Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill - Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Professor Robert Hazell and Mark Chalmers (PVSCB 05)

  This memorandum focuses on three aspects of the government's plans for a referendum on AV, to be held in May 2011. These are the arguments for and against holding a referendum on the same day as other elections; the impact on voter turnout; and the need for public education. It draws in particular on the experience of the two referendums on electoral reform held in New Zealand in the early 1990s, and the more recent experience of four referendums on electoral reform held in Canada.


    — International experience suggests that combining the referendum with an election will increase voter turnout.

    — Evidence from US states indicates that a referendum on a salient issue will lead to increased electoral participation. Referendums on less salient issues tend to have lower voter turnout.

    — In general, electoral reform is not seen as a salient issue, especially when the proposed reforms are modest.

    — Voter education is connected to the legitimacy of the referendum. For a referendum to be considered legitimate, voters must be able to make an informed decision based on the best available evidence.

    — The public education programme used in New Zealand prior to the 1992 and 1993 referendums on electoral reform was very effective.

    — Having an independent body organise the public education programme ensures that the public has an impartial source of information.

    — Low levels of public education are associated with voting against reform.

    — By campaigning for or against the referendum question politicians can increase public awareness and facilitate education.


  Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the AV referendum is the proposed date of 5 May 2011. It means that the referendum will take place on the same day as elections in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and local elections in England. While there is no law or established convention which prevents a referendum from taking place at the same time as an election, a number of MPs and representatives of the devolved administrations have called for the date to be moved. This section will consider the arguments for and against combining the referendum date with that of an election.

  There are two principal arguments in favour of holding the AV referendum at the same time as these elections. The first is based on cost. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has stated that combining the referendum and election will save £17 million.[8] The second argument is that it will increase voter turnout thereby enhancing the legitimacy of the outcome. In general, international evidence suggests that combining a referendum date with that of an election does result in increased voter turnout compared to holding a referendum on its own. However, there are a number of caveats.


  New Zealand has considerable experience with national referendums. Table 1 shows that voter turnout in New Zealand has been significantly greater when a referendum is held on the same day as a general election. This is clear when comparing the turnout figures for the two referendums on changing the electoral system held in 1992 and 1993. The 1992 referendum consisted of two parts: Part A asked voters whether they wanted to retain the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system or to change the voting system; Part B asked voters to select one of four alternative voting systems to replace FPTP. Turnout for the 1992 referendum was 55.2%. In the second referendum on electoral reform held in 1993 which gave voters the option of retaining FPTP or adopting a MMP system, turnout was 85.2%. Most commentators attribute this 30% increase in voter turnout to the fact that the 1993 referendum coincided with a general election.[9]

Table 1


Date of referendumIssue Turnout (%)

9 March 1949Off-course betting 54.3
3 August 1949Compulsory military training 63.5
23 September 1967Term of Parliament 69.7
27 October 1990*Term of Parliament 85.2
19 September 1992Voting system 55.2
6 November 1993*Voting system 85.2
2 December 1995Number of full-time fire fighters 27
5-26 September 1997 (held by postal ballot) Compulsory Retirement Savings Scheme80.3
27 November 1999*Size of the House of Representatives 84.8
27 November 1999*Justice system reform 84.8

* Referendum held on same day as general election.

  While New Zealand shows that turnout for referendums tends to be higher when they are held at the same time as elections, research in the United States suggests that the reverse is also true: electoral turnout is higher in states which hold referendums at the same time. Gilliam found that voters in states with a salient referendum on the ballot tend to turn out for congressional elections at higher rates than voters in states without a referendum.[11] Similarly, Tolbert, Grummel and Smith concluded that "the presence and usage of the initiative process is associated with higher voter turnout in presidential and midterm elections."[12] Thus, just as elections can have a positive impact on turnout for referendums, referendums can, provided that they attract sufficient public interest, increase electoral participation.

  However, turnout in referendums is not necessarily lower than in elections when the two are held seperately. For example, the 1992 federal referendum in Canada on the Charlottetown Accord had a turnout of approximately 72%. Similarly, the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum drew 94% of registered voters, a rate substantially higher than in any provincial or federal election. But both referendums related to issues of considerable national significance. Referendums held on less salient issues run the risk of lower turnout, as was the case in New Zealand in 1992.[13] The Puerto Rico statehood plebiscites, the 1980 Swedish nuclear power referendum, and the Spanish referendum on joining NATO are all further examples in which turnout was significantly lower than in the most recent comparable election.[14]

  Evidence from Canadian provinces suggests that electoral reform is not regarded as a salient issue by the general public. In October 2007, Ontario held a referendum on electoral reform at the same time as the provincial general election (see Table 2). Turnout for the general election was low at 52.8%. The proportion of votes cast in the referendum was 51.1%. This is the case even though voters in Ontario were given the option of much more radical electoral reform than is being proposed in the UK: the Citizens' Assembly had proposed a switch from first past the post to a Mixed-Member PR system. In Prince Edward Island, a province known for its high voter turnouts, only 33% of those eligible voted in the 2005 referendum on electoral reform (which was not combined with a provincial election).[15] This suggests that combining the AV referendum with elections may help to increase voter turnout.

