“The theory of democratic government is not that the will of the people is always right, but rather that normal human beings of average intelligence will, if given a chance, learn the right and best course by bitter experience” – W.E.B. Du Bois, educator, civil rights activist, and writer (1868-1963)
For years, people in Guernsey have been asking whether Island Wide Voting would be a better way of electing its deputies than the current system of multi-member constituencies. The to-ing and fro-ing among the political classes culminated in a decision in favour of such a change, provided that the method of election was first approved by the Guernsey people in a referendum.
That referendum will be upon us in October 2018. But unlike conventional referendums, this one will not ask voters to answer a simple Yes-No question about the method of election, because the deputies charged with deciding the method bottled it. Instead they are offering no less than five choices.
In short this is not really a referendum at all, but an opinion poll – or at least a search for our preferences among complicated alternatives. The resort to a single-issue vote in Guernsey is also an unprecedented institutional change whose consequences some may welcome but which we could equally come to rue.
Recall that, currently, the island’s 38 deputies are elected through seven similarly-populated multimember constituencies (with an eighth in Alderney). Every four years electors simply choose the top five or six candidates they prefer for the seats assigned to their constituency. Those with the most votes take a seat.
In the referendum, voters will be asked to show their order of preference among five proposed methods of election:
- All 38 deputies to be voted for every four years, but through only one constituency – the island as a whole. This would mean that each voter will choose his or her top 38 candidates out of perhaps 100 or more who will be standing. If voters don’t immediately baulk at this, they might find it easier to vote for those they know – a recipe for yet more personality politics.
- The island to remain divided into seven electoral districts, with voters in each casting five or six votes every four years to select the same number of deputies. This is no different from the current arrangements, so it allows voters to reject island-wide voting altogether – an attraction for the “No Change” brigade, but unnecessary. Were this a conventional referendum with one Yes-No question, people could say No to what is in front of them.
- Only ten of the 38 deputies to be elected on an island-wide basis; the remaining 28 to be voted for in the current constituencies. All would serve four-year terms. This would produce a system similar to one prevailing until the 1990s, where some deputies were elected by the whole island. This was spurned previously because it meant some deputies enjoyed a “stronger” representative status than others. Why have unequal deputies?
- The island to be split into four constituencies, with each voter having nine to 11 votes to choose between candidates who would serve for four years. This would not technically be island-wide voting – it would simply replicate what we currently have, only with larger constituencies. It is difficult to see what particular advantage this confers.
- The island to have one constituency, but each deputy to serve for six years. A third of these would be voted on every two years. This is similar to the way senators are elected to the US upper house. The big casualty would be continuity – and perhaps even more electoral lethargy on the part of voters.
Voting in the referendum will be ‘preferential and transferable’, allowing one of the options to emerge with a majority. While attention will focus on the apparent margin of victory and the turnout, two other points are significant. An attempt in the assembly to make the outcome valid provided the turnout is above 40% was lost. And an attempt to make it binding was also lost.
The proposers have also drawn up complicated plans for the referendum campaign itself. Campaign groups will be formed for each option, and will be eligible for States funding. These groups will be appointed by a non-political panel which will be appointed in turn by the States assembly. And all this is being enshrined in legislation.
What conclusions can be drawn about this exercise? This is Guernsey embarking on the first instance in its history of direct single-issue democracy. Many will feel that this is a good thing, arguing that the advent of social media allows regular and potentially easy consultation with the broad mass of people, especially in an island, over issues of public import. This may come to be true, but it requires individuals to be active participants in public affairs – what they call a ‘participatory democracy’.
That is not everyone’s cup of tea – some people like to have representatives to act on their behalf, so long as they do the sensible and the right thing. Yes, it is self-evident that easier communication is available these days, but does our community need a referendum to let its deputies know what it thinks?
Surely a referendum should only be called to resolve constitutional issues when normal parliamentary systems are inadequate to do so. Is that true in this case? The proposers challenge anyone who dares deny the Guernsey people a choice. But given that this proposal departs from most notions of a referendum, it may not attract the legitimacy needed to resolve the issues at hand.
In any case, we should beware referendums – they are not arbitrary devices to be used repeatedly. A moment’s look at the United Kingdom’s experience over EU membership tells you that one referendum begets another, and spells trouble. True, California and Switzerland make referendums work, but it is part of their tradition. It is not of the island’s. And look: our leaders can’t even come up with a single Yes-No question.