Democracy and Foreign Policy: A Retrospective


Canada Among Nations 1995: Democracy and Foreign Policy was written at a moment of optimism about the global spread of democracy. Editors Maureen Appel Molot and Maxwell A. Cameron asked whether the imperative to strengthen democracy globally might encourage nations to reinforce their democratic institutions at home, building public support for democracy through the recognition of its critical importance to international peace, and thus using foreign policy not just as an instrument for advancing national interests but also as an expression of democratic values. Nearly three decades later, optimism has been replaced by pessimism about democratic backsliding, the spread of hybrid regimes, and the reassertion of authoritarianism. In this retrospective chapter, Cameron argues that the end of the Cold War not only failed to produce a more harmonious world based on a comity of liberal democracies; it failed to do so precisely because of an over-confidence in the inexorable advance of liberal democracy despite the highly uneven effects of market-led globalization. In addition, emerging global issues like climate change, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and the management of pandemics have intersected with globalization in ways that challenge liberal democracies to address human needs beyond the immediate interests of voters and politicians within the confines of the nation state.

Read the complete chapter here: Cameron Democracy and Foreign Policy Retrospective.

Electoral Denialism: The Political Logic Behind the Crisis in Peru

Introduction. Since the transition to democracy in 2000—when the authoritarian regime of President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) collapsed—Peru has experienced a high degree of macroeconomic stability, but political stability has been elusive. There have been in six presidents since 2016, a pattern of volatility due in part due to conflicts between the legislature and the executive. The removal of President Pedro Castillo by the Congress last December, only 18 months after his inauguration in July 2021, and his replacement by Vice President Dina Boluarte, detonated deadly protests and a wave of harsh repression by the police and military. The violence triggered fears of a return to authoritarianism or, worse, a breakdown of public order in a country that has painful memories of bloody internal conflict in the not-remote past.

There are many reasons for the crisis in Peru, high levels of inequality being one of them. The unequal distribution of income reinforces other cleavages like racialization and the gap between town and countryside. Despite rapid growth there has been a persistent lack of investment in public infrastructure like healthcare and education even as private wealth has been concentrated in the hands of a few powerful economic groups. Peru’s deficient healthcare system was exposed when the country was battered by COVID-19, which, by claiming about 220,000 lives—the highest number of deaths per capita in the world. These are important background considerations, but they do not explain why the crisis has occurred now.

Views of the violence in Peru is highly polarized. The government and its supporters in Lima tend to focus on often wild allegations of foreign influence (notably Bolivia’s Evo Morales and the ponchos rojos), terrorism (with roots in the remnants of Sendero Luminoso under the leadership of “Comrade José”), and violence perpetrated by criminal organizations involved in drug-trafficking and illegal mining. The protesters, who have converged on Lima from the provinces, have expressed indignation at racism and abandonment by the state. But one reason has not been given sufficient attention: the refusal of political losers to accept the outcome of a free and fair election.

I define electoral denialism as the use of false allegations of fraud as part of a political strategy to overturn the result of a free and fair election. The strategy was pioneered by US president Donald Trump, but has since spread to other countries. Peru is not South American country to contend with it: newly elected Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva has had deal with mobs of angry supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro, who attempted to seize government offices in Brasilia in January based on specious claims of electoral fraud. But Peru is where electoral denialism has succeeded. To understand why, we need to go back to the election of 2021.

2021: A Polarized Election. The 2021 election was deeply polarized. The previous presidential election in 2016 was narrowly won (50.12 percent) by conservative technocrat Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in a runoff against Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori. Although Fujimori lost, her party, Fuerza Popular, commanded a majority of 73 seats in a 130 seat Congress, which set the stage for bitter legislative-executive conflict. This conflict contributed to the impeachment of PPK, his replacement by Martín Vizcarra, the impeachment of Vizcarra and replacement by Manuel Merino, a member of Fujimori’s party, and then the replacement of Merino after six days by another member of Congress, Francisco Sagasti, who served out the remainder of PPK´s term.

The public perception that Keiko Fujimori had obstructed and destabilized the previous administration diminished Fujimori’s candidacy in 2021; moreover, she was accused to accepting illicit funds from the Odebrecht construction company in her campaigns in 2011 and 2016 and had to be placed on conditional release in order to run for office. Nonetheless, in the context of high fragmentation of political options, her mere 11 percent of the vote was enough to place her in a runoff against the unexpected front-runner, Pedro Castillo, a former rural teacher and union activist who had never before held public office but who won 13 percent of the vote largely by appealing to the frustrations of highland voters. Since Fuijmori represented the only option for the right she was able to improve her vote share in the runoff. It was not enough, however, and she narrowly lost to Castillo who captured 50.13 percent of the vote.

Fujimori immediately challenged the result, baselessly claiming fraud in polling stations across Peru, especially in the rural highlands where Castillo’s vote was concentrated. Despite the absence of evidence, and despite the validation of the results by local authorities and international observers, powerful economic groups, the tradition media, former military officers, and conservative political leaders repeated the spurious allegations of fraud and mobilized efforts to annul the election result both through the courts and in the streets. Social media amplified racist assertions that voters in the highlands were ignorant and unpatriotic, while counter protests by Castillo’s supporters heightened the atmosphere of tension and suspense. One of the arguments made by Fujimori’s legal team was that in some polling stations the vote in favor of Castillo was suspiciously high. This ignores the fact that in many rural communities, villagers coordinate their votes around candidates in order to increase their collective power. These claims were dismissed by the authorities.

Ungovernability and Deeper Polarization. Castillo was sworn into office on July 28, 2021, but the opposition was unrelenting. Congress attempted unsuccessfully to remove the president in November 2021 and March 2022. With new allegations of corruption against Castillo emerging, members of Congress hoped that they had enough votes to “vacate” the presidency on grounds of “moral incapacity.” A third vote was scheduled for December 7. It was to prevent this vote that Castillo announced his presidential self-coup. On the morning of the 7th, he announced that he was temporarily dissolving the Congress, creating an emergency government, and calling elections for a new Congress with the power to rewrite the nation’s constitution within nine months. What Castillo failed to appreciate is that such measures rarely succeed without broad public support and the backing of the armed forces. He had neither. Within hours Castillo has been detained and charged, and Congress overwhelmingly voted to remove him from office.

To the surprise of the limeño elite, Castillo’s removal was angrily repudiated by his supporters in the provinces. The betrayal they felt was intensified when Vice President Dina Boluarte pivoted to the opposition in Congress as soon as she donned the presidential sash, and then indicated her intention to remain in office until 2026 when Castillo’s term would normally have ended. The public uproar caused her to backtrack and propose bringing elections forward to April, 2024, but that was not enough to placate the growing protests which were met by disproportionate police and military repression.

The flashpoints of protest and repression that have claimed the lives of nearly 60 people between December and February occurred mainly in remote, rural areas of Peru – the south and central highlands, especially Puno, Cuzco, Apurimac, Arequipa, and Ayacucho – where Ms. Fujimori sought to annul as many as 200,000 votes. The protesters demanded that Boluarte resign, new general elections be held, as well as a constituent assembly to re-write the constitution. They are also demanding investigations into serious allegations of human rights abuses and justice for the victims of increasingly well-documented massacres.

The Way Forward: a Chilean-style constituent assembly? One of the paradoxes of the current crisis is that it has placed the idea of a constituent assembly on the agenda like never before. Castillo promised a constituent assembly to re-write Peru’s 1993 Constitution, which was adopted after Fujimori’s 1992 self-coup. The constitution enshrined a market-oriented approach to economic policy constrains the role of the state in the economy, which is one of the reasons for the stability in macroeconomic policy. Polls showed that public opinion was divided between those favouring constitutional moderate reforms and those wanting an entirely new constitution.

In office, Castillo proposed a Chilean-style strategy of changing the constitution. First, there would be a modification of the 1993 Constitution to allow a referendum to convene a constituent assembly. Second, assuming a favorable referendum, a constituent assembly would be elected in which and independents and Indigenous peoples would play a role. The sitting Congress would not be dissolved and would continue to legislate. Finally, the new magna carta would be submitted to a referendum for ratification. Congress peremptorily archived the proposal, but the current crisis may have reinforced the demand for a new constitution.

