Re-thinking referenda

Posted by: | April 1, 2008 | 10 Comments

Today is the last day to vote in this year’s AMS referendum. The results of the four questions will determine if we continue to have a U-pass program, if we’ll start subsidizing refugee students, if we’ll build a new SUB, and if we’ll make some by-law changes. The reason you need to we cajoled, marketed, and advertised into voting in this referendum by everything from t-shirts to 99 B-line ads is that according to the AMS’s bylaws, certain things cannot be enacted by a simple vote of council, but need to get a mandate from students directly through a referendum. These things are any fee increases, and any changes to the bylaws themselves. Since referenda are expensive to run, inherently risky results-wise, and have a high quorum level (10% of students), they often fail.

Referenda used to be run more often (about once a year) before the advent of the U-pass. They failed quite often due to lack of quorum, or lack of support (I’ll update with numbers as soon as I find out). Now, the AMS is running referenda less often, to coincide with the U-pass renewals every three years, which draw large numbers of voters. That means that other question can piggy-back on the U-pass and basically ensure quorum.

Now that’s fine as far as it goes, but here’s a different idea for how referenda can be used. Instead of once every while, and only when absolutely necessary for a fee or by-law change, a new type of referendum system could be invented to help with the democratic deficit in the AMS. As we all know, the AMS isn’t especially representative because of low voter turnout, ignorance, and apathy. And this ultimately erodes the AMS’s efficacy and power as a democratic organization. Imagine a real direct democracy system that asked students about issues. Regular yearly or bi-yearly referenda on issues would certainly draw lower voter turnout than a U-pass renewal for instance, but they would give the AMS clear mandates to address various types of topics in a certain way. The results of such referenda need not even be technically binding – they could be “consultative referenda” of sorts. A win could result in automatic placement on AMS council’s agenda. If a question on such a consultative referendum had a lot of support, there would be political pressure in council to enact whatever it is. The point is to get ideas and issues to filter up from the grassroots student towards the AMS through a more populist issues-focused process than elections, which tend to be more about personality and networks. For this to work, many details would have to be thought out: how to qualify for placement on the ballot, how to administer/fund regular referenda, how much clout the results should be given, and so on.

Essentially though, direct democracy may have benefits to the AMS in terms of political engagement. Right now, I wouldn’t say that it’s impossible to get something onto council’s agenda as a normal student (if you go through an executive), but there’s certainly no established process for doing so. And even if something does get on the agenda, councilors are often unsure of what the popular opinion toward it would be. A regular consultative referendum system would provide both a mechanism to filter ideas up through the organization, and provide political consensus behind them. Some countries (New Zealand, Switzerland) have frequent policy referenda. Perhaps we can learn from them.


10 Comments so far

  1. Blake on April 1, 2008 9:09 am

    Maayan – I agree entirely with the spirit of this post. I think that getting students involved with the democratic process and having Council take its mandate (at least partially) from students directly is a very good thing. There seem to be some fairly substantial logistical nightmares with this kind of project though:

    1) Voter turnout and participation in the process will probably be somewhat difficult to encourage.
    2) Referenda cost a lot of money to run. You could argue that since we wouldn’t be running campaigns, the cost wouldn’t be that great, but I think that these costs will be absorbed by the campaign to get students involved in the process.

    Now, I have hastily accepted the principle of the project you’ve described, but I’m interested to hear some other opinions on this. The cost and feasibility of the project is entirely secondary to this issue and so should probably be left for future consideration.

  2. Stephen McCarthy on April 1, 2008 9:27 am

    Other opinions? Well… theoretically, this is why we have elections – to elect people who represent the student’s will. On a large scale, this works out somewhat well as there are real political divides. Thus whoever is elected can (a bit tenuously given our electoral system) claim a mandate and go about doing government.

    This is a bit more problematic in student government – no-one ran seriously for VP Admin in my race on an anti-SUB Renew platform, for example, and now we’re seeing some significant naysayers. When elections appear more like a popularity contest than a real issues-based, mandate-providing contest, perhaps we do need to do directly to students more often on more issues?

  3. Matthew Naylor on April 1, 2008 4:07 pm

    It seems to me that Canadian convention on the use of ‘Referendum’ is that that word indicates binding power over a body with supremacy (Parliament or the Legislative Assembly), while ‘Plebiscite’ is non-binding, like the Calgary one to ban fluoride in drinking water.

