The genesis of this experiment in participatory democracy came from Premier
Gordon Campbell who had pledged to convoke such an Assembly after his Liberal
Party was defeated by the New Democrats in the 1996 provincial election,
despite gaining more of the popular vote. Campbells opportunity came in
the very next election (2001) when the Liberals won 77 of the 79 House
seats. Despite the overwhelming margin Premier Campbell stuck to his pledge,
believing that unfettered citizen involvement in evaluating the electoral
process was the right thing to do.1 This was a bold step endorsed by
most of his political colleagues despite a natural reluctance to surrender
power to unelected citizens. Casting this relinquishment of power in a
positive light, Gordon Gibson, the chief architect of the Assemblys constitution,
remarked that A group of politicians took their working lives and gave
it to a bunch of strangers
in a great act of political generosity. 2
Whatever the motivation there was no doubt that steps had to be taken to
address features of an electoral system apparently contributing to public
disenchantment with parliamentary politics. Voter turnout across the country
was declining, suggesting that citizens felt rebuffed by an electoral system
that failed to register the actual composition of partisan sentiment among
voters. Distrust toward politicians and cynicism about politics signaled
a serious loss of legitimacy that underscored the need for innovative efforts
to restore a sense of citizen pride in the political system.
The idea of a random assemblage of citizens framing a public referendum
on the electoral process seemed a move in the direction of a more collaborative
process befitting a modernized democracy. As well, the vulnerabilities
of British parliamentary traditions in the contemporary Canadian and B.C.
context were increasingly manifest, given the unseemly concentrations of
executive power, 3 as were the potential advantages of systems of proportional
representation in providing greater representational diversity in the legislature.
Before concluding the learning phase, Assembly members decided to hold
a special weekend session in Prince George to review what they had learned
from British Columbians in the hearings and written submissions; also,
a randomly chosen sub-committee of several Assembly members was assigned
the task of selecting a variety of the more informative public hearing
presentations for repeat delivery at the opening plenary session of the
Deliberation Phase scheduled to begin in September.
Toward the end of the Learning Phase, Leo Perra, the Chief Operations Officer
reminded members that the Assemblys Terms of Reference required it to
consult with citizens through public hearings and written submissions.
He advised Assembly members to view the exercise as an extension of their
Learning Phase and as an opportunity to hear what our fellow citizens
and interested organizations have to say about different electoral systems.
A short manual, incorporating members suggestions, was prepared in order
to clarify their role at the public hearings. The first of 50 hearings
held over a two-month period began on May 3 in Vancouver. Hearings were
well-advertised in local papers, on the Assembly website, and by posters.
Hearing locations were usually at a centralized commercial site, enabling
the maximum number of citizens to attend. The hearings were normally scheduled
in three hour time slots, on weekday evenings and on Saturday afternoons.
Staff support for each hearing consisted of a local CA member serving as
co-host, a moderator who was usually a member of senior CA staff, a registrar,
a recorder, and a member of the communications staff.
At least four CA membersoften moreattended each hearing; this included
a member from the local district, the neighboring district, and at least
one member from another region of the provincea mix designed to help Assembly
members gain an understanding of local issues and citizen concerns throughout
The CA members sat at a table at the front of the hearing room, public
seating was usually theatre style (unless small numbers dictated a more
informal circular arrangement), and presenters spoke from a lectern/podium.
After an introduction to the proceedings by the local CA member, a short
video was shown that provided an overview of the Assembly and an outline
of the five main families of electoral systems. Speakers were limited to
ten minute presentations, followed by a ten minute question and answer
period, beginning with questions from the CA panel members. In all, close
to 3000 members of the public attended the 50 hearings, ranging from 20
people in very small communities to over 150 at one urban hearing. There
were 387 presenters (most had pre-registered), and summaries of formal
presentations were posted to the Assembly website. 8
Other than some minor technical glitches and off-mandate gripes, the hearings
went smoothly. Rooms were crowded at times, but that added to an aura of
intense involvement. The time restriction was annoying to some presentersone
stating that, I have only ten minutes to speak for something Ive been
preparing for twelve years. The list of presenters, however, was usually
fairly long, so limits had to be imposed in order to reserve time for audience
participation. In general, the mood at hearings was one of genuine engagement.