It is far from clear that a new constitution would solve Peru’s most urgent problems and, indeed, it could make them worse. A radical new constitution like the one that was proposed in Chile last year would almost certainly not be accepted. Moreover, there is often a temptation to use the constitution to solve problems that have to be addressed by other means. For example, in a referendum in 2018 Peruvian voters unwisely approved a proposal to end re-election to members of congress. This measure, motivated by frustration over corruption and self-dealing in Congress, helps explain the refusal of congress to accelerate the electoral timetable. Nevertheless, a well-designed and participatory process of constitutional change could be one way to rebuild a democratic consensus.

The constitution that Peru needs would be an economical and prosaic document. It should not impose any particular economic model on the country. Instead, it should establish a functional separation of powers, strengthen the role of the regions through bicameralism, enhance political party organizations, create mechanisms of popular participation, and uphold fundamental human rights and freedoms.

Conclusion.  As of the time of writing, three options are on the table. The first is to convene new general elections. Congress has refused to vote in favor of early elections four times and shows little sign of flexibility.  The primary beneficiaries of this strategy might well be, paradoxically, Keiko Fujimori and her party, for they are in the best position to return to the campaign and indeed this is an outcome that they have wanted all along.

The second possibility is new elections accompanied by a popular referendum to convene a constituent assembly. This option is anathema to Peru’s political establishment, but the very intransigence of the right may have made this more likely in the medium term. It appeals to those who believe new elections alone will be sufficient to change the way the political system is operating.

The third option is the worst: further militarization of the current regime and, as a consequence, continuing civic strife and violence.

Which pathway Peru chooses will depend crucially on political leadership—the very thing that is in such short supply. For now, it offers a cautionary tale of the high cost of electoral denialism.

Published in Spanish by Política Exterior, no. 212, March 2023:

Don’t ignore democracy’s flaws


If there were doubts about the idea of democracy promotion after the fall of the Berlin Wall, those doubts gave way to outright cynicism after 9/11 (and its sequela Abu Ghraib, torture memos and Guantanamo). Cynicism gave way to despair with the failure of the Arab Spring, the Brexit fiasco, Donald Trump and his January 6 attempted “self-coup,” and the growing aggressiveness of Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and other autocrats. Who are we kidding when we talk about democracy promotion? And after Canada’s shocking vaccine nationalism, with what moral authority do we lecture anyone else about governance anyway?

And yet, talk we do, and talk we will. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party platform promised, admittedly somewhat vaguely, to focus foreign policy on democracy promotion and human rights (a theme that echoes the democratic foreign policy of the Liberal Party’s “Red Book” from the Jean Chrétien years). On December 9, US President Joe Biden will host the first of two “Democracy Summits.” After that, the Ninth Summit of the Americas, set to take place in early summer 2022, will likely make democracy a major theme. After all, it has been 20 years since the Inter-American Democratic Charter was adopted by the Organization of American States (OAS), and it seems high time to take stock of its efficacy (spoiler alert: the results have been modest).

But here’s the problem. How, you may ask, can Biden promote democracy globally when Republicans are rolling back democratic rights in one state after another, all the while propagating the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, and while Biden struggles to get a new voter-rights bill passed by Republicans and even members of his own party? How can the OAS foster democracy when some Latin American leaders (such as those of Mexico, Peru and Bolivia) insist that it is destabilizing democracy in Latin America, while other leaders point in horror at the humanitarian disaster in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega’s abuses of power in Nicaragua? These are tough times for democracy promotion.

It is time to reframe the whole debate. We need practical and hopeful proposals to prevent democracy’s further erosion. Instead of handwringing about the putative or real dangers to democracy – autocrats and populists, foreign meddling and domestic conspiracy theorists – perhaps we need to start by asking, What’s wrong with democracy and how can we make it better? How did the dangerous forces opposing democracy get the upper hand?

Canada can prove it’s a leader in deliberative democracy

Those who fear that liberal democracy is being undermined by authoritarian populists and sundry other threats rarely acknowledge what ails our systems of government. Nor do they criticize the economic model of competitive globalized markets, which has brought inequality, systemic corruption and overweening corporate influence to extremes unseen since the gilded age.

A meaningful effort to strengthen democracy must start by asking how we can live up to the promise of a system of rule by, for and of the people. There are three key steps that we need to take. They are not easy, but they are necessary.

First, citizens’ power must be scaled up. In recent decades the world has witnessed an explosion of democratic innovations – from participatory budgeting to citizens’ assemblies, from deliberative polls to citizens’ juries – and many have been practised, even made, in Canada. And yet our governments – local, provincial and federal – have proven timid in fostering and facilitating the use of these innovations. The need for participatory innovations is made more acute by the lack of proportional representation in our electoral system, and we need a citizens’ assembly to find a better one.

Second, we need to be more cautious about relying on markets to make our public policy decisions. Asking what markets want rather than what serves the public interest brings the fossil fuel industry into the discussion of climate policy, gives tech platforms control over our news feeds, and places decisions about industrializing Crown – er, Indigenous – land in the hands of resource firms. We have wisely avoided allowing unlimited big money in politics, and this has immunized us against some of the pathologies of politics south of the border. Nevertheless,  we are still in thrall to Davos man’s (and yes, he is typically a dude) notion that achieving global competitiveness must be the overriding aim of government policy.

Third, we can advance the cause of democracy in the world, not by imposing our model on other countries, but by democratizing international institutions and organizations. International organizations tend to be clubs of states that jealously guard their national sovereignty while doing little to include civil society or even legislators in their deliberations. Opening up these spaces to democratic deliberation is essential to building a fairer and more just international order. This new order must deal with the issues of global inequality, so that negotiations on issues like climate change or vaccine distribution are not log-jammed by distributive conflicts and plagued by prisoners’ dilemmas.

If democracy promotion means denying that our democracies are ailing and an attempt to foist our flawed institutions on others, then I submit it is not worth the effort. But could it mean something more like a genuine renaissance of a citizens’ democracy?

There is room for optimism, but not in the corridors of power or the boardrooms of the nation. It is found in the Indigenous land defenders and the forest protectors, in the union organizers and the student protesters. It is in the dedicated civil servants and professionals – teachers, nurses, doctors, firefighters, diplomats, planners, scientists and judges – who work every day, often against the grain of our colonial institutions, to provide the common goods a decent society demands. It is in the multiplicity of actions by organizations and individuals who daily dedicate themselves to the discovery and cultivation of those common goods. That’s where democracy lives or dies. And that’s where real democracy promotion happens.

This article first appeared on Policy Options and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Peru’s Big Surprise

Peru’s June 6 election was a big surprise containing a multitude of smaller surprises.

The biggest surprise was that Pedro Castillo, rural teacher and union leader, won the election with 50.1 percent, defeating Keiko Fujimori, three-time presidential candidate and daughter of imprisoned former president, Alberto Fujimori, who won 49.9 percent of the valid votes cast.

This is the culmination of several earlier surprises.

First, Castillo, virtually unknown in Lima, won the first round on April 14. He placed first with 19 percent, up from 2 percent of voter intentions in the polls in January and February to 4 percent in March and 7 percent in early April. Only a deeply fractured polity, with voters desperate for alternatives, could produce such an outcome. Despite social media, Peru is not yet a nation where public opinion resonates smoothly across the coast, highlands, and jungle.

Second, polls published immediately after first round showed Castillo with a huge lead, with roughly double voter intentions of runner up Keiko Fujimori. This revealed a potentially large pool of voters receptive to Castillo’s message of “no more poor in a rich country.” It also revealed the depth of hostility toward Keiko Fujimori, who faces numerous charges of corruption and is widely blamed for the obstructionism that dogged recent administrations.

Third, Castillo maintained his share of popular support (at roughly 40 percent), despite a viciously racist, often mendacious, and rhetorically violent campaign aimed at stigmatizing him as a communist, a terrorist, and an ignoramus. Even a massacre in the jungle perpetrated, apparently, by remnants of the Shining Path linked to drug-trafficking, had little effect on Castillo’s popularity. The Peruvian media’s disgracefully biased role had little effect outside urban areas.

