Assent voting (referendum) for local government
Assent voting (or referendum) allows electors to vote on whether a proposal would move forward or not. Assent of the electors is obtained if a majority of the votes counted are in favour of the bylaw or question. Assent voting is conducted under the rules that generally apply to local elections.
For certain matters, local governments are required to obtain approval of the electors or participating area approval before the municipal council or regional district board may proceed with its decision. Assent voting can be used as both a form of approval of the electors and participating area approval.
Approval of the electors is required for a variety of municipal and regional district actions, including disposal of certain utilities or specified parkland, municipal boundary extensions, and municipal loan authorization bylaws. Where approval of the electors is required, it may be obtained by the local government either directly through assent voting (referendum) or by first 'testing the waters' through the alternative approval process.
- Community Charter, Part 4, Division 2 - Approval of the Electors
- Local Government Act, Part 4 — Assent Voting
Participating area approval is required for regional district service establishing and loan authorization bylaws and can be obtained through either: assent voting; the alternative approval process; municipal or Treaty First Nation consent; or electoral area consent. How participating area approval may be obtained depends on the type of participant (for example, municipality, electoral area, or Treaty First Nation) and the nature of the service.
Assent voting is often referred to as a referendum, and involves asking electors to cast a vote on a local government bylaw or other matter specified in legislation. Assent of the electors is achieved if a majority of votes counted are in favour of the bylaw or question.
Legislation for conducting assent voting includes:
- Local Government Act
- Community Charter
- Local Elections Campaign Financing Act
- Vancouver Charter (applies only to assent voting in the City of Vancouver)
When to Use Assent Voting
Assent voting is an option any time a matter requires assent of the electors, approval of the electors, or participating area approval. Where the legislation specifies that 'assent of the electors' must be obtained, assent voting is the only method of approval that can be used.
In general, decisions that have the potential to fundamentally change the structure and governance of an area must proceed directly to assent voting to gain elector approval. Legislation requires that the following initiatives all obtain 'assent of the electors' to proceed:
- Amalgamation or creation (incorporation) of municipalities
- Disposal of a local government water or sewage system
- Fluoridation of a local government water system
- Creation of a local community commission in an electoral area
- Municipal boundary reduction
- Establishment of a municipal forest reserve
- Reduction of the size of municipal council
- Specified regional district permissive tax exemptions of two to 10 years
Relatively few matters require 'assent of the electors', in most cases municipal councils and regional district boards have more discretion on the type of approval they must seek and may choose the form of participating area approval or approval of the electors.
Where a local government has the choice, there are a number of factors local governments need to consider when deciding whether to conduct assent voting, including:
- Public expectations
- Timing of the matter or proposal
For example, if an issue is controversial, requires a significant contribution of taxpayers’ dollars, or is significant in scale or impact on the community, local governments may decide that it is more appropriate and cost-effective to proceed directly to assent voting. However, if the public has been actively engaged and there are reasonable indications that citizens are in favour, the proposal may lend itself better to an alternative approval process.
- Assent Voting: Processes & Considerations for Local Governments in British Columbia (PDF, 907KB)
- Alternative Approval Process: A Guide for Local Governments in B.C. (PDF, 747KB)
Assent Voting Process
Assent voting is conducted in a similar manner to local government elections and can either be done at the same time as a general local election or by-election or on its own as a stand-alone vote.
The Local Government Act, Part 4 - Assent Voting specifies that unless otherwise provided, the provisions for elections also apply to assent voting. For example, the same eligibility rules for resident and non-resident property electors apply to both assent voting and local elections. Note that for Treaty First Nations members of a regional district, individuals who may vote in assent voting are those who are qualified and registered to vote under a law of the Treaty First Nation.
General voting day for assent voting must be a Saturday not more than 80 days after one of the following:
- The Lieutenant Governor in Council, a provincial minister or the Inspector of Municipalities (depending on the matter at issue) directs that a bylaw must be submitted for assent
- The deadline for receiving elector response forms for an alternative approval process (typically if more than 10 percent of eligible electors submitted responses)
- The last required approval of the Lieutenant Governor in Council, a provincial minister or the Inspector of Municipalities
- For other bylaws, the bylaw receives third reading
- For other matters, adoption of the authorizing bylaw or resolution
Various notices are legislatively required for assent voting, including notice of applications to volunteer as scrutineer and notice of assent voting. All notices must be published in accordance with the Community Charter.
Notice that applications for scrutineers will be accepted must be given within 30 days before the application period begins and must include the following:
- The question to be voted on
- The dates, times and places at which applications for scrutineers will be received
- How interested persons can obtain information on the requirements and procedures for applying to be a scrutineer
Notice of assent voting is required at least six, but not more than 30 days before general voting day and must include the following:
- The question to be voted on
- The voting area
- The qualifications to vote
- The date of general voting day
- The voting locations
- The hours for each voting location
- The documents required for electors to register for voting
- If applicable, information regarding voting divisions
If assent voting is in relation to a bylaw, the notice must also include the following:
- Either a copy of the bylaw or a synopsis of the bylaw
- The dates, times and places at which the bylaw may be inspected in the local government offices
Assent voting ballots must be in a question form that can be answered with either a "yes" or "no" response. An example of such a question is:
Are you in favour of Loan Authorization Bylaw No. XXX to authorize the [local government name] to borrow up to [amount], with interest, over a period not exceeding [number of years] in order to finance the construction of a [purpose] to be located at [location]?
Scrutineers observe voting procedures and scrutinize the ballot-counting process. In local elections or by-elections, candidates (or their official agent) may appoint scrutineers. In assent voting, people apply to the local government's local Chief Election Officer to be appointed as scrutineers.
Any persons entitled to vote as electors in the assent voting jurisdiction, who are not election officials, are entitled to act as scrutineers for assent voting. The local Chief Election Officer must appoint scrutineers for and against the assent voting question for each place where scrutineers are entitled to be present (such as voting places). Only one scrutineer for each side may be present unless the local government, by bylaw, permits additional scrutineers to be present.
Because assent voting is election-like in nature, some of the advertising rules under the Local Elections Campaign Financing Act apply. If assent voting is held separate from local elections or by-elections, then assent voting advertising is called non-election assent voting advertising and the rules apply during the assent voting proceedings period.
The assent voting proceedings period begins 28 days before general voting day for the assent voting and ends at the close of general voting. During the assent voting proceedings period, individuals or organizations that wish to sponsor non-election assent voting advertising are required to register with Elections BC and to include sponsorship information on their advertising.
If the assent voting is being held at the same time as local elections and for the same jurisdiction as the election, or for a voting area that is all or part of the same jurisdiction, then assent voting advertising is considered election advertising and is subject to rules that apply to election advertising during the campaign period. For elections, the campaign period begins 28 days before general voting day and ends at the close of general voting.
Contact Elections BC for more information about the Local Elections Campaign Financing Act, assent voting advertising, campaign financing and third party sponsor requirements that apply to assent voting.