and Wales.
The irony of the PEI situation was that both the Yes and No sides were
saying the same thing, that our system needs to be changed and that indeed
there probably was a better model out there for us. What they could not
and did not agree on was the MMP model that the Commission on our Electoral
Future had recommended. Even though the Commission had recommended a review
of the model after several elections, the No side still would not endorse
it. With no option on the ballot except the proposed MMP model many voted
no, even though they supported reform. Commission Carruthers had stated
that he chose Mixed Member Proportional because it was the best fit for
our province because it retains the best aspects of our present system-
stability and geographic representation and adds an element of proportionality
to give us the benefits of both systems. This model does not throw out
our present system but in fact enhances it. However, that sentiment was
not shared or understood by enough Island voters on November 28th.
Another significant factor was that the politicians with the exception
of one Cabinet Minister and the MLA from the francophone area of our province
did not support change. All members were asked this question by a CBC reporter
and it was more than obvious that they had no appetite for this. It is
not surprising that sitting politicians would not support any change that
would have a direct impact on them. Another interesting result was that
the No side which included a former party leader, did not trust political
parties to do the right thing in creating the lists. It revealed the depth
of the distrust and skepticism surrounding political parties and politicians.
The results of the plebiscite were disappointing but not surprising. Of
those who voted, 36% supported the proposed MMP model and 64% voted no.
The Yes side had felt that anything over 40% would be considered a victory
on our part, given the challenges that we faced. The really disappointing
result was a 33% voter turnout. In a province that prides itself for the
high turnouts of usually over 80% it was a shocker. In our last stand alone
plebiscite for the fixed link 65% had turned out to vote. The Commission
on PEI's Electoral Future in its own polling in late October had showed
that 85% of those surveyed had intended to vote. What happened in a month
to see less than half of that number turn out to vote? There were wide
spread reports that without a voters list and cards to remind people where
and when to vote many did not have a clue where to vote and when they finally
found the polling station they were faced with hour long lineups and just
left without voting. Also in our province political parties work very hard
on Election Day to get the vote out. In the last provincial election I
had three different calls to my home when I had not voted by 4:00 p.m.
There was no one reminding voters to get out on plebiscite day.
There were many questions that arose from the plebiscite results. Did the
reduced number of polling stations effect the turnout? Most certainly.
Did it have an effect on the overall result? Which side did it affect more,
the Yes or the No? This is impossible to know in the absence of any post
plebiscite polling. How effective were the No side in spreading distrust
and even fear about the model? I would say very effective in the smaller
rural areas. I also think that the political parties themselves worked
hard in those areas to get people out to vote No. I think the urban areas
are not as influenced by these party tactics and are more open to reforming
our system. After the last major change, when the number and size of the
ridings had been adjusted ending with fewer seats in some of the rural
areas, the rural voters felt that they had lost some of their influence.
I really believe that many saw this as an extension of that process. In
reviewing the results this was obvious as the ridings at either end of
the Island voted as much as 90% No while the only two ridings that voted
over 50% Yes were in the downtown Charlottetown area.
The first lesson for a jurisdiction considering a referendum or plebiscite
on electoral reform is to make it a two step process like the one New Zealand
followed. If a first ballot had presented one question such as do you
support changing our present electoral system, it would have won by a landslide.
Even two questions on the ballot, with one giving voters the option to
support change and the other the MMP model that was proposed, would have
given us a better indication of the level of support for change. Second,
it is very important to get well respected opinion leaders out early publicly
supporting the Yes side. Third, the vacuum that was created with the Russell
commission not being able to promote their own model could have been avoided
if we had opted for a citizens' assembly similar to BC's. That assembly
had members from every riding; they had their meetings in public; and they
traveled across the province. When their work was done they were free to
go out and promote the model they had selected, while our commissioners
had to remain neutral. In other words, they were not permitted to publicly
promote their MMP model over the existing FPTP system. It was reported in
the media that many BC voters did not understand the model but they did
have confidence in the process and the recommendation of the assembly and
thus voted Yes. Fourth, it is also very important that there be sufficient
time for the public education process and meaningful input from the public.
Finally, funding a Yes and No campaign would have also made their efforts
much more effective and in turn helped to create more meaningful debate
Where to go from here? Initially the premier had publicly said that as
far as he was concerned this issue was dead for the time being. The No side
was saying that it was just this model that was dead and they hoped that
the discussion would carry on. The Yes side was saying that we needed to
have a closer look at the results and make some concrete suggestions of
where we might go from here. It is obvious that Islanders are not ready
to lead the country on reforming our antiquated and unfair voting system.
However, 36% did vote Yes and I am convinced that many of the 64% who voted
No were not against change but that they just did not like this model.
Perhaps it was too radical a change and the answer might lie in a modified
MMP model that voters would be more comfortable with. I do not think that
the politicians can ignore this movement nor should they.
The Premier in his end of the year media interviews seems to have reopened
the door on the issue of electoral reform here on the Island. Further,
he has since indicated that he plans to offer for a another term as premier
so maybe there will be a chance to revisit the whole debate and hopefully
learn something from our first experience.
1. For an edited version of this paper see John Andrew Cousins, Electoral
Reform for Prince Edward Island, Canadian Parliamentary Review, vol 25
no. 4, Winter 2002-2003.
2. See Report on Proportional Representation by Elections Prince Edward
3. See Report on Electoral Reform Commission Report, 2003 by Hon. Norman
Carruthers at http//www.gov.pe.ca/election.