Fourth, Castillo does not represent a renovated, moderated, socially-progressive, intellectually respectable left but an older more traditional class-struggle oriented left. His campaign is the spontaneous and direct—indeed, largely disorganized and chaotic—expression of rural poverty, abandonment, and neglect. The program of his party, Peru Libre, was written by former regional governor, Vladimir Cerrón, and is redolent of the radical left from the 1970s and 1980s.

Fifth, Castillo’s victory is a defeat for Peru’s 1993 Constitution, which was drafted following a self-coup by then President Alberto Fujimori. In April 1992, Fujimori closed the congress and suspended the constitution before convening a constituent congress to write a new Magna Carta. Castillo promises a referendum on whether to convene another constituent assembly to draft a yet another constitution.

Sixth, the proposal to change the constitution aims to challenge the neoliberal economic model that Peru has followed since the 1990s. This model led to rapid economic growth, especially during the commodity boom, and this lifted millions out of poverty especially in the urban areas. But the pandemic has been a blow to neoliberalism because revenue from the boom was not sufficiently reinvested in health care, education, and social welfare. Peru never adopted the kinds of radical reforms implemented in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, and polls suggest they want moderate rather than radical changes. With Chile, the region’s neoliberal standard-bearer, rewriting its constitution, however, Peruvians may be willing to follow suit.

That said, for many Peruvians, and international community, the election is more than a surprise—it is a shock. There will be chaos and ungovernability. Castillo has never held public office and most of his entourage are neophytes. He lacks a majority in congress, and much of what he has promised will be difficult or impossible to achieve. To top it off, Peru is in the throes of a pandemic that has cost 180,000 lives, one of the worst outcomes, per capita, in the world.

Worse still, taking a page from the Trump “stop the steal” campaign, Keiko Fujimori has refused to accept the result, making baseless allegations of fraud, and challenging the result in the tribunals.

But it is also important to recognize that the election of Castillo represents a process of democratization of Peruvian society, and that this was made possible by a functioning electoral democracy. Now all actors must respect the outcome.

Runoff in Peru: A referendum on 1993 constitution

This post originally appeared as “Peru’s upcoming presidential election is really a referendum on its troubled constitution” in The Monkey Cage at The Washington Post on May 13, 2021. It was co-authored with Paolo Sosa-Villagarcia, (Versión en español aquí).

On June 6, Peru will vote in a runoff election for president, deciding between the top two candidates from first round of voting. On the left is Pedro Castillo, a rural teacher and street-fighting union organizer who came in first with only 19 percent of the vote; on the right, is Keiko Fujimori, who squeaked out 13 percent. Polls put Castillo in the lead. Castillo has promised a new constitution. Since Keiko Fujimori is the daughter of Peru’s now-jailed former dictator Alberto Fujimori, some observers fear that she would restore a corrupt and authoritarian dynasty. Constitutional reform may be Peru’s best alternative to becoming ascrisis-wracked and polarized as Venezuela.

Frontrunner Pedro Castillo faces off against dynastic candidate Keiko Fujimori

For decades, Peruvians have been divided over the legacy of President Alberto Fujimori, in office from 1990 to 2000, currently serving a 25-year sentence for human rights crimes and corruption. His daughter, Keiko, thrice candidate for the presidency, faces 30 years in prisonfor allegedly receiving and conceal over $17 million in illegal campaign contributions from powerful business allies. Her party’s role in clashes among the legislature, executive and judiciary contributed to one of Peru’s biggest recent political crises, in which four presidentsrotated through the palace in five years.

Her father’s primary legacy is the 1993 Constitution, progeny of an autogolpe (or self-coup). In April 1992, Alberto Fujimori closed congress and suspended the constitution, drafting a new constitution to legitimate his rule. He fled in 2000 after his unconstitutional bid for a third term was derailed by a major corruption scandal, and was captured, tried and jailed in 2009.

Keiko Fujimori now defends the constitution and neoliberal economic model it enshrines. Castillo is campaigning as the outsider, candidate of a new party called Peru Libre. Like Alberto Fujimori in 1990, Castillo has never held public office. His run channels voter anger over poverty, neglect, corruption, a dismal pandemic response and economic crash – and focuses that on a call for a new constitution.

From self-coups to executive-led republican refounding in Latin America

The program of Peru Libre, drafted by its radical leader Vladimir Cerrón, outlines what has come to be known as republican refounding. Its plan is simple: Run for office promising a referendum on a new constitution; convene a constituent assembly, which may serve as a legislature; and submit the new draft to a referendum. This sidesteps the illegitimacy of the autogolpe, but can have similar consequences.

For example, Venezuela’s former president Hugo Chávez enjoyed broad popular and military support. But when he convened a constituent assembly, the opposition was effectively shut out; he used the assembly to expand executive power. When the opposition attempted to overthrow Chávez in an April 2002 coup, Venezuela accelerated its gradual but catastrophic regime breakdown.

Similarly, Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa rewrote that country’s constitution in 2008, and then governed through plebiscites and appeals to public opinion, bypassing congress and relentlessly attacking his opponents. After he stepped down in 2017, his successor used a referendum to nullify a constitutional amendment that would have allowed Correa to run again, without term limits.

In Bolivia, President Evo Morales convened a constituent assembly. When that body could not reach consensus, Congress amended it; voters approved the new constitution in a 2009 referendum.  Morales then defied both the new constitution and a 2017 referendum upholding term limits, and sought a third term in office. Disputed reports of electoral irregularities in the 2019 election sparked protests; Morales fled to Mexico after the military withdrew its support.

Venezuelan-style authoritarianism is unlikely in Peru

Recent research (including our own, still underway) suggests that constitution-making can derail democracy when there are power asymmetries between incumbents and opponents. Castillo is unlikely to follow the Venezuelan path for three reasons.

First, if elected, Castillo is likely to be a weak president. He has neither Correa’s popularity, Chávez’s military background, nor Morales’ social base. He has a tenuous relationship with his own party, Peru Libre, which won a slim plurality of seats in the Congress, just 37 of the total 130.

Second, he faces powerful opponents. Peru’s electorate is conservative, especially in Lima. Memories of the internal conflict between 1980 and 2000 linger painfully. A fragmented but virulently anti-communist right-wing opposition aligned with powerful media and corporate groups will be tough opponents; some already talk about a possible coup.

Third, Castillo has pledged respect for the constitution and made alliances with moderate left-wing candidate Veronica Mendoza’s Juntos por el Perú, repudiating Cerrón’s suggestion that the left should seize power and stay there.

Constitutional change is therefore unlikely to derail democracy. A recent poll showed that over half the electorate supports constitutional change. Having committed himself to respecting the 1993 Constitution until it is replaced, however, Castillo will have to work within Article 206. That prohibits constitutional reform without the prior approval of congress, followed by a referendum.

The alternative: an accord on constitutional reform

Chile has recently done something that might be instructive. In response to protests starting in 2019, Chile’s lawmakers designed a constitutional process that has some guardrails. Their “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution” gave Chileans the power to choose how they would elect a constitutional convention, which would then have the power to do one thing: draft a constitution to be submitted to a referendum. The constitutional convention cannot act arbitrarily, nor be subjected to interference.

Peru’s legislature could choose something similar, filling the assembly with representatives of a variety of parties, unions, business organizations, and other social and political groups. This could begin to close the representation gap left since the the party system collapsed during the Fujimori dictatorship, expanding citizen participation to encompass Indigenous peoples and the rural and informal poor.

Two possible roadblocks loom. Castillo could win, but the right wing could obstruct any efforts at reform. Or Keiko Fujimori could win, and turn Peru sharply in an authoritarian direction. Either could lead to dangerous confrontations. A precarious or unpopular president facing an implacable but fragmented opposition in Congress could undermine democracy.

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Black Lives Matter: Protest and Division in Trump’s (Dis)United States

The unprecedented wave of protests that have roiled the United States in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 may well be recorded as that nation’s largest social movement. The video of George Floyd’s death, his neck compressed by the knee of Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin for over eight minutes, groaning that he could not breathe and calling out for his mother, was sad and outrageous and yet consistent with deeply entrenched patterns of anti-black racial violence by police in the United States. The killing of Floyd followed other tragic deaths: Ahmaud Arbery was shot by vigilantes in February while he was jogging in a small town in Georgia; Breonna Taylor was, killed in her own home in Louisville as police they entered her apartment in search of a suspect.

