On October 30, 1995, after a long and fractious referendum campaign, the Province of Quebec voted by a slim margin not to secede from Canada. It was the second time in 16 years that the province had voted not to go its own way.

In 1980, the separatists were decisively defeated, almost 60% to 40%, on a large turnout of 85%. Even if all the 628,730 people who didn't vote in 1980 had been added to the OUI vote, the secessionists still would have lost 49.15% to 50.85%, almost identical to the final result 16 years later.

The Cold War was still raging in 1980. The threat of nuclear annihilation, while receding, was still very real. Quebeckers might well have seen the wisdom of remaining firmly in NATO as part of Canada. Independence would have made no real difference when France, Canada, the U.K. and the U.S.A. were all part of the same strategic defense alliance and economic bloc. Would an independent Quebec have chosen not to join the defense and trade organizations of which Canada was a part? It is unlikely. The extra costs of independence in such an international situation would not have had any countervailing benefits.

By 1995, however, the world situation was very different. The Cold War was over and the former Soviet Union had split into 15 different countries. A sixteenth, Chechnya, was fighting for its independence. The former Yugoslavia was splitting apart into three different countries. Czechoslovakia had divided into the Czech Republic and Slovenia. In the Middle East, the Palestinians were negotiating with the Israelis with an eye to establishing their own state. It seemed an opportune time for the Quebec separatists to join the march toward ethnic autonomy.

So, on October 30, 1995, the voters of Quebec went to the polls again to vote on whether to secede from the rest of Canada. Surprisingly, the OUI vote lost again. This time by a much smaller 1.12% margin. The turnout, however, was a massive 93.48%. This is probably the highest turnout in the history of free democratic elections anywhere.

Some analysts see the slim majority, in contrast to the decisive defeat 16 years before, as a sign that the separatists are gaining. In the 1995 referendum, unlike the one in 1980, if the 331,662 people who did not vote are added to the OUI total, the separatists would have won by a large margin. Nevertheless, these 331,662 people would still have had to vote OUI by more than 58% to 42% in order for the Referendum to have been a tie. Is this reasonable in light of the fact that the other 93.5% of the voters were split 50.56% to 49.44% the other way?

The people who did not vote in the 1995 Referendum were probably not significantly different from those who did. Some voters certainly died in the days preceding the vote. Others may have had a relative die and not had the emotional or physical energy to go to the polls. Some may have been very sick, or had a child in need of some unanticipated help. Life is complex and unexpected personal emergencies sometimes arise. There was an American Supreme Court Justice who once said that he would rather have a Justice opposed to him than a sick Justice sitting on a case.

The people who were ill or had personal problems showed good judgment by not going to vote. An issue as important as secession deserves a voter's complete attention. Those who were unable to give this important question the time and attention it deserved were correct to not vote and leave the decision to others.

Then, some of the non-voters undoubtedly didn't care or thought it didn't make any difference which way the vote went. From a statistical standpoint, a 93.5% turnout is effectively 100%.

It is illegal not to vote in Australia. Men and women who don't go to the polls without a valid excuse can be fined $50.00. In 1993, the turnout in the Australian election was 96.2%. The Quebec independence referendum turnout was less than 3% lower, in a completely free election, one without sanctions for not voting.

Anyway, it is a relatively easy matter for the separatists to determine if the 6.5% of the electorate that did not vote would have changed the outcome of the election.

I see the historically high turnout as a sign that the separatists have lost forever, and that the voters of Quebec are trying to finally put this contentious issue behind them so that they can chart a course for the future. It is obvious that there are significant problems, but it is equally obvious that if democracy means anything, independence has been rejected as a solution by Quebec. If a vision of the future is necessary for progress, Quebec can never have a future if its ultimate direction is always in doubt

High Turnout Signifies Important Issues

For the past 15 years, as a psephologist at The Institute of Election Analysis in New Jersey, I have been doing non-partisan analyses of election results, mostly in the United States, but also of elections around the world. Elementary mathematical information theory says that no election can be understood by itself. The real meanings of elections can only be understood in relation to the events that surround them and other elections. Elections are a tool through which voters try to communicate. All communication is theme and variation.

So, clearly, Quebec has voted twice within the last 16 years to remain part of Canada. Repetition is a way of expressing emphasis, like the chorus of a song, "No, No." The second time Quebec said, "Non", it did so with a historically high turnout. I would guess that this is the highest turnout in any provincial or national election in Canadian history. Furthermore, I will predict that a hundred years from now, the 1995 Quebec Secession Referendum will still be the highest turnout election. Repetition with extreme emphasis on the second expression, "No NO!"

