Re-thinking referenda

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.


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