Similar deaths sparked the Black Lives Matter movement seven years ago. The 2013 killing of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown led a small group of activists to use adopt the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. As the movement gained momentum and organization it was joined by high profile athletes like Colin Kaepernick, who took up the cause in 2016. BLM activists organized counter protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white supremacists gathered to “Unite the Right.” Since the election of Trump and the intensification of racial divisions in the United States, BLM has become a global movement for racial justice.

The high-water mark was reached in the Summer of 2020. Floyd’s death by torture led to one of the most dramatic shifts in public opinion recorded by pollsters. As many as 26 million people may have joined the protests. They often received the support and encouragement from progressive mayors, governors, elected officials, and in exceptional cases even law enforcement officers. In Washington DC Mayor Muriel Browser renamed a two-block strip of 16th Street leading toward the White House as Black Lives Matter Plaza, and wrote the words in large yellow letters (visible on Google Earth).

The outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter was a stirring repudiation of racism and violence but it may have been insufficient to pull the United States back from the brink of civic strife. The complex roots of anti-black racism and violence can be traced to the legacies of chattel slavery, the betrayal of the promises of post-Civil War reconstruction, Jim Crow laws and legal segregation, the Nixonian “War on Drugs,” the construction of a carceral state, the militarization of law enforcement, rising inequality under neoliberalism, and the devastating effects of COVID-19 on the black community. The cumulative effect of these mechanisms of perpetuation of racial hierarchy has been to weaken the vision of racial integration and justice that came out of the 1960s civil rights movement.

The African American community—and, to a lesser degree, the Latino community—has been criminalized and disenfranchised: they are massively overrepresented in the prison population, and their voting rights are infringed due to incarceration (so-called “felony disenfranchisement”). Stigma and fear motivate the base of the Republican Party, much of which is based on stereotypes that are continuously reinforced by right-wing politicians, Fox News, and other media. President Donald J. Trump from his bully pulpit has both contributed to anti-black violence and racism and benefitted from the ensuing malaise. He is not the first demagogue to play to prejudice and bigotry, but few can match his talent.

A self-absorbed and narcissistic personality may impede competent management of a pandemic, but it isn’t a liability when it comes to blame-shifting and race-baiting. What is truly disturbing about both Trump’s rise to power and approach to government is that he has built a political base of supporters who either embrace or willfully ignore the racist and misogynistic rhetoric he has uses and by which he gives them permission to indulge their own ignorance and intolerance. Rather than unifying and healing the country, Trump seeks to divide it. He does so because it serves the interests of his class. When he defends the names of military bases and statues of defeated traitors—the mediocre losers of a true American carnage—he is doing what racist oligarchs have always done. As Martin Luther King would have said, he is giving his base Jim Crow to eat: “If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.”

King understood that nothing so threatened the status quo like a broad coalition—men and women, people of all races and religions, rural and urban—with a shared commitment to justice and equality. It would threaten what Trump truly represents: the power and privileges of an oligarchy that can only survive through division and polarization. Only by a continual campaign of fear mongering can oligarchic interests secure the votes of those whose very interests they undermine. Only by continuously feeding their base with lies—about the “deep state”, about threats to guns ownership and other “freedoms,” about women, minorities, immigrants taking away jobs and opportunities—can oligarchic forces prevent the emergence of a vision of the nation consistent with its founding aspirations (if not reality): that all people are created equal, and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Republican Party has become an anti-system insurgency bent on the destruction of US democracy. It both contributes to governmental dysfunction, and then blames the ensuing dysfunctional on government. Since at least the Reagan era, it has abandoned the commitment to the mixed economy that emerged after the Second World War and contributed to shared and sustained prosperity. It has fully embraced a neoliberal ideology that less government is always better. Less well understood is that neoliberalism in the US has been motivated by, and has reinforced, racism.

Racism aids neoliberalism because redistributive policies help minorities get ahead. As Arlie Hochschild puts it, conservative white supporters of the Tea Party believe that they have been abandoned by a federal government. But they do not blame big corporations for capturing government and imposing policies that have widened the income gap and reduced social mobility. Instead, they have nurtured a sense of grievance with the wider culture. “They feel their cultural beliefs are denigrated by the culture at large. They feel that they’re seen as rednecks, that they live in a region that’s being discredited. Many of them are deeply devout, but they see the culture at large becoming more secular. And then they see economically that this trapdoor that used to only affect black people and people one class below them is now opening and gobbling up them and their children too.”

For decades Republican politicians have primed their base to hate and fear minorities. They have opposed affirmative action, entitlement programs, and “special interests,” all of which have become code words for helping minorities get ahead. Reagan propagated the racist myth of the “welfare queen,” the perpetrator of welfare fraud; the idea of the black male as a “super-predator” originated with the Reaganite, climate-denying, neoliberal Manhattan Institute. Even the core neoliberal value of choice has a racist tinge. As Nancy MacLean has carefully documented, early advocates of neoliberal thought in the United States supported the privatization of public education in part because they opposed the racial integration of schools. In short, racism has long been a barrier not only to the development of social democracy in the US but even basic education, healthcare, and other public services. Racism and neoliberalism fit hand-in-glove.

This brings us to a central puzzle in US politics today. Why is the Democratic Party unable to generate a compelling alternative to the extremist, racist, and anti-democratic politics of the Republicans? With lacklustre Joe Biden as their candidate, and growing internal divisions between democratic socialists like Bernie and OAC and the party leadership, the Democratic Party has trouble capitalizing on social movement activism. Rather than being propelled forward, Democrats struggle to balance the need to reassure moderate and easy to frighten suburban voters while energizing an increasingly radicalized base. The Party’s embrace of neoliberalism and abandonment of the working class as they cultivated allies on Wall Street has left much of the working class in the heartland sharing the sense of abandonment that pervades the deep south.

To understand the dynamic at work, consider Kenosha, Wisconsin. A quiet lakeside community of about 100,000 people, Kenosha used to be an automobile manufacturing town. Now it is mainly a bedroom community for people who work in Chicago, a couple of hours away by train. It has a liberal arts college and an industrial park.  About three quarters of the population is white, most of the rest are African American and Latino. Kenosha seemed like an unlikely flashpoint for racial tensions in the US unless one looked under the surface. A few years ago, after a robbery, the Kenosha county sheriff expressed the kind of tough-on-crime views that suggest a deeper problem of race relations. “These people have to be warehoused,” he said. “These people are no longer an asset to our community, and they just need to disappear.”

It was in Kenosha in August that the police shot Jacob Blake in the back as he left the scene of an altercation and attempted to get in his car. The killing lead to several days of protest, during which vehicles were burned and government buildings and businesses were damaged. The National Guard was called in to restore order, and armed vigilante groups began to appear. Their presence was welcomed by local law enforcement officers under the direction of the county sheriff, and one of the vigilantes allegedly shot and killed two protesters. There could be no more graphic example of white privilege than the fact that armed white militias could want unimpeded through police lines after discharging their weapons in protests against anti-black police violence.

When Trump visited Kenosha he did not speak with the Blake family but instead praised the efforts of local law enforcement and offered more funding for policing and to rebuild businesses.  He attacked “Antifa,” criminals, illegal immigrants, and deplored lawlessness in Democratic-run cities. Of the vigilante, he suggested he was acting in self-defence.

Trump’s visit was controversial: both the Mayor of Kenosha and the Governor of Wisconsin told him to stay away.  But as one older working class white resident of Kenosha said: “It’s the first time in a week my wife and I have felt we could come anywhere near downtown…It sends the right message about who is in charge and who needs to stand down, what kind of country this is supposed to be and how people ought to behave.”  He went on to reflect on the broader politics of the visit, saying: “If the pictures people are going to see of Kenosha on TV and stuff — all the boarded-up businesses and barricades — help to remind Americans of that, and that pushes the voters to return Trump to office, then Trump’s visit was certainly the right thing,”

Back in Washington, Trump criticized “Critical Race Theory” as “divisive, anti-American propaganda,” and argued for “Patriotic education” while downplaying the legacies of slavery. In the debate with Biden he refused to unequivocally condemn white supremacy, and after the vice-presidential debate he attacked Kamala Harris as a “monster.” He also criticized Gretchen Whitmer, Governor of Michigan, after she was targeted by an armed militia to be kidnapped and murdered, saying she should be grateful to him for the investigation that led to the arrest of the plotters. Trump’s repeated suggestion that his supporters have to be vigilant about fraud raised the spectre of armed factions showing up at polling stations.