An already fabled sign of the level of public interest was the large turnout
at a public hearing in the resort town of Smithers on the same night of
the final game of the Stanley Cup hockey playoffs.
In the public hearings I attended I was impressed by the familiarity of
speakers with some of the intricacies of electoral systems.
Dominant themes and concerns expressed across the hearings resonated with
issues that CA members had identified in the closing sessions of their
Learning Phase: the need for change in the workings of the political system;
the merits of proportionality; the importance of local representation,
and the benefits of increased voter choice. Polarized politics, executive
dominance, and unrepresentative legislative bodies were blamed for major
grievances thought remediable by electoral reform, especially that of the
The current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system had few advocates, while
the mixed member proportional (MMP) system was often mentioned as the most
plausible alternative, although this was, in part, the premeditated strategy
of some determined citizens groups and of the Green Party, whose leader
waged an aggressive advocacy campaign for MMP.
A comparatively small number of presenters spoke in favour of the single
transferable vote (STV) system, usually offering fairly technical and sophisticated
arguments on its behalf. In absorbing the various critiques and proposed
solutions, CA members improved their understanding of electoral systems
in the B.C. context, occasionally experiencing a confidence boost when
they discovered that they knew more than the immediate public and thus
felt more capable of proposing a recommendation.
The other significant opportunity for public participation was through
written submissions. By the closing date in September 2004, just prior
to the start of the Deliberation Phase, the Assembly had received 1,603
substantive submissions, providing members with a great deal of useful
information on electoral systems. Many of the submissions were briefsome
even hand-writtenwhile others were longer, in electronic form, and more
dense, some as long as 70 pages.
In order to manage this volume, a web-based system was developed to process
and index submissions, making them more accessible to members and to the
public. This procedure facilitated a running dialogue between submitters,
itself an augmentation of democratic process. Brief abstracts summarizing
the themes of submissions were prepared and attached to submissions by
the associate research officer, a laborious task made more tedious by a
tactical inflation in the volume of submissions from groups campaigning
for a specific electoral objective and determined to deluge the website.
Most CA members nevertheless made it their business to wade through a significant
number of submissions (some boasted they had read them all), sharing their
assessments on the Members-Only-Discussion Forum. A problem in this regard
was that about a quarter of the members were without access to computer
technology, so neither on-line submissions nor the members forum were
available to them. The staff sought to alleviate this problem by providing
print-outs of valued submissions and of important members forum exchanges.
The submissions conveyed general disapproval of the current FPTP electoral
system and were supportive of some form of PR, generally of the MMP variety.
Some of the submissions referred to the single transferable vote system,
but often unfavourably. Apart from the repetitiveness in content of many
submissions, they were by and large appropriate and informative. In essence,
they matched impressions drawn at the public hearingsthat many voters
in British Columbia were unhappy with the present system and wanted it
changed. An unanswered question is whether what was heard and read was
representative of the B.C. electorate as a whole.
That question roiled in the minds of CA members at their Prince George
gathering in late June when the Assembly met to review what they had learned
from the public hearings and written submissions, and to approve a plan
on how to approach deliberations and decision-making in the fall. Members
had chosen to reconvene in Prince George as a symbolic gesture of solidarity
toward the rest of the province (especially the North), given that all
the plenary sessions were taking place in the urban stronghold of Vancouver.
They also looked forward to the bonding and information-sharing experience
that many members felt was needed to lessen the attenuating effects of
the five month separation between the learning and deliberation phases.
Nearly all of the members made the trip to Prince George.
The sessions were structured in the familiar plenary and discussion group
format, although the gymnasium of the Prince George Civic Centre did not
afford the same ambience as the Asia Pacific Hall in Vancouver. Disappointingly,
a motion to bar observers from the discussion groups was introduced by
the staff (perhaps at the instigation of some members) and later approved
by the Assembly. So observers were reduced to hanging around the lobby
during the discussion group periods.