Table 2


Date IssueTurnout
Yes (%)No (%)

British Columbia
17 May 2005* Switch from FPTP to STV58 57.6942.31
P.E.I.28 November 2005 Switch from FPTP to MMP33a 36.4263.58
Ontario10 October 2007* Switch from FPTP to MMP*53 36.963.1
British Columbia12 May 2009* Switch from FPTP to STV50 38.8261.18

* Referendum held on same day as provincial election
a Because no enumeration of electors was conducted, and no official list of electors prepared, no official count of electors is available for the plebiscite. The figure of 33% is an approximate idea of voter turnout based on the number of eligible voters for the 2003 provincial election. See Jeannie Lea (2006), "The Prince Edward Island Plebiscite on Electoral Reform", Canadian Parliamentary Review Vol. 29(1), pg. 7.

  It has been argued that there may be differential turnout rates in the various regions of the UK if the referendum is held on 5 May. The former chief operating officer of the Conservative Party has expressed concerns that holding the referendum on a day when Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland hold devolved elections but there are no elections in London could lead to a "skewed result."[16] This seems far fetched. General elections see differential turnout, between different regions in the UK and between different constituencies, but people do not challenge the fairness of the result. What matters is that everyone has an equal opportunity to vote, even if they choose not to exercise it.


  Finally, it should be noted that section 6(5) of the Canadian Referendum Act 1992 states that, "Writs of referendum may not be issued during a general election|"[17] The rationale is to prevent an issue of constitutional significance from being lost in or associated with other campaign issues. Hence neither of the Canadian federal referendums discussed above—both of which achieved high turnouts—occurred on the same day as a general election. In contrast, no similar restriction exists at the provincial level and it is the norm for referendums to take place at the same time as provincial elections.[18]

  In evidence to a UK House of Commons select committee in 2002, the first Chairman of the Electoral Commission warned of the "danger of an election on a party basis cross cutting with a major issue of principle which is not on a party basis."[19] Moreover, Scotland's deputy first minister has expressed concerns that the Scottish parliamentary elections will be "overshadowed" by the referendum.[20] The Lords Constitution Committee has recommended against combining referendums and general elections, noting that in the case of other elections, "there should be a presumption against holding referendums on the same day as elections but that this should be judged on a case-by-case basis by the Electoral Commission."[21]

  The main causes of concern seem to be that: (1) voters will be unaware of the existence of the "second order" poll; (2) they will be confused by the clash of political arguments about different issues taking place at the same time. On the second question, there is no social science evidence that we are aware of. On the first, the likelihood is that the referendum is the second order poll, and that it will be overshadowed by the elections rather than vice versa. That has been the experience in other countries which have had referendums at the same time as elections. In Canada, and in New Zealand in 1993, the political parties remained silent on the referendum issue, not least because they were concentrating their efforts on fighting the election, not the referendum campaign.

  That highlights the need for a separate source of information and public education about the referendum issues, which is the final subject addressed in this paper.


  The second aspect of the AV referendum which requires careful consideration is the voter education programme. As well as turnout, voter education is a vital component of the legitimacy of any referendum. Schedule 1, Section 7 of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill 2010 provides that, "The Electoral Commission must take whatever steps they think appropriate to promote public awareness about the referendum and how to vote in it."[22] In addition, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 states that the Electoral Commission shall carry out "programmes of education or information to promote public awareness" of current and pending electoral systems or make "grants to other persons or bodies for the purpose of enabling them to carry out such programmes."[23] How the Electoral Commission interprets its mandate along with the available budget will play a significant role in determining the form and success of the public education campaign.

  Prior to the 2007 electoral reform referendum, Elections Ontario was tasked with carrying out a public education campaign. However, there is nearly universal agreement that this campaign was wholly inadequate. This is due to the fact that Elections Ontario interpreted its mandate very narrowly. It simply informed voters that there was going to be a referendum and that their vote was "important," rather than providing materials explaining the current and proposed voting systems. The public's primary source of information came from editorials in the major newspapers which were largely against reform. Moreover, the debate about the merits and demerits of reform took place mainly among elites and, according to one expert, occurred in a "vacuum insofar as much of the public was concerned."[24] As such, voters in Ontario were poorly informed which may help to explain why the reform was rejected by 63% of voters.