As the New York Times put it “the president has increasingly made appeals to the grievances of white supporters a centerpiece of his re-election campaign.” Whether running as the defender of “white America” is a winning proposition is an important question.  Unless the United States can find a way to come to terms with its racist past and present, it will go down in history as proof that power and wealth mean nothing if the citizens of a nation cannot agree on how to live together.

Note. A version of this commentary appears in Quehacer in Peru.

Review of Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom

I am grateful to Douglas Kries (2019) for his review of Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom.  Kries is not in my camp, but a critical review is not only better than none, it offers an occasion for further reflection.

Kries notes that I am critical of neoliberalism, of money in politics and the oligarchical tendencies to which it gives rise, and of neoliberal leaders like Thatcher, Reagan, Pinochet and Trump. “The obvious rejoinder to Cameron’s critique of neoliberalism or free markets is that he does not seriously address the question of the importance of freedom. The American Founders, and others, thought that self-government was a good thing because through it citizen legislators, chosen by their fellow citizens, were able to exercise autonomy and advance liberty. Prudence was surely valuable to them, but they did not think they had to surrender governmental decision-making to a small group of elites in order to promote it. It is not clear that Cameron has thought through the implications his claims have for the idea of liberty.”

I find this objection puzzling since it is not clear why  prudence (or phronesis) should be opposed either to freedom or to self-government, and indeed full chapter of the book was devoted to the idea of development as freedom as understood by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. One could link free markets to political freedom, as neoliberal thinkers often do, but I find these arguments deeply problematic both in theory and practice (suffice it to mention the role of the Chicago Boys, including Friedman and Hayek, in Chile). More fundamentally, neoliberal prescriptions can undermine autonomy and liberty by inhibiting collective action in defense of the protection of rights and freedoms.

I think the more interesting point made by Kries is that Aristotle may not be relevant to contemporary pluralist societies. “The problem in recovering Aristotle’s notion for modern politics quickly comes to sight, however, as a disagreement about ends. In a ‘pluralistic’ age, there is no agreement about ends, or at least little agreement, and Aristotle is clear that if we get the ends wrong, prudential decision-making is just shrewdness or cleverness.” I think this is a very interesting problem.  “Cameron is to be credited with seeing the problem” says Kries. “He does not want to adopt an openly teleological position like Aristotle, however, as that would be opposed to ‘value pluralism,’ which he does not want to abandon. He tries to split the difference with what he calls ‘ethical convergence’ (75). He does not develop this position extensively, but apparently what he means is that the current pluralism of goods that we encounter in modern politics is ultimately destined to converge in a certain small set of goods.”

The first point I would make is that this problem is not limited to virtue ethics. The fact that in a pluralistic society there will always be differences with respect to the good creates profound challenges for political theory and practice.  Similar problems arise when we take a rights-based approach. Pluralistic societies are often divided on rights (consider abortion, sexual diversity, minority rights, and so forth). The fact that rights evolve, and that they conflict, and thus upholding rights is often a matter of balancing different rights-based claims, is not a good reason to suggest that there is something wrong with rights. Some rights become deeply entrenched, widely accepted, and robustly enforced, while others are more contested.  In other words, it is not clear to me how finding agreement on what is good is any different, in principle, from balancing rights. Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that more work has been done to understand rights and how to balance them in countries like Canada and the US. A similar argument could be made about utilitarianism, but it is a feeble defense of an argument to suggest that other theories fare no better.  So a more productive response is to develop the idea of convergence on the good.

We already agree on many common goods. As Andrew Yuengert says, “I think the case for despair over agreement on basic goods is overstated. We have more in common than we admit. If human flourishing were not a shared reality, we could not talk about people doing well or poorly in life, making good and bad decisions.” Common goods are not merely a matter of taste or preference. A good teacher will be able to educate her pupils more than a mediocre one. The good in question is the imparting of skills and knowledge to the pupil. Despite pluralism, any practice can be performed well or badly, and we generally recognize such differences. Indeed, our society can scarcely function without recognizing these differences.

Consider the pandemic: most publics had little difficulty recognizing that “flattening the epidemic curve” was a good worth pursuing. Public health measures are necessary to ensure our society flourishes. We also have a common interest in the capacity of our fellow citizens to transform resources at their disposal into improved functioning. The idea of investing in human capabilities rests on the idea that people are better off when they have acquired the skills and knowledge necessary to flourish. The insight is captured by the old saw: it is better to teach people how to fish than to give them fish.  If this is true, then what we are saying is that one gets closer to a good life when one has certain capabilities. A flourishing society demands investments in human capabilities.

The acquisition of moral skill and will is a developmental process. It involves culturally transmitted language and tools, the ability to use evidence and logic in reasoning, and the security and leisure time necessary to exercise citizenship rights. On simply cannot engage actively and fully in democratic self-government unless one has acquired a full set of capabilities, and these do not appear out of nowhere.

It is worth noting that these argument are in tension with neoliberalism. The human capabilities approach explicitly rejects the presumption that markets are sufficient to generate the goods we need to flourish. The idea that goods are not a matter of taste is anathema to any theory that assumes preferences must be given and not questioned. And the kind of policies necessary to ensure the full exercise of citizenship rights require a far more robust role for the state than neoliberalism allows.



Cameron, Maxwell A.  Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom: Between Rules and Practice. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Kries, Douglas. (2019). Review of Maxwell A. Cameron, Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom: Between Rules and Practice. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xi, 215.). The Review of Politics, 81(4), 695-697. doi:10.1017/S0034670519000433

The 2018 BC Referendum on Electoral Reform: The Challenge of Citizen Consultations

Maxwell A. Cameron
Megan Dias
Chuka Ejeckam

Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions
The University of British Columbia
Vancouver BC Canada V6T 1Z1

April 2019

Published as: Cameron, Maxwell A., Megan Dias and Chuka Ejeckam. “The 2018 BC Referendum on Electoral Reform: The Challenge of Citizen Consultations,” Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law, Vol. XIII, Special Issue on Election 2019.

Authors’ Note. Chuka Ejeckam and Megan Dias are the authors of a report on electoral reform written for the Broadbent Institute. Dias also worked with the Tyee to create an explainer video, while Ejeckam participated in a debate held by Simon Fraser University on electoral reform. Cameron was invited by the Attorney General of BC to offer advice on the public consultation process. He also submitted an expert report on proportional representation to the Ministry of the Attorney General. The views expressed in this paper are exclusively those of the authors.



Electoral reform events are rare (Nohlen 1984; Katz 2005: 58; Shugart 2008: 8), and case studies of rare phenomena are important (Gerring 2011: 1154). This study of a public consultation to change a voting system—the 2018 BC referendum on electoral reform—offers a glimpse into why electoral reform is difficult to achieve, and it provides insight into how reform efforts might be better designed. Although the status-quo prevailed, and the voting system was not changed, the process was worth documenting and analyzing. Our study highlights the importance of well-constructed measures of citizen consultation and engagement, the absence of which, in this case, weakened the effort to reform the electoral system.

There are three paradoxes of electoral reform. In the first place, as all political reformers know, those who hold power are typically unwilling to change the system through which they gained access to public office. That is why demands for reform often come from political outsiders who have not yet achieved power. Moreover, the will to reform is often diminished by success in attaining power. This paradox applies to the reform of electoral systems. Successful political parties have few incentives to change the electoral rules under which they came to power (Shugart 2008: 46, 54). Parties may advocate for reform when they are in opposition, and abandon reform once in power. For example, the federal Liberal Party came to power on a promise to make 2015 the last election under First Past the Post (FPTP, see glossary), a promise that was abandoned when it was elected with a majority government.