At the plenary session, the research director, Ken Carty, and his associate,
Campbell Sharman, presented summaries of the public hearings and submissions
experience. Professor Carty identified the roughly similar views and concerns
expressed by presenters at hearings across the province, as well as noting
some of the regional variations. The most popular electoral alternative
seemed to be the two-vote MMP system with open lists and a threshold.
Some persistent questions stemming from the hearings were underlined: Who
will carry the ball after the Assembly disbands so that the B.C. electorate
is properly informed about the issues relevant to the referendum? And how
do we tap the views of the vast majority of B.C. voters who did not come
out to the hearings?
The discussion groups met and reported back a host of concerns: the 60%
double bar; the 79 seat mandate restriction which particularly hindered
the MMP alternative; the infiltration and dominance of special interest
groups into the hearings and submission processes; and somewhat surprisingly,
a fear that the final report would be written without the Assemblys approval.
Professor Carty was quick to respond to the latter concern, stating that
members would certainly approve (or not approve) the full text of the final
report and recommendation. He counseled against preoccupation with the
60% threshold issue, both for the reason that it is the law and part of
the established mandate, but more reassuringly, because If 60% or over
is obtained, the government must introduce the referendum in the legislature;
but they can introduce the legislation even if the figure is lower.
Further concerns were raised by members about media distortion or bias
and the role that government intends to play in a public information campaign.
After another round of discussion groups, members returned to the last
plenary session of the weekend determined to set aside uncertainty and
enter the coming Deliberation Phase without preconceived ideas, a feeling
of mutual trust, a readiness for constructive conflict, and a confidence
in the guiding power of their own previously established shared values
to help ascertain the core values professed by British Columbians about
the political process and forge an appropriate recommendation.
The decision-tree for the deliberation phase was reviewed, and the Chair
posed a set of questions for members to consider in preparation for the
fall meetings, urging them to keep engaged and in contact over the summer.
The Assembly disbanded with a collective twinge about whether enough had
been accomplished over the two days to justify the venture, but a strengthened
sense of commitment was evident.
The Deliberation Phase
On September 11th, 2004, the members returned to Vancouver for another
six week series of weekend meetings in order to decide on the best electoral
system for British Columbia. The first Saturday morning session began as
usual, with a group rendition of O Canada by a nearly full complement of
members, followed by a moment of silence for the victims of a previous
September 11th, and the more recent casualties in Beslan and Darfur. It
was a poignant reminder from the Chair that CA members are privileged to
live in a relatively secure and peaceful society that deserves their best
efforts in a world community craving for good examples.
The Assembly was informed that, in line with their own wishes, all CA decisions
would be made in the general assembly and that discussion groups would
be closed to the public over the course of the deliberation phase. Fortunately,
the staff responded graciously to requests by me and another observer to
allow us to observe the breakout groups. An access-to-discussion group
policy was devised (and approved that day by the members) that would permit
research-oriented plenary session attendees to apply for observer status.
Three of us applied, met the criteria, and were given license to sit in
on the discussion groups.
The business of the day began with nine speakers, carefully selected by
a special sub-committee of the Assembly members, who gave 15 minute oral
presentations to the full Assembly. The presentations championed different
approaches to electoral reform that were still on the tableAlternative
Vote (AV) Single TransferableVote (STV), Mixed Member Proportional (MMP),
Preferential Plus (combined STV and AV), and first past the post (FPTP).
A few presentations addressed issues cross-cutting some of these approaches.
Most speakers favoured the MMP or STV electoral models, stressing the democratic
advantages of proportionality, whereas the FPTP defender, a former cabinet
minister from the Socred era, warned, unconvincingly, that the concept
of proportional representation would be a monumental error of judgment.
The presentations stimulated some thoughtful exchanges between speakers
and members, and helped to illuminate the differences between the approaches.
By the end of the exercise it was apparent that some variant of MMP or
STV would be the likeliest contenders for the members recommendation.