  Similarly, the public education programme in P.E.I. prior to the 2005 referendum was heavily criticised. A lack of public education resulted from Elections P.E.I. having been given an inadequate budget.[25] The government at the time was also criticised for not allowing enough time for a proper education programme before the referendum. The fact that many people said that they did not understand the proposed voting system has been used to explain the low turnout in this referendum.[26] In British Columbia, the members of the Citizens' Assembly which proposed the change to STV were dismayed at the lack of formal public education and therefore undertook their own campaign to raise awareness and answer voters' questions.[27]

  In contrast, the voter education programme in New Zealand was widely regarded as having been a great success. Prior to the 1992 referendum, the New Zealand government decided to fund a public education programme. In order to ensure that information was impartial, the Minister for Justice established an independent body to organise the programme known as the Electoral Referendum Panel chaired by the Chief Ombudsman. The Panel prepared a six-page brochure outlining the referendum process and each of the five voting systems. This was delivered to every household in the country. The Panel also produced a more detailed official guide to the referendum, sponsored seminars, and funded three television programs on the referendum.[28] Following an analysis of electoral reform in New Zealand, the Constitution Unit concluded that the voter education programme "was a great success, with the material produced by the Panel gaining voters' trust as untainted by any particular agenda."[29] Another advantage of establishing an independent body, which is particularly relevant to the UK, is that it "enables the government to campaign actively for one or both sides|"[30] It is worth noting that in none of the electoral reform referendums in the Canadian provinces did a government take an official position on the proposed reform. Consequently, electoral reform received relatively little attention from the media as they instead focused on election issues.

  International experience suggests that referendums on complex issues with relatively short campaign periods make reforms less likely to succeed. This can be seen from the referendums in Canada on the Charlottetown Accord, and in the 2005 referendums on the European Constitutional Treaty.[31] Ultimately, low levels of public knowledge work in favour of the status quo rather than reform. While a robust public education programme is no guarantee that reform will be successful, it is necessary to ensure that citizens are aware of the referendum and well informed of the issues they are being invited to decide. This is especially important when the issue under consideration is one of national constitutional significance.

  We hope to do some further work on the minimum requirements of an effective public education programme, and to submit a further memorandum about that.

25 August 2010

8   See: Back

9   Oonagh Gay and John Woodhouse (2010), Referendum on electoral reform, House of Commons Library, Standard Note: SN/PC/05142, at pg. 10. Back

10   Figures obtained from Elections New Zealand at: Back

11   Franklin Gilliam Jr. (1985), Influences on Voter Turnout for U.S. House Elections in Non-Presidential Years, Legislative Studies Quarterly Vol. 10(3), at pg. 344. Back

12   Caroline Tolbert, John A Grummel and Daniel A Smith (2001), The Effects of Ballot Initiatives on Voter Turnout in the American States, American Politics Research Vol. 29(6), at pp. 643-644. Back

13   Lawrence LeDuc (2002), Opinion change and voting behaviour in referendums, European Journal of Political Research Vol. 41, pg. 715. Back

14   See Lawrence LeDuc, Referendums and Elections: How Do Campaigns Differ?, at: Back

15   For example, during the 2003 provincial election which took place just hours after a hurricane hit the province, turnout was 83.27%. Back

16   Patrick Wintour, AV referendum: May date gets cross-party challenge, Guardian 5 July 2010, at: Back

17   Referendum Act, S.C. 1992, c. 30, sec. 6(5). Back

18   For example, British Columbia and Ontario. See Henry Milner (2004), First Past the Post? Progress Report on Electoral Reform Initiatives in Canadian Provinces, Policy Matters Vol. 5(9). Back

19   HC 1077-1 2001-02, Q44. Back

20   Patrick Wintour, AV referendum: May date gets cross-party challenge, Guardian 5 July 2010, at: Back

21   HL Paper 99 2009-10, para. 145. Back

22   Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill 2010, Sch. 1, sec. 7. Back

23   Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, sec. 13 (4)(a)(b). Back

24   Lawrence LeDuc, Heather Bastido and Catherine Baquero (2008), The Quiet Referendum: Why Electoral Reform Failed in Ontario, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, University of British Columbia, 4-6 June, at: Back

25   Andre Barnes and James Robertson (2009), Electoral Reform Initiatives in Canadian Provinces, Library of Parliament, pg. 9. Back

26   Id. Back

27   See The government allocated approximately $500,000 to fund a neutral public education programme. Back

28   Stephen Levine and Nigel Roberts (1993), The New Zealand Electoral Referendum of 1992, Electoral Studies Vol. 12(2), pp. 160-161. Back

29   Ben Seyd (1998), Regulating the Referendum, Representation: Journal of Representative Democracy Vol. 35(4), pg. 196-197. Back

30   Id. Back

31   See Lawrence LeDuc, Heather Bastido and Catherine Baquero (2008), The Quiet Referendum: Why Electoral Reform Failed in Ontario, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, University of British Columbia, 4-6 June, at: Back

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