Britain’s referendum five years ago on electoral reform was, in the words of one learned observer, “rich on demagoguery and unsubstantiated claims with no empirical foundation.” Another called it “disgraceful.” Opponents of adopting the alternative vote (AV) method proposed for Britain claimed the new system would cost more and thus leave less money for things like health care: “She needs a new cardiac facility NOT an alternative voting system,” was the tagline of an advertisement that featured the picture of a newborn infant. An ad by the Yes side suggested the current system made MPs lazy. And after a Conservative critic suggested AV would force governments to negotiate with extremist fringe parties, a Liberal-Democrat proponent accused the No side of participating in a “Goebbels-like campaign.” Turnout for the referendum, which the No side won convincingly, was 42 per cent, more than 20 points lower than in the United Kingdom’s general elections in 2010 and 2015.
“Neither the politicians nor the press have distinguished themselves during an affair that’s been distinguished by the mendacity of almost all the protagonists, the hysteria of partisans on both sides and the sheer quantity of lumpen stupidity on display,” wrote Alex Massie in the Spectator, concluding that referendums were a “hopeless way of deciding these matters.”
Which is not to say that referendums are inherently awful. At least no more so than any other exercise in democracy.
“You know, referendum campaigns are tremendously exciting in terms of selling newspapers,” Justin Trudeau remarked to the Toronto Star last week. “But do they directly lead to better outcomes for Canadians in their electoral system? I think there’s a strong argument to be made that, not necessarily.”