Following the oral presentations, Professor Sharman discussed the submissions
experience. Three CA members also reported their impressions of the submissions,
noting the wide interest in MMP, regional needs, and local representation
and accountability. It appeared that a pre-organized quantum of submissions
from one of the minor political parties artificially swelled the pro-MMP
At the Sunday session, Professor Carty reviewed the mandate requirements
and then took the members through a rapid review of proportional versus
non-proportional electoral systems, ending with a proposed list of eight
potentially desirable features of electoral models for the members to consider
in their discussion groups. Members were asked to identify their top three
choices and almost without exception they chose the three that topped Professor
effective local representation
the principle of proportionality
maximum voter choice
The second weekend began with a presentation by a Vancouver-based mediator,
entitled Getting to Yes. Apparently, staff felt that members could benefit
by some coaching in this area, especially following the frictions that
developed in a few of the discussion groups on the previous weekend. The
speaker focused on the need for members to build self-awareness, empathy
and mutual trust, and to replace positional with interest-based conflict
so that agreement was obtainable. Following this talk, the Chair reiterated
the shared values that members had identified and committed to back in
the Learning Phase, and then reviewed the ten-step decision sequence (or
critical path) that would guide the Assemblys progress over the course
of the Deliberation Phase.
After members discussed and reaffirmed their three core values of a preferred
electoral system, Professor Carty narrowed the electoral system choices
down to the only two remaining possibilities out of the five main families:
STV and MMP. The challenge for the Assembly, therefore, was to conceive
a single transferable vote or mixed member proportional system that would
be suitable for British Columbia. Despite some members reluctance to confine
their task to just two systems (plus a possible tweaking of FTPT), no other
alternatives seemed congruent with the CA mandate, so Professor Carty proceeded
to outline the structural features relevant to the design of either system.
At Professor Cartys suggestion, members decided to begin with the STV
model since it was described as easier to construct in terms of the number
of decisions that had to be made. This exercise was undertaken the next
morning, when members focused on the design elements for an STV model appropriate
to British Columbia. Members gave concerted attention to the related issues
of district magnitude and local representation, the latter a matter of
extreme importance to members representing the geographically expansive
Northern and rural ridings.
In the STV system, multi-member Districts would result in more proportionality
for the populous urban ridings (with Districts of 4 to 7 members), but
much less proportionality in the under-populated Northern ridings (with
Districts consisting of 2 or 3 members), yet those Northern ridings would
become larger geographical districts with relatively little gain in local
representation. The debate over this issue aroused both empathy and frustration
with the Northern predicament, seeding some early positive sentiment for
the STV model with its premium on local representation.
At the third weekend session, the members embraced the task of constructing
an MMP good fit model for British Columbia. Professor Carty listed the
dozen or so decisions that would be necessary to integrate the different
parts of a Mixed system, describing such systems as conceptually simple
but architecturally complex. Following a brief survey of current Mixed
system variations (MMP in Germany and New Zealand, MMM in Japan and Russia,
and MMP-Lite) characterized principally by the degree of proportionality
(or the balance between constituency and list seats), the discussion groups
met to clarify such matters as the allocation and assignment of list seats,
quotas, thresholds, etc. and compare the relative merits of the Mixed system
In the discussion group I observed, the challenge of combining design elements
for an MMP system produced almost immediate nostalgia for the STV model,
especially when the facilitator explained that independent candidates (i.e.,
those without party affiliation) had virtually no chance of winning a list
seat, and only a weak chance of taking a constituency seat under MMP. A
rising sentiment for the eligibility of independent candidates and concerns
about the exclusionary impact of thresholds stirred a moderately negative
view of MMP among some members.
Members returned to the plenary session for a meticulous review of the
principles and features of mixed systems. They opted for a regional, rather
than provincial, assignment of list seats which, in part, compensated for
the lack of local representation as compared with STV. Members then settled
down to an absorbing talk by Professor Lisa Young on Electoral Systems
and Representative Outcomes.9
The next morning, members voted on the design elements for a 60-40% (constituent/list)
MMP system. A number of important decisions regarding the MMP model were
not yet made, such as the vacancy rule for list seats, the appropriate
regional structure for list seat assignments, and the proportional formula
for allocating seats. The Chair ended the session by declaring that the
remaining matters were technical, so could be deferred to next week if
the group chooses MMP, a decision that may have been more consequential
than it seemed at the time.