  4. Anonymous on April 1, 2008 5:04 pm

    I fear that it may disinterest students even more. You have that now with all the ‘spam’ for the referendum. Imagine if you got an email every few months telling you to vote on Proposition 17b: urging the Student Council to think about considering the notion of having less pop at AMS meetings because pop is evil.

    I dunno, seems like it could have bad consequences with a vocal minority that is very dedicated to voting. Such a minority could strong-arm such plebiscites and send confused messages to the AMS.

    Other than that, it could work as a gage on student interest in matters. Though, I think, you first have to work on the information collapse between avg. students and the AMS.

    Case-in-point: student court decision. The AMS hasn’t said a peep about it. Instead, its up to the Ubyssey, the Knoll, Facebook, UBC Insiders, and word of mouth.

  5. Bruce on April 1, 2008 6:35 pm

    I think we have a way to ensure that only valid/worthwhile questions go to plebicite (Students Assembly), and to ensure that good information is available to students (VFM and Students Assembly). My only concerns are 1) without being able to levy fees or change bylaws, will many questions be put forth? and 2) How do we ensure high enough voter turnout that what students think has more influence than who votes?
    Does anyone know what kinds of questions used to be put on the ballot when referenda were yearly?

  6. Anonymous on April 1, 2008 7:21 pm

    maybe the ams needs a new publication to help it better communicate with students…?

    the ubyssey used to serve this function, until it was shut down and then reopened as an independent publication.

  7. Geoff on April 2, 2008 12:10 am

    This strikes me as a continuation of the perpetual argument about how to get student more involved in their community and government. Similar to Blake, I think that this idea is a swell one, the AMS seems to lack direction on a lot of issues and with the lower turnout at elections no one is to say how democratic the system truly is.
    As a relative outsider of the details of AMS affairs, I think one thing that scares people off is how serious many students take the AMS and other bodies. Don’t jump on me yet, let me explain.

    Look at many of the issues on campus today and you often see very polarized sides launching attacks (often personal) across a sea of so-far uninvolved voters. I would guess that many of these students just tend to tune out and not want to get involved in the bickering and jibberjabber.
    I think an approach that would create an opportunity to have more student input would just be a permanent booth on the SUB concourse, manned by an exec at busy times such as lunch. This would show that the AMS really is involved and cares about students. Just having the opportunity to ask questions and voice opinions might not directly increase voter turnout but I think a better educated student body would.

    I guess there could be a mandate for AMS council to read over some of the constructive comments for discussion.

    Just throwing it out there as always. Any thoughts?

  8. Mike Thicke on April 2, 2008 12:11 am

    Great post Maayan. There’s no reason for these to cost much more than it costs us to run a website poll. You just need some better security and integrity measures, and perhaps to pay a couple of people to table for a day.

    If these got running, they would need to be binding. You could probably specify different quorum levels for different types of proposals.

    A Students’ Assembly would be ideal for filtering proposals and working out implementation details.

    It would be great to see the AMS move towards a more direct-democracy model of operation. (At this point any democracy at all would be an improvement though ;-) ).

  9. Anonymous on April 2, 2008 3:40 am

    Well put Mike!

  10. maayan kreitzman on April 2, 2008 4:20 am

    Thanks for the comments guys. This, in conjunction with a students’ assembly is actually something that the committee I chair is looking into proposing.

    For me the biggest difficulty is making sure there’s a level of turnout that’s meaningful. I hope that issues-based questions will eventually build a culture of direct democracy on campus, but it might be hard in the begining anyway.

    Mike – there are technical reasons why it would be hard to make regular referenda binding. As you probably know, the rules for official referenda are laid out in the by-laws. These would not be conductive to having a new approval process through a students’ assembly, different quorum levels, etc.

    Like Bruce said, another constraint is that if such refernda are not binding,(thus “consultative referenda”) they can’t really ask questions about things that require by-law changes.

    by the way Geoff – Executives are already supposed to do one of their office hours per week in a public location by code. (also from our committee). Whether they do or not is another issue. COme to think of it, I did see Stef Ratjen tabling today about the reduced funding …

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