Reviewing and Ranking Referendums

This month we talk a look at provincial and national referendums in Canada.

Listen to our podcast here or on Spreaker

For this month’s podcast we compiled a list of all the provincial and national referendums in Canada that we could find. You would think a list like this would be easy to find, but it wasn’t. We managed to find some resources from Elections Canada, Wikipedia, and some academic papers, but they all provide slightly different lists. See attached for what we managed to compile.

Provincial Breakdown

First let’s look at the provincial breakdown of referendums throughout history in our list. We’ve had four national referendums in Canada (related to prohibition, conscription, and changes to the constitution). The provinces also all had at least one. The Northwest Territories had some related to the creation of Nunavut. The Yukon is the only outlier we could find with none, but the information on referendums is sparse and difficult to find. If you know of any in the Yukon let us know on Twitter!

Number of referendums per province

Next, let’s look at the policy areas for the referendums over time.

Policy Areas

We assigned 54 referenda (excluding some duplicate and poorly-documented ones) into categories: Constitutional, Social Policy, Indigenous People, Electoral Policy, Tax Policy, Social Policy, Political Boundaries, Military Policy, and Other (administrative referenda, mostly infrastructure or time zone-related). Looking at the policy areas of federal and provincial referendums by decade reveals some interesting patterns and perhaps indicates which issues dominated national and provincial debate in those years.

Referendums over times by subject type

Up to the 1940s, all but one Canadian referendum focused on the thorny social problem of alcohol. The lone exception was a 1913 question on the automobile in PEI. For a brief moment in time military matters were top of mind for Canadians: our only national referendum in the 1940s was the 1942 plebiscite on conscription. Otherwise, the 40s and 50s were a mixed bag of votes on daylight savings time (a minor but perennial referendum topic), agricultural policy in Manitoba and the last gasp of prohibition-related topics: a 1952 vote on alcohol sales in British Columbia. 

The 1960s and ‘70s were a dry spell for Canadian referendums: Alberta voted once each decade on daylight savings time. That would change in 1980 when the Quebec referendum ushered in fifteen years of constitutional obsession in Canada. In that period there were six referendums on constitutional matters in Quebec, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and across Canada, culminating in the 1995 Quebec referendum on independence. On top of that there were three referendums on political boundaries and electoral policy arising from the creation of Nunavut, and one vote on the creation of a regional assembly in Northern Quebec.

Since the turn of the millennium Canadian referendums have largely been focused on electoral reform. Half of Canada’s 21st-Century referendums have been attempts to do away with first-past-the-post elections. 

Appetite for Change

We evaluated the same set of referendums, filtering out a few that we couldn’t find precise results for, to measure the appetite for change among the electorate regardless of whether the government of the day honoured the results of the referendum in question.

We categorized plebiscites “yes” when 50% or more of the electorate voted for a change in the status quo, and “no” when they did not. In the years before 1960, electors voted for change 18 of 24 times. It’s almost a mirror image since then with a majority of electors preferring the status quo 17 of 24 times.

Yes/No votes over time
Average vote against the status quo over time

What about the referendums that were close calls?

Divisive Referenda

There have been a few nail-biting referendums throughout Canadian history, split by a less than 1% margin. Considering only some referendums in Canada are legally binding, were these really nail-biters? Some would say yes, some would say no, but in any case, the results of referendums can hold a lot of political weight for the reigning party, and making a show of direct democracy without follow-through might not be the route most parties want to go. So, what have been the top most divisive provincial and federal referenda in Canadian history?

Coming it at #1, we have the Alberta Electrification Plebiscite. This was the fourth-ever plebiscite conducted province-wide in Alberta, and unlike the usual yes/no referendums we see, there were instead two options asking whether the province should create a publicly-owned utility administered by the Alberta Government Power Commission or leave the electricity industry in the hands of companies already in the business, which were a mix of municipal operations and private companies. The main problem was rural electrification wasn’t coming along very quickly since private corporations didn’t have the financial resources to drive its development. In this truly nail-biting plebiscite, only 151 votes sealed the results in favour of keeping the the old system in place, with the end result being 50.03% in favour of the old system and 49.97% in favour of a new system. Luckily for those in rural Alberta, the government still pursued publicly-owned utilities in rural areas, despite the referendum results, which goes to show when the results are this close, the government might still do what it feels is best.