There is, however, a circumstance that might seem, at least intuitively, to favor electoral reform. Minority parliaments (see glossary) may be more likely to initiate electoral reform, especially when the balance of power is held by a smaller, under-represented party that has an unequivocal interest in a more proportional electoral system. This second paradox, however, is that the time horizons of minority governments may be short, while electoral reform often takes a number of electoral cycles to complete. Moreover, politicians may underestimate the complexity of changing electoral systems. In particular, they may fail to anticipate the need to build a broad, cross-partisan mandate for reform. So, while minority parliaments may initiate reform, they may not be able to bring the reform process to a successful conclusion.

A final paradox concerns partisanship. Some of the most important goals of electoral reform—for example, making the electoral results more proportional, encouraging more cooperation in the legislature, and so forth—are not fundamentally about specific parties or partisanship; indeed, one of the goals of electoral reform may even be to reduce partisanship. However, many of the changes that electoral reform is likely to bring have partisan implications, and those who have the power to change the electoral system are inevitably going to see the issue through partisan lenses. It is entirely to be expected that politicians will decide whether and how to change the electoral rules depending on expectations about whether they will be able to win elections under a new voting system.

Electoral systems are not necessarily a formal part of the constitutional structure of a democracy, but since they involve the rules by which we select those who rule it has become a norm in Canada that they must command broad and cross-partisan support. Changing the electoral system for partisan advantage is rightly seen as inappropriate. There is, therefore, a delicate balance to be found between partisanship and reform. If voters see reform as inappropriately motivated by partisanship, or as exacerbating excessive partisanship, they are less likely to support it. As we shall see, evidence from BC suggests that the process of electoral reform should, as much as possible, be arms-length from partisan politicians. Yet, partisanship is inevitably a driver for electoral reform.

How can these paradoxes of reform be overcome? A key lesson from the 2018 BC referendum is the importance of public consultations and their design. Around the world, a wide range of mechanisms and innovations have been devised to consult citizens, including citizens’ assemblies, deliberative polls, citizens juries. The use of such deliberative and participatory innovations might have taken key decisions out of the hands of politicians, and thereby addressed concerns about partisan manipulation of the process. However, to be successful, deliberative and participatory processes require a major investment of time and resources. Ideally, parties advocating reform should commit to these strategies during election campaigns—rather than advocating a particular outcome (whether a referendum or even a promise of change like “making 2015 the last election under First Past the Post” [Barton, Do 2015])—and pursue them over multiple electoral cycles.

We review the BC referendum on electoral reform and argue that the consultative process was flawed, but not for the reasons that were often suggested by journalists and pundits. Ironically, the BC referendum was criticized both because it ostensibly stacked the deck in favor or electoral reform and because it stacked the deck against electoral reform. In contrast, we argue that the process was flawed in its inability to engage citizens, provide space for public engagement, and deflect the objection that reform was motivated merely by partisan gain. Ironically, BC’s electoral system may have contributed to the flaws in the process. Although this article does not analyze the merits or demerits of alternative electoral systems, there is evidence that proportional representation contributes to less adversarial and more consensus-oriented politics (see, for example, Lijphart 1999: 275; Powell 2000). The politics of the electoral reform process reflected the polarization and winner-take-all tendencies typical of majoritarian systems.

The paper is organized into three substantive sections. The first section analyzes how the reform agenda was set, how the consultation process was designed, and how the ballot was constructed. The second section analyzes the referendum process. The third section analyzes the outcome. The paper concludes with lessons for future electoral reform initiatives, and, indeed, any initiative that aims to consult and engage citizens around a major public policy issue. We hope the analysis may be of interest and value to the movements, parties, and governments that seek to improve parliamentary government in Canada.

I. The Consultation Process
British Columbia held two referendums on electoral reform before 2018. After a 1996 election which saw the BC NDP form government despite winning fewer votes than the Liberals, and having won a greatly exaggerated majority in 2001, taking 77 out of 79 seats despite receiving only 58 percent of the vote, the Liberal party proceeded to deliver on the promise of a Citizens’ Assembly made during the election campaign (Carty, Blais, Fournier 2008: 141). The Assembly chose the Single Transferable Vote system (see glossary), and the proposal was put to a vote in a referendum in May 2005. Although Single Transferable Vote was favored by an absolute majority (58 percent, and a majority in 77 of 79 ridings), it fell short of the 60 percent threshold set by the Liberal government. A subsequent referendum did not change the outcome: 61 percent of the electorate opted to keep FPTP in May 2009.

In 2017, the NDP, led by John Horgan, ran on the promising of changing BC’s voting system to a proportional system. So did the BC Green Party, under the leadership of Andrew Weaver. Indeed, the Greens were open to introducing proportional representation through legislation without a referendum. The result of the election not only gave a barest of majorities to parties that favored electoral reform, it also reinforced some of the reasons motivating reform. When the final ballots were counted, the result was 43 seats for Liberals, 41 for the NDP, and 3 for the Greens (Shaw 2017). The Greens won only 3 of 87 seats despite winning almost 17 percent of the popular vote. The result placed the Greens in a position of king-maker regarding forming government, and strongly motivated to change the electoral system.

Since no party commanded an absolute majority in the legislature, talks were held between the Greens and both the Liberals and NDP (see Shaw and Zussman 2018). Weaver put PR on the table, but did not see it as a deal-breaker (Hoekstra 2018). Despite pessimism about whether a stable minority or coalition government could be formed (Laanela 2017), a supply and confidence arrangement (see glossary) was ultimately reached between the NDP and the Greens (“B.C.’s NDP” 2017; “BC NDP and Greens” 2017). As part of the deal, the two parties agreed to hold a referendum on proportional representation in 2018, which created an extremely quick timeline. After Premier Christy Clark resigned in early August 2017, the NDP quickly formed government and, in its throne speech, promised to set the terms for a referendum to take place no later than November of 2018.

Newly appointed Attorney General David Eby was recused from cabinet deliberations in order to serve as neutral arbiter in the process. He set out to launch a process of consultation via a government website, (Palmer 2017). In addition to the online questionnaire, which was open to the public at large, the polling firm Ipsos was commissioned for study of public opinion that would be statistically representative. A team of civil servants in the Ministry of the Office of the Attorney General was charged with coordinating the process. The initial options presented during the survey and public consultation included systems widely used throughout Europe and around the world.

Policy experts pushed back: why not consider newer and more innovative made-in-Canada approaches? A submission to the government by an ad hoc group of electoral system experts, the “BC Symposium on Proportional Representation,” recommended, inter alia: Dual Member Proportional (DMP), Rural Urban Proportional (RUP), and Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) as well as a number of other systems. DMP is an innovative system that would have created binomial ridings in which the primary candidate for each party would be chosen by plurality and the secondary by proportional representation. MMP was a well-known system, pioneered by Germany and adopted by New Zealand in the 1990s. Rural Urban Proportional (RUP) was a combination of Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) in the rural areas, and Single Transferable Vote (STV) in the cities (BC Symposium on Proportional Representation 2018).

The Attorney General sided with the experts. Eby ignored the recommendation of his own caucus and the BC Greens–who made a joint submission recommending a mandate-only question (that is, no specific PR system would be on the ballot). The government did not, however, consider the experts’ warnings that meaningful public engagement takes time and must be carefully designed (Thomas 2018), and that rushing into a referendum would prove hazardous for this government. Instead, the government pushed ahead, and on May 30 details of the referendum were released by the Office of the Attorney General (“B.C. government” 2018).
A controversial decision by the Attorney General was the use of a two-part ballot structure. The first question would establish public support for the principle of proportionality. The second would ask which PR system voters prefer. Voters were given the opportunity to rank their preferences of the three PR systems offered; Dual-Member Proportional, Mixed-Member Proportional, and Rural-Urban Proportional. Voters were permitted to rank these options regardless of their answer to the first question. As well, voters could rank one, two, or all three of the choices as they saw fit. The outcome of the second question was to be determined by plurality. Per the referendum’s design, the outcome of the second question would only take effect if changing to PR received majority support on the first question.

