Alberta MLAs get guidance on citizen-initiated referendums

The select special democratic accountability committee, made up of UCP and Opposition NDP MLAs, is examining a list of issues related to citizen initiatives submitted to them in June.

MLA committee looking at citizen-initiated referendums and recall legislation

Alberta's UCP government wants to expand the use of referendums. (Melinda Nagy/Shutterstock)

Alberta MLAs received advice from experts Wednesday on how democracies in Europe and the United States have regulated citizen-initiated referendums.

Last summer, the United Conservative government passed legislation expanding the range of issues the government can put to a popular vote. The UCP wants to go further by introducing new legislation allowing Albertans to determine ballot questions if they can collect enough signatures. 

The select special democratic accountability committee, made up of UCP and Opposition NDP MLAs, is examining a list of issues related to citizen initiatives submitted to them in June by Doug Schweitzer, when he was still justice minister. 

On Wednesday, MLAs heard presentations by Amanda Zoch, Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow and legislative policy specialist with the non-partisan National Conference of State Legislatures in the United States, and Alan Renwick, deputy director of the constitution unit with the University College of London Independent Commission on Referendums, who provided information on the European experience. 

Zoch said 24 American states have citizen-driven initiatives, where people can collect signatures to get an issue on the ballot. Two additional states also allow people to collect signatures to force a referendum. 

Every state has a different procedure, she said, including the amount of time proponents are given to gather signatures. 

"There is no one model or exemplar but there are aspects of each that are good models to follow," Zoch said. 

Having a single issue on a ballot makes voting simpler, as does having an office to review the title and summary of the petition question to ensure they are neutral and clear, she said. 

Some legislators represented by her organization aren't big fans of the process, Zoch said. 

"Many of our lawmakers don't like initiatives because they circumvent the legislature," she said. 

Other drawbacks include legislation that is created without deliberation by a legislature, unlimited spending on ballot campaigns, inadequate voter information, and involvement of groups, corporations and out-of-state voters in pushing a proposal, Zoch said. 

In her home state of Colorado, Zoch said the state sends out booklets explaining ballot questions that list the pros and cons of a yes vote. 

Referendums can be divisive

The commission Renwick was involved with made nearly 70 recommendations on how to improve the referendum process in the United Kingdom. It was formed after the controversial vote in 2016 on whether the UK should leave the European Union. 

While referendums can reflect the will of voters and get people involved in policy making, Renwick said they can present significant problems.

The discussions can be dominated by the most vocal groups, he said, and can be divisive, like the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, or can be used to quash the rights of minorities. 

"A number of European states have seen same-sex marriage bans introduced through citizen initiatives," Renwick told the committee. 

"And there's a concern that this kind of process, because it is not deliberative, is not very good at protecting rights and thinking about the rights of vulnerable groups." 

Renwick suggested some measures that can make referendums more fair and more representative. They include setting thresholds for how many signatures must be collected based on a percentage of eligible voters, banning payment for signatures and wages for those who collect them, and requiring a set level of voter turnout, such as 50 per cent, for a result to be binding. 

In Switzerland, citizen petitions are first debated by parliament, a process that can take 12 to 18 months, which Renwick said prevents proposals from being rushed into law.

Legislators can endorse a question to go to a referendum, but if they don't like the proposal they can also come up with an alternative and allow citizens to vote on both. 

Renwick suggested a model now being tried in Belgium, where proposals are first vetted by a citizens' assembly before going to a referendum. 

He said reviews can prevent a question about minority rights from going to a referendum. A government could also decide to prohibit constitutional issues from facing a popular vote, he said. 

In New Zealand, referendum results are not binding on parliament, he said. 

Franco Terrazzano, Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, also made a presentation to the committee on Wednesday. His group is in favour of citizen's initiatives. 

The select special democratic accountability committee will meet again on Thursday to hear presentations about recall legislation.