Documenting the Referendum

Pity the poor Vote for MMP side in the October 10, 2007 referendum. (MMP is a form of proportional representation known as mixed-member proportional.) The MMP side never stood a chance for many reasons:

  • most of the major newspapers were against MMP
  • the referendum was held on the same day as the election
  • very little was spent promoting the referendum
  • the referendum campaign by elections Ontario was so neutral as to be meaningless
  • the referendum was never a major election issue
  • people were confused before and after the voting
  • most people did not even bother to research the referendum

Regarding the voters and the ballot, it was reported that one scrutineer said: “They walk in and say, ‘What do I do with this thing?’ People don’t get it. They want to get it. But they just don’t get it.”
The referendum was voted down by almost a 2-to-1 margin. Only 37% of people voted for it, which interestingly, is only 5% less than the 42% that voted to elect the Liberals and give them, even more interestingly, 66% of the seats.

Whether you are happy or angry with the results, though, is really irrelevant now. The question for information developers is: To what degree, if any, did the informational design, content and delivery of the referendum campaign and the ballot itself influence the result?

I reviewed the content of the official Elections Ontario referendum website. Although it presented the facts fairly well, I don’t think it did a good enough job explaining the pros and cons of each system. Still, I think it contained enough information for people to at least try to make an informed decision.

The government sent a brochure to every voter, indicating a referendum was to be held, and ran regular ads in all the major newspapers. The ballot itself was quite clear: Do you want to keep the current system, or go with the one proposed by the citizens’ assembly?

The information was out there, so why were so many voters confused?

I don’t think the problem was as much with the information itself, as with the timing of the information, and indeed the referendum itself. An election is a complicated enough business as it is on its own – you throw in another, separate vote, and it’s just going to get lost in the shuffle, no matter how well you try to explain it to people.

The principle actually reared its ugly head in the election itself – one issue came to dominate the campaign almost to the exclusion of all others – fully funding religious schools. Religion and politics are two extremely sensitive topics. Combine them together, and all other election issues fade away.
So, would the result have been different if the referendum had been held separately from the election? Possibly – at the very least, I think there would have been more awareness. In the final analysis, though, people would still have to make an effort to learn what’s being proposed.

The lessons for information developers are clear:

  • Too much information can be as bad as no information.
  • A document is only as valuable as the willingness of its reader to use it.

Now if only they had had professional information architects designing the infamous butterfly ballot

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