Thursday, October 28, 2010

The 1995 Quebec referendum question

Despite the relatively straightforward design of Quebec's 1995 referendum ballot (a black ballot with two white boxes, one containing the wording in French and the other in English, with two equal sized circles at the bottom marked YES or NO), the ballot caused much controversy in the 1995 Quebec referendum campaign.  The wording of the ballot question was criticized by supporters of the "No" campaign for being confusing.  For instance, Lucienne Robillard, one of the main organizers of the committee, criticized the 54-word question for the language appearing after "Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign", mainly because it made reference to a Bill on the future of Quebec and an agreement signed June 12, 1995.  She argued that most voters had not read the bill or the agreement and did not know what they contained.  Some went further and suggested that the wording was misleading because it referred first to "a formal offer to Canada for a new Economic and Political Partnership" and then later referred to a signed agreement, leading some to believe that an agreement with Canada on a new partnership had already been made (when in fact, the agreement was between leaders of the "Yes" campaign on what the offer to Canada would contain.)  Jean Chretien, Prime Minister of Canada, criticized the question for using the somewhat ambiguous term "sovereign" rather than "independent" or "separate" to describe what Quebec would become after a "YES" vote.

I do not agree that the question was misleading-- the contents of the bill and the agreement had been publicly known for months and copies had been mailed to every home.  Having examined the wording of other questions I would describe it as less than ideal because it is:
- long: at 54 words, it is difficult to imagine that most people read the question in the ballot box before voting;
- contains outside references to other documents
- uses technical and legal jargon (eg., "within the scope of the bill respecting").

I would also argue that the use of the term "sovereign" also fits into the category of legal jargon-- its meaning is relatively well known to public international law experts but not to the general public and thus best left out of a referendum question.  This is a politically charged issue in Quebec, unfortunately, because polls indicate that "sovereignty for Quebec" tends to be a more popular option than "independence for Quebec" or "separation from Canada", even though Lucien Bouchard, spokesman for the "Yes" campaign, was of course perfectly correct when he pointed out (after the referendum) that all three of these expressions mean in practice the same thing.  Because one option is more popular with voters than the others, "Yes" supporters call themselves "sovereignty" while "No" supporters tend to call it "separation."  Because of the close results of the 1995 referendum vote, this rather sterile debate over the terminology used on the referendum ballot has the potential to be a decisive factor in the outcome of the vote, if ever there were another independence referendum in Quebec.

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