Finally, the questionwhich of the two alternatives would best serve British
Columbia?was put to a secret ballot and the result was 123 for STV to
31 for MMP, a rather surprising outcome given the surface intensity and
back-and-forth nature of the debate.
The fourth week-end was the time for momentous decisions. After reviewing
the previous Assembly decisions regarding the MMP model, Professor Carty
offered some general and non-invidious observations about the two models.
One member asked if the 79 seat restriction still applied (a stumbling
block for MMP advocates) and the Chair answered abruptly that it did. Another
member wondered why the Assembly did not decide on the remaining MMP design
features before choosing between the two electoral systems. The Chair deflected
the question by reminding the members of the plan to return to those residual
issues should the members select the MMP model. He asked if that was not
the view expressed by the Assembly, which elicited a halting affirmation.
The pivotal debate got under way with members recounting previous concerns,
objections, and defenses of either electoral model while seeking to avoid
In the discussion group I observed that morning, one member, expressing
the general sentiment, said, Lets go out of here as a united voice
the outcome. If we dont, the press will kill us. In the plenary debate
members acknowledged that MMP was a decided favorite in the public hearings
and in the written submissions, but opinion in the Assembly seemed divided
between the two models.
MMP struck members as more reliable in terms of effecting proportionality
province-wide; STV seemed to come closer to fulfilling all three core
values, accenting local accountability without creating two tiers of candidates.
The debate was civil, subtle, and exhaustive.
Members applauded the result and the Chair commended them for the extraordinary
civility and perceptiveness that they demonstrated during the discussion.
The session ended with a standing ovation in honour of the entire process,
but also with a reminder from the Chair that the decision-making was not
over, although one might think that the scheduling staff possessed a crystal
ball given the special meeting arranged for CA members that night to discuss
ways to deal with the media should members adopt STV.
The Sunday morning plenary session began with Professor Carty reviewing
the strengths and weaknesses of the current FPTP system, a talk that seemed
necessary and redundant at the same time. Members had been through the
wringer on the systems flaws and virtues at least a few times over the
life of the Assembly, but now it was time to re-evaluate the systems capacities
and decide whether it should be retained or jettisoned.
After close examination of the comparative merits and drawbacks of the
FPTP and STV electoral systems in their discussion groups, the members
underwent one more wrenching debate, offering observations that ranged
from the abstract to the personal. Most members, however were critical
of the recurrent limitations of FPTP and looked hopefully to the corrective
potential of STV. Toward the end of this debate, one member, sensing the
collective anxiety about recommending an historic change, commented, Change
can be scary, but remember, were not making the decision on our own. Lets
put our recommendation to the people and let them choose.
The Chair then called for the first of two secret ballots. On the question
of whether the Assembly wanted to retain the current FPTP system, the vote
was 142 to 11 against retention. On the second question of whether the
Assembly wanted to now recommend the STV system it had devised to the people
of British Columbia, the vote was 146 to 7 in favour of doing so. Relieved
that the main business of the Assembly had now been accomplished, members
adjourned for a three-week interlude.
The long gap between the fourth and fifth weekends called for an especially
warm greeting when members returned. The Chair announced a slew of member
birthdays and anniversaries, and the few absentees were welcomed back to
the fold. The Assembly poet read her latest testament to the charmed enterprise
and the Chair happily reported that members evaluations of the previous
weekend meetings recorded the highest satisfaction rates ever.
On a slightly apologetic note, he reflected aloud that, If MMP had been
entirely fleshed out as had STV, the process would have been flawless.
Professor Carty then engaged members in one last review of their STV system,
confirming their understanding of the particulars, and the Chair followed
by discussing the other considerations (i.e., problems related to the
political process that British Columbians had advised members they wanted
the government to address) that were to be mentioned in the final report,
urging that they be de-coupled from the basic recommendation so that citizens
do not reject the recommendation on extraneous grounds. Members then mulled
over a name for their new system, tentatively favouring BC-STV, a choice
that rattled the Chair who remarked afterwards that STV already had a
bad rep owing to media lampoons of its complex counting procedure.