Coming it at #2, we have the 2021 Alberta referendum on Daylight Savings Time, which happened only a couple of weeks ago. The province has had a lengthy history with this topic, with Alberta mandating the entire province observe Mountain Standard Time in 1948, but urban municipalities continued to push for Daylight Savings Time, despite one MLA labeling it “that fandangled thing” and another feeling tourists wouldn’t understand it. In 1967, a plebiscite was held with 51.25% of voters rejecting Daylight Savings Time, but when given another vote in 1971, voters brought Daylight Savings Time into effect with 61.47% voting in favour. The issue remained untouched until now, when voters were asked if Alberta should adopt year-round Daylight Saving Time. They voted very narrowly to keep the time system as it is, with 50.24% voting against adopting Daylight Saving Time year-round, and 49.76% voting in favour. It’s interesting to note 2.2% of ballots were invalid or blank – if these were included, it could’ve changed the result. Further to this, only 38.73% of voters turned out, so less than half the province made this choice.

Coming it at #3, we have arguably the most important referendum in Canadian history – the 1995 Quebec referendum. If you went to grade school or high school in Canada you’ll have learned all about this one. This was the second referendum to ask voters in Quebec whether Quebec should become an independent country, with the condition of offering a political and economic agreement to Canada. Initially, it was thought there would be a heavy defeat for those in favour of separation, but the Bloc Quebecois launched a flourishing “Yes” campaign, which resulted in the extremely close result – 49.42% for separation and 50.58% against separation. Voter turnout was at 93.52%, the largest in Quebec’s history, demonstrating just how important this issue was. Following the referendum, the federal government declared Quebec a distinct society and amended the federal constitutional veto procedure, but they also referred the issue to the Supreme Court, which ruled that unilateral secession would have been illegal anyway

US Ballot Measures

The US compared to Canada used referendums or ballot measures with a lot more regularity. Due to their fixed election cycles the timing of ballot initiatives at a state or local level sometimes align with Presidential or Mid-Term elections other times they occur during off years during state or local elections. 

Unlike Canada there are a wide range of ways an issue gets on the ballot: 

  • Legislative referred amendments – where the issue is referred from the legislative branch for the “people” to confirm. In some cases this is required like in California when the state tries to raise taxes. 
  • Ballot Initiatives – second most common which often citizen group led, by getting signatures to get a question on the ballot. 
  • Legislatively referred state statues which is just another formal process that requires the people’s consent before legislation is passed. 
  • Others types of initiatives include veto referendums, advisory questions, commission referred ballot measures, and bond issues.

On November 2, 7 states have ballot initiatives being voted on.. Colorado (3), Maine (3), New Jersey (2), New York (5), Pennsylvania, Texas (8)  and Washington (3). Initiatives range from in Colorado voting on using Majauania tax increase of 5% to fund out-of-school programing across the state. You can find a full list and all outcomes on Ballotpedia.

In Maine, a state constitutional amendment for the right to: growing, raising, harvesting, and producing food, as long as an individual does not commit trespassing, theft, poaching, or abuses to private land, public land, or natural resources. This measure passed and Maine is the first state to put into their constitution “the right to food” 

Referanking

Here is the list of referendums ranked by the percentage voting “yes” to changing the status quo. In 1913, PEI voted overwhelmingly to maintain a ban on automobiles on the island. In 1952, Manitobans voted overwhelmingly to maintain their existing methods for bringing grains to market. The BC indigenous treaty referendum was criticized because of what some say was a biased wording of its questions. As for the most successful votes for change, prohibition tops the list. It may have been problematic, but at the time is was extremely popular.

Here are the top 10 referendums where the results were to overturn the status quo:

RankingReferendum% Supporting Status Quo
11913 Prince Edward Island automobile referendum10.0%
21915 Newfoundland prohibition referendum17.7%
31919 Quebec prohibition referendum21.4%
41892 Manitoba referendum on prohibition27.6%
52007 Saint John, New Brunswick ward plebiscite29.1%
61992 Nunavut creation referendum31.0%
71902 Ontario prohibition referendum34.1%
81942 Canadian conscription plebiscite34.4%
91916 Manitoba referendum on Temperance Act36.1%
101957 Alberta liquor plebiscite36.5%

You can find a the complete list of all our referendums here:

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