The Quebec Referendum's turnout was about 65% higher than the 1992 presidential election in the United States. In 1992, 105 million people voted for president in the U.S. This represents about 57% of the eligible voting population over the age of 18. The Quebec Referendum received a turnout of 93.48%. In the United States, presidential elections have the highest turnout of any election.

All the more remarkable is the fact that issues invariably generate a lower turnout than contests for candidates. In the United States, it is rare for an issue to receive as many votes as the candidates for state and national office.

English As The Official Language

In Arizona and Colorado, in 1988, for example, there was an issue on the ballot designating English as the Official Language. This is similar to the kinds of cultural issues that divide English speaking Canada from Quebec.

The Arizona vote to designate English as the official language carried by 50.5%, almost identical to, but the opposite result of the Secession Referendum result. This shows that the ethnic uniformity issues are uniformly divisive, whether in Canada or Arizona, Bosnia or Chechnya. In Colorado, the voters overwhelmingly approved English as the official language by 61.1%

However, the significant thing is that while the Presidential race in Arizona was getting 1,171,875 votes; the referendum on English as the official language received 1,157,259 votes. So, voters cast only 14,616 more votes for a president (who could blow up the world) than they did for the designation of an official language (which is a cultural and identity trait.)

The same was true in Colorado, where the vote for President was 1,372,399 while the number of ballots cast for the English Official Language Initiative was 1,356,670; only 15,729 votes behind.

By contrast, the United States Senate race in Arizona received only 1,145,538 votes, which trailed the Language referendum by 11,721.

There is a tendency to attribute high turnout to the closeness of the race. This is not the reason. Comparatively, the Colorado question, which passed overwhelmingly, received a higher vote than the Arizona question, which was very close. In Arizona, there was another issue on the ballot calling for a raise in Legislative Salaries. This question was defeated handily by 58.78% to 41.22%. Yet, the Legislative Salary question received only 1,094,581 votes, 50,000 less than the Senate race. In Colorado, too, highly contentious issues like tax restrictions and public funding for abortion received fewer votes than the Official English question.

Normally, it would be expected that all the ballot questions would receive fewer votes than the Presidential, Senate and House races. However, the 1,094,581 votes on Legislative Salaries, in spite of its overwhelming defeat, managed to squeak past the 1,094,386 votes cast in House races by a mere 195 votes. All three highly emotional issues in Colorado received higher votes than the House races, but less than the Presidential.

Many people who opposed the salary increase probably wondered why they bothered to vote on that issue when it was clearly going to lose. The answer is, to show the importance of the issue. It beat the House races by only 195 votes, not enough to change the outcome of any result, but a clear indication that voters considered the salary increases a very important matter.

The same holds true with the tax and abortion issues in Colorado, which passed or failed by large margins. Turnout is a measure of an issue's importance to the voters.

Issues Have An Order of Importance

The Arizona and Colorado results show the power of issues which deal with a person's identity and daily life style. While issues themselves only rarely receive more votes than candidates, within the issues there is a clear order of priority. Questions concerning life style get the most votes, issues of money come in second (which surprised me when I first discovered that pattern), and procedural issues come last.

In Montana in 1980, while the presidential election was getting a 73% turnout, the Litter Control and Recycling Act received 69%. A 1980 question to permit the hunting of Mourning Doves in South Dakota generated a 69% turnout while the race for president got 73%.

Two issues in 1992 actually produced a larger turnout than the presidential contest in Oregon. An anti-gay question lost handily (43.5%) with 4,174 more votes than the presidential race. A ban on triple truck trailers lost by an landslide (38.8%) but managed to squeak by the contest for Chief Executive by 1,602 votes. Even a question on whether to close a nuclear plant didn't beat the president race. A cynic might say this is because, even under the worst circumstances, a nuclear power plant affects the lives of fewer people than a sexual orientation or traffic control issue.

This shows that it is consistent with other issues that the Quebec Secession Referendum should generate a high turnout regardless of the margin by which it passes or fails.

While hot button issues rarely receive more votes than Governor, Senator or House races, they never get more than the President. In Nevada in 1980, for example, a proposal to bar taxation of food still received fewer votes than President, Senator and the House races.

Sometimes, the Governor's race will get more votes than President. In Canada, I'm sure, provincial elections usually, though not invariably, have lower turnouts than national elections.

In 1980 and 1984, the Governor's race in Arkansas had a higher turnout than the Presidential race. In 1980, Bill Clinton was losing the Governor's race and in 1984 Bill Clinton was winning. This shows that the election returns flagged Clinton as a person to watch as early as his first race for Governor, which he lost. Clinton was also elected President in a relatively high turnout race. Paying careful attention to the election returns is an indispensable tool for effective government in a democracy.

A good example of the kind of results to be expected in a typical election can be shown in Nevada in 1982 which had a question reaffirming a citizen's right to bear arms.