There were good reasons for this approach. First, a majority (58 percent) of those who responded to the survey said voters should be able to rank order their support for alternative systems. Second, it is pointless to rank alternatives unless there is agreement on the principle of proportionality. And there is no mandate for change unless that principle is explicitly established. There is an implicit hierarchy in the decision voters faced. At the highest level, they were asked whether they wanted PR. The second-order question was which PR system would be best. Third, polling suggests that FPTP is likely to be the plurality winner among electoral systems—it is, after all, the devil voters know. PR supporters often fail to converge on a single alternative, yet prefer any PR system to the status quo. The best way to test this claim directly was to ask the question directly. Fourth, voters who favor the current systems, but want a say over which PR alternatives is picked if there is a change, can express both preferences. Similarly, voters can choose PR without taking a position on the type of system.

A similar ballot was used in New Zealand in a referendum on electoral reform in 1992. The first part of the ballot asked voters if they wanted to retain FPTP or change the system, and the second part gave voters a choice between four different system. However, New Zealand held a second referendum in 1993 in which voters were given a choice between FPTP and MMP, which was the system that was preferred by the largest number of voters on the second part of the ballot in the 1992 referendum. MMP was introduced in 1996, and reaffirmed in a referendum in 2011.

The BC NDP pursued a high-risk strategy by presenting voters with three unfamiliar alternatives and putting them to a vote without giving citizens a chance to familiarize themselves with each of the systems. The Office of the Attorney General had the benefit of hearing expert and public opinion, but citizens were not given meaningful opportunities to engage in a discussion of what should be on the ballot. Although the public was surveyed, and had the option of submitting proposals to the BC government, most voters found themselves thrust into a referendum with a low level of knowledge of why electoral reform was on the agenda, and little understanding of the options on the ballot and why they were chosen. Nevertheless, for better or worse–and far from stacking the deck–the process was an attempt to give voters a choice that reflected the best available thinking among electoral reform experts. Rather than an excessively politicized process, it was, if anything, an expert-driven process. But since it was not transparent, credence was given to the suggestion that the reform effort was primarily motivated by partisanship. Not surprisingly, voters quickly divided down partisan lines.

II. The Referendum Process
When, on May 30, the office of BC Attorney General released its report detailing the results of the consultation process, it also stipulated a set of conditions any future electoral system would need to meet, outlined the post-referendum process through which the new system would be implemented, and laid the groundwork for legislation to regulate the referendum process itself. There were three specific requirements of any proportional representation system to be implemented (Attorney General of BC, 2018: 7). These were: (1) that electoral reform could not produce an increase of more than eight Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in the province, (2) that electoral reform could not reduce the number of MLAs serving any region of the province, and (3) that no party receiving less than 5 per cent of the popular vote would receive sets in the provincial legislature. The report also indicated that specific details of any new system would have to be determined after the vote by an all-party committee (Attorney General of BC, 2018: 7).

The referendum’s official voting period spanned from October 22 to November 30, during which period mail-ballots were distributed to voters to be returned to Elections BC. Ballots could also be submitted in-person at any Referendum Service Office, the locations of which were identified on the Elections BC website. The referendum’s official campaigning period began on July 1 and ran until the end of the voting period. On November 23, Elections BC announced the deadline for ballot return would be extended by one week, to December 7, citing ongoing Canada Post strikes as reason for the decision.

The province’s Chief Electoral Officer was empowered to provide non-partisan information to voters regarding the referendum (Attorney General of BC, 2018: 7). A website was created to inform voters of the three PR systems offered, and provide information regarding the referendum process itself. Two organizations were selected to act as the official proponents and opponents of electoral reform in the referendum. The group Vote PR BC was selected to support changing to a PR system, while the No BC Proportional Representation Society was selected as the official opponents. Both groups were granted $500,000 to conduct their campaigns between July 1 and December 7. The groups were also permitted to accept campaign contributions of up to $1,200 from Canadian citizens and permanent residents of British Columbia. Specific requirements were made of the groups’ operations, including providing their name and contact information in all advertising, spending no more than $700,000 total on the referendum campaign, and filing disclosure reports with Elections BC.

In addition to the several unofficial debates between opponents and proponents of electoral reform which occurred during the referendum campaign, at least two officially sanctioned debates took place. On October 22, representatives of the official ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ sides of the campaign met in a debate hosted by the Vancouver Sun. On November 8, CBC Vancouver hosted a 30-minute electoral reform debate between Premier John Horgan of the BC NDP and BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson. Horgan spoke in favour of adopting proportional representation, while Wilkinson spoke against.

After the voting period closed on December 7th, Elections BC took two weeks to review the ballots and tally the results. They released the results at a press conference on December 20th.

III. The Outcome
The status-quo prevailed, and by a wider margin than expected; 61.3 percent of those who voted supported FPTP, 38.7 percent voted for PR. Voter turnout was 41.2 percent, lower than either of the two previous referendums on electoral reform in BC–turnout was 61.48 percent in the 2005 referendum, and 55.12 percent in 2009. As for what PR systems British Columbians support, MMP was most favoured, with 63.05 percent of voters ranking it first, on the second round of counting. However, there were significantly fewer responses to the second question of the referendum question than to the first. Indeed, 1,391,423 ballots were received and considered by Elections BC. Of these ballots, 99.09 percent answered the first question, while only 59.78 percent answered the second question.

From the numbers released, it is not possible to tell whether those who voted for proportional representation in the first question were more likely to answer the second question as well, but this seems logical. Proportional representation only won over 50 percent of the votes in 16 of BC’s 87 ridings. Of these 16, 14 were located in the Lower Mainland or Vancouver Island — 8 in the Lower Mainland, and 6 on Vancouver Island. Of the 8 in the Lower Mainland, 7 were in Vancouver proper. Of the 6 in Vancouver Island, only 1 was north of Victoria. Interestingly, these results are very similar to those of the 2009 referendum. On that occasion, support for PR was mainly concentrated in the Lower Mainland and the southern part of Vancouver Island.

Several exit polls, released after the results were made known, offered possible insights into why voters voted the way they did. An Angus Reid exit poll suggested that the voters’ partisan leanings were a significant predictor of how they voted. 70 percent of those who supported the NDP in 2017, and 74 percent of those who voted for the Green Party, voted for proportional representation, while only 16 percent of those who supported the BC Liberals did (Angus Reid, 2018). The same poll also suggested that 41 percent of voters had made up their mind before the campaign even began, perhaps already influenced by these partisan cues. This poll also found striking differences in age cohorts. 67 percent of those between the ages of 18-34, and 54 percent of those between the ages of 35-54, stated that they voted for PR. Only 35 percent of those above 55 said the same. Of those who voted for proportional representation, 78 percent said that the fact that their “vote will matter more in a PR system” was a major reason for their vote. 76 percent said that the current system creates unfair results. 65 percent said it will force politicians to compromise more. Interestingly, 47 percent acknowledged that the fact that the BC NDP and the BC Green supported PR influenced their vote. Of those who voted for FPTP; 68 percent said it was because it was the “best system available,” 65 percent said they did not want more minority or coalition governments, 63 percent said they saw no reason to change, 62 percent thought FPTP was easier to understand than the other proposed systems, and 58 percent said that they were greatly worried about the rise of fringe political parties under PR.

A Research Co. exit poll reported results similar to the outcome of the referendum. The poll, which was conducted online between 18-20 December 2018 among 803 respondents in British Columbia, revealed why such a large percentage of British Columbians decided not to vote in the referendum. According to the President of Research Co., Mario Canseco, “not feeling informed enough” was the number one reason eligible voters gave for not voting (Canseco, 2018). The same survey found that voters were wary of the process by which reform was undertaken. 41 percent of the respondents strongly agreed, and 35 percent moderately agreed with the statement: “Politicians are in a conflict of interest when it comes to making decisions about how we vote, so any future proposals should involve an independent, non-partisan citizens’ body.” Similarly, 21 percent strongly agreed, and 34 percent moderately agreed with the statement: “An independent, non-partisan process should be set up to reflect on the results of this referendum and recommend what British Columbia should do next.”

