Referendum Vs Plebiscite – Not To Be Confused!

March 13, 2015

In Vancouver, we’re starting to see the onslaught of advertisements that go along with the upcoming vote on the proposed Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax to assist in improving transit options. The vote runs from March 16 – May 29.

Politics aside, let’s focus on the communication in the advertisements as there is a fundamental difference. The terms “referendum” and “plebiscite” have both been used, almost interchangeably in various print articles in local and regional papers and radio advertisements. These words denote very different calls to action for the result of the vote. Elections BC is calling this a plebiscite, and the Mayor’s Council is calling it a referendum. So what’s the difference?

A referendum poses a yes or no vote to the electorate and calls for the results of the vote to be legally binding.

A plebiscite poses a yes or no vote to the electorate and does not require the results to be legally binding. However, the results may be used to influence legislation. The plebiscite can be held either in person or by mail.

After seeking clarification from both parties, this vote is in fact a plebiscite, meaning that the while the results are not automatically enacted into legislation, they can be honoured. BC Premier Christy Clark promised a referendum on transportation to the electorate after being re-elected. Control of the vote was given to the Mayor’s council. The use of the plebiscite also permits the use of mail in votes, a cheaper option if held outside of a government election.

Regardless, this is a stark difference in terms and clarification needs to be communicated to the public.

Historical referendums in Canada:

  • 2005, Single Transferable Vote (BC)
  • 1995, Quebec Referendum (National)
  • 1898, Prohibition (National)

Historical Plebiscites

  • 2003, Vancouver Olympic Bid
  • 2014, Kitimat District plebiscite on Northern Gateway

– Amanda Jarl, Analyst