Senate 235,097
House Races 234,072
Governor 232,857
Attorney General 231,234
Secretary of State 229,612
Right To Bear Arms 228,793

Normally, the order of offices is: President, Governor, Senator, House races, other state officials and then ballot questions. The ballot questions then receive the most votes for issues affecting life style, then financial, then procedural.

So, as far as issues go, it makes sense that the Secession Referendum would generate many votes. It concerns the most fundamental questions facing a nation and a people: it's existence and their identity. The Quebec Independence Referendum was the non-violent equivalent of a declaration of war. Some people in Quebec were trying to achieve through the ballot box what most nations historically have only won by armed force.

War and self-preservation is the most important issue in politics. The historically high turnout in the Quebec Referendum shows the great importance which the voters attached to that election. Now, it is time for the leadership of Quebec to attach equal importance to the result.

Rejected Ballots

In a close race, the loser is always tempted to cry foul. The 86,338 rejected ballots in the 1995 Referendum was greater than the 52,488 NON margin.

The electoral process itself always gets a bigger vote than any of the candidates or issues in the election. In 1995, the percentage of rejected ballots was 1.82%. In the 1980 referendum, the percentage of rejected ballots was 1.74%. By comparison, in the 1992 Massachusetts presidential election, for example, the number of blank ballots cast was 1.75%.

An approximately 2% error rate is normal in all elections. There are always first time voters who are unfamiliar with the mechanics of voting, and therefore make mistakes. There are always elderly people whose eyesight and faculties are failing.

In California in 1988, 3.1% of the voters didn't vote for President; in 1992, the figure dropped to 2.14%. While an occasional voter will deliberately go into the polls and vote for one of the lesser offices without pulling the lever for president, most of the drop off in the Presidential race is due to error and spoiled ballots.

In New York, there is a category of votes called Blanks, Missing and Void. This percentage was 2.32% in 1988 and 2.21% in 1992.

The rejected ballot rate in the Referendum was low compared to presidential elections in the United States. In off-year elections, the drop-off rate is about the same. In California in 1990, 2.53% of the voters did not vote for Governor, and in 1994 this rate was 2.73%. In New York state in 1994, the Blanks, Missing and Void votes came to 2.29%.

In the 1993 Australia election, where the turnout was 96.2%, the percentage of spoiled ballots was 2.5%.

So, a rejected ballot rate of under 2% in the Quebec Referendum shows that relatively few ballots were rejected.

The Future of a United Canada

In the last 30 years, Canada has had an almost unbroken line of French speaking Prime Ministers from Quebec (Trudeau, Mulroney, Chrètien). This shows that the English speaking parts of Canada accept Quebec as an integral part of their country.

The two decisive referenda show that Quebec reciprocates. Canada now has an opportunity to show the rest of the world how two ethnically different peoples can live harmoniously together in a democratic framework.

First, Quebec needs to show that it accepts the results of the Referenda. There will be many politicians in Quebec, with fantasies of international status dancing before their eyes, who will continue to push for independence merely to advance their own careers. Clearly, there are many politicians who could be the Head of an independent Quebec who will never be Prime Minister of Canada.

Voters, however, have only a limited amount of political energy and interest. Having voted twice and intensely debated the independence issue for the past 16 years, asking them to go over this question again is a form of abuse. A French Revolutionary leader once said, "There go my people, I must hurry and catch up with them, for I am their leader."

If there is another referendum, I predict the No's will win by a large margin on a relatively low turnout. Having overwhelmingly rejected independence on a high turnout, then having narrowly rejected independence in a huge turnout, there is nothing left but to overwhelmingly reject independence on low turnout. If there is another referendum, the "OUI" vote will stay home in order to show that at least the voters, if not the leadership, accepts the results of the first two referenda.

The voters of Quebec, having been asked twice if they wanted to secede from Canada, have answered no. Why would anyone expect a different answer if they were to be asked a third time? If there were a convincing case to be made for Quebec's independence, it certainly would have been made by now.

The 1997 General Election

In the 1997 General Election the Bloc Quebecois, which had been the major opposition party in the federal legislature, lost seats and fell into third place. Furthermore, the clearly sectional result of the June 1997 election shows that the other areas of Canada have their own regional interests that they can assert as strongly as the secessionists in Quebec.

Furthermore, a poll of Quebeckers which was reported in the Financial Times on December 10, 1997, reported that 86% of those questioned said they were "tired of all the talk about referendums and the constitution". Some 61% said they were not in favor of a third referendum and about 80% said they would prefer that politicans reach an understanding based on this year's Calgary Declaration.

In short, Quebec is never going to secede from Canada.

- Joshua Leinsdorf

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