Finally, the survey asked the following question:
Suppose an arms-length review panel recommended that British Columbia hold another referendum on electoral reform at the time of the next election with guarantees addressing the major concerns that arose in the recent referendum. Now suppose that the ballot question were the following: “British Columbia is proposing to elect our MLAs by Proportional Representation. This means that the MLAs elected in each region would accurately reflect the diversity of political views in each region. The number of MLAs in each region of BC would stay the same and voters would vote for individual candidates, not for party lists. There would be a moderate threshold to encourage parties to have broad policy platforms.” “If voters endorse Proportional Representation, an independent citizens’ panel with representatives from around the province would deliberate on and recommend a final system that would be voted on in the legislature in a free vote. If accepted, there would be a confirmation referendum after we have used the new system at least twice.” How would you vote? Choose one.
In this scenario, 41 percent definitely or probably would vote for PR, while 36 percent definitely or probably would vote for FPTP. 18 percent were not sure. Imagining such a scenario caused voters who voted for FPTP in the 2018 referendum to change their mind, as well. Of these voters, 15 percent said they would support PR if it was recommended by an independent body of citizens, and another 15 percent said they would be undecided (Canseco 2018).

Whatever the reasons for the voters’ choices, the outcome was clear and unequivocal. All politicians accepted it, and expressed a willing to move on from the issue of electoral reform. John Horgan released a statement saying that, while he was disappointed, he respects the result. Finance Minister Carole James took this further. In a press conference, she stated that “electoral reform is finished.” Andrew Wilkinson argued that the result was a “clear message” that British Columbians do not want reform. In his statement, he also reiterated his belief that the process was “flawed” and that the NDP had “stacked the deck” in favour of reform (Eagland, 2018).
Several weeks after the results were made known, David Eby spoke out, defending the process and the ballot structure (Shaw, 2019). He stated that the first question gave citizens a clear option: do they want to keep the current system, or move to a proportional one? He defended the second ballot question by saying that advocates for reform, and British Columbians in general, could not agree on a single preferred system. Putting multiple systems on the ballot and allowing voters to rank them reflected this, and gave voters a meaningful choice. Eby ultimately said he would not change the process at all. While he did muse whether a Citizens’ Assembly would have affected the outcome, he said he personally believed the referendum result reflected the preferences of British Columbians (Shaw, 2019).

We began by observing that a party that has won under a given set of electoral rules may feel it has little to gain from changing those rules. In the case of BC’s electoral reform initiative, however, the NDP leadership appeared to have decided that the benefits of electoral reform, or at least the benefits of fulfilling an election promise, outweighed the potential costs of remaining with the status quo. The fact that the NDP and the Greens were able to work effectively together in a supply and confidence arrangement pointed to the potential upside of an electoral system that would make coalitions and minority governments more commonplace. The Greens in particular were motivated to change an electoral system that clearly disadvantaged them. However, the cooperation of the NDP and the Greens may also have created in the minds of some voters the impression that these two parties were seeking to change the electoral laws to transform a temporary partisan advantage into an institutionalized feature of the political system. This impression was reinforced by the rapid pace of reform which was also a reflection of the minority position of the NDP. This brings us back to our second paradox of reform: Minority governments may not have the time horizons necessary to carry through on such a difficult and challenging process.

In particular, minority governments may not have the patience to create arms-length, credible, and broad public consultation. The recusal of the Attorney General was insufficient to create a sense that there was a genuinely neutral arbiter overseeing the process. Experts played a role in shaping the process, but not a sufficiently visible public role such as might have given citizens confidence that the process was guided by the public interest. Without meaningful public deliberation and participation, reform foundered on partisan dynamics that are toxic to achieving public goods. In the 2005 referendum–the only referendum in which PR received majority support–the vote was preceded by a Citizens’ Assembly that gave voters explicit input in determining which systems to present for the public to vote on, and created effective electoral-reform ambassadors whom had received extensive education on electoral systems that they could share within their communities. As the Research Co. survey notes, voters’ sense of not being sufficiently informed was a significant motivator for both voting ‘No’ in the referendum, and not voting at all.

The ‘Yes’ campaign was unable to turn dissatisfaction with the FPTP voting system into support for change. A potential majority of British Columbians may well prefer a system that reduces the need for strategic voting and does not generate false majorities. But such sentiments were insufficient to overcome the reservations many voters had about changing the system. On balance, we believe that the 2018 referendum provides compelling evidence that the type and quality of public consultation matters. Voters’ survey responses, and evidence from past referendums suggest that voters are open to change, and that they value broad and rigorous public consultation, but unless the decision-making process is taken out of the hands of politicians, and voters are provided with the information they need to make an informed choice, the public remain skeptical of partisan manipulation.



Attorney General of BC, May 30, 2018. How We Vote: 2018 Electoral Reform Referendum. Report and Recommendations of the Attorney General. British Columbia.
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“B.C.’s NDP and Greens join forces,” May 29, 2017. CBC news.
“BC NDP and Greens ratify deal to work together,” May 30, 2017. The Canadian Press & News 1130,
BC Symposium on Proportional Representation. February 28, 2018. “Recommendations on Election Reform in British Columbia,” Vancouver, BC.
Canseco, Mario. 2018. “Confusion Influenced Referendum Voters in British Columbia,” Research Co.
Carty, R. Kenneth, André Blais, and Patrick Fournier, 2008. “When Citizens Choose to Reform SMP: The British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform,” in Blais, André, ed. To Keep or To Change First Past the Post: The Politics of Electoral Reform. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 140-162.
Eagland, Nick. 2018. “No change: B.C. voters back first-past-the-post system in electoral reform referendum.” Vancouver Sun. Last accessed: January 9, 2019
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Glossary of Terms

Coalition: two or more parties, with enough seats between them to command the trust and confidence of the House, agree to form government and share cabinet or other appointments.
Dual Member Proportional (DMP): A PR system in which most districts would be amalgamated with a second district to create two-member districts. Parties would nominate pairs of candidates in each district, and each voter would cast one ballot. The first candidate would be elected on the basis of the plurality result, as in FPTP; the second would be allocated on the basis of the province-wide vote and the individual district results (Attorney General of BC 2018: 3).
First-Past-The-Post (FPTP): An electoral system based on constituency-level competitions among candidates from different parties. Each riding is carried by the candidate who wins a plurality of votes. Also called Single Member Plurality (SMP).
Mixed Member Proportional: A “hybrid form of PR combines single member districts elected by plurality with a compensatory party list that is utilized to ensure that the overall election results are proportional for the parties.” (Pilon 2007: 184).
Minority government: government is formed by a party that does not have a majority of seats in parliament.
Proportional Representation: A family of electoral systems based on the principle that the proportion of seats for each party in a legislature should roughly match its share of the popular vote (Pilon 2007: 185).
Rural-Urban Proportional Representation (RUPR): STV is used to fill seats in multimember districts in urban areas, while MMP is used in most rural areas. “In the MMP regions, a small number of List PR seat are filled proportionally on a regional basis.” (Attorney General of BC 2018: 4).
Single Member Plurality (SMP): See First-Past-The-Post (FPTP).
Single Transferable Vote: “A form of PR where voters mark their preferences (i.e. 1,2,3, and so on) over the range of candidates in a multi-member riding and candidates who obtain the quota are declared elected” (Pilon 2007: 185).
Supply and confidence: An arrangement in which parties agree to support each other in votes of confidence and on budgets to ensure the survival of a minority government.



Maxwell A. Cameron is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia (UBC), in which capacity he runs an annual Summer Institute for Future Legislators. His research focuses on comparative democratization (especially in Latin America), constitutions, and ethics in politics. His publications include Strong Constitutions (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Megan Dias holds a Masters of Arts in Political Science from the University of British Columbia (UBC). Megan has written about electoral reform for several Canadian newspapers, and has given public lectures on reform in BC. She is currently working as a Program Coordinator with the Institute for Future Legislators at Ryerson.

Chuka Ejeckam is a Master’s student in the Political Science Department at the University of British Columbia (UBC), and has worked as a research assistant in UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI), as well as with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). He has written for the Broadbent Institute on topics including drug policy and electoral reform, and served as a facilitator at CSDI’s annual Summer Institute for Future Legislators. His work focuses on political and economic inequality, drug policy, and labour.

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