That evening, at the members living room session, approximately 50 members
began to consider how CA members could plug into the referendum process
after the official dissolution of the Assembly in mid-December. A few members
had already been invited to the Yes kickoff campaign of FairVote Canada.
Members discussed the pros and cons of setting up a list serve to deal
with the media and coordinate speaking engagements across the province.
An ad hoc committee was formed to explore the possibilities for extended
CA member involvement.
On Sunday morning, members and staff participated in a meticulous page-by-page
review of the report with members offering numerous editing suggestions,
points of clarification, and ideas for improved graphics. The name of the
new electoral system was reconsidered, with BC-STV winning a strong majority
against two alternatives, one of them being the staffs choice. Almost
everything was now in place to present the recommendation to the Attorney-General.
Every member of the Citizens Assembly (aside from the lone resignee) was
present for the sixth and final set of weekend meetings which began with
a visit from the Premier and the Attorney-General. In his remarks Premier
Campbell stated that, The amazing thing is that we decided to let citizens
decide how democracy should work
the whole world will be watching what
happens in the province of British Columbia. Dr. Blaney called CA members
to come forward individually to receive an appreciative certificate of
commemoration from the Premier and pose for a photo with him. The ceremony
ended with a standing ovation for Dr. Blaney whose skilled and devoted
efforts had much to do with making the Citizens Assembly a success.
After a group photo in the atrium, and refreshments in the Grand Concourse,
members re-assembled in the Asia Pacific Hall for a final scrutiny of the
report. Some further changes were suggested, two of which excited some
uncommonly brusque reactions from the Chair. Several members objected to
the removal of the term proportionality from one of the basic value
subheadings. It had been replaced with the term, fair electoral results.
As evidence of the deliberative mettle they had acquired in their year-long
collective trek to the final report, the members forced a vote on three
options, voting overwhelmingly for their compromise suggestionfair electoral
results through proportionality.
On another matter that visibly irked the Chair (who was probably contemplating
time pressures and printing costs), the members considered a key word change
in the referendum motion, but after forcing another vote on three options,
left the original wording unchanged. Professor Carty, in discussing the
other considerations section of the technical report, wasted no time
in saying that it faithfully records your concerns. Even that assurance,
however, could not dissuade members from insisting upon another change,
one in which a phrase conflating women with minority communities was
revised to read, women, First Nations peoples and minorities. All this
watchfulness could only provoke a grin of satisfaction that the staff had
done their job.
The Communications Director, Marilyn Jacobsen, ended the day with some
remarks about the staffs member- support strategy over the coming months,
referring to the communications tool kits that would be distributed to
all members, the Knowledge Network documentary on the Citizens Assembly,
the teaching aides on the public website, and the circulation of Final
Reports. When asked whether there was any news from the government about
what they would provide, she replied tersely, Nothing yet.
The last Sunday morning meeting took place following a gathering the previous
night which featured an after-dinner roast that spoofed members and staff,
mocked the holy grail of consensus, and made some deliberately exaggerated
blundering attempts to describe the STV counting procedure. Sunday morning
was reserved for a private plenary session organized by the ad hoc committee
of CA members who were taking the lead in creating a Citizens Assembly
Alumni group. Two-thirds of the CA members had already signed up for this
new independent and non-affiliated association. Its declared purposes were
to inform voters about the recommendation through speaking engagements,
develop and carry out a media contact strategy, and provide contributions
to the informational component of the public website www.bc-stv.ca. The
alumni would also have a private members website as a discussion forum,
to organize regional meetings, and to generally stay in touch. A May 17th
party appeared to be in the works.
Following that, a number of stirring testimonials were delivered by members,
saluting the process and the result, and expressing joyful gratitude for
all the camaraderie. One member with a clerical background delivered a
benediction, and another, who had a reputation for verbosity, redeemed
himself at the last possible moment with a crisp motion to adjourn. Members
retired to the lounge for refreshments, farewells or promises to stay in
touch, before heading back to the far-flung regions from whence they came.
The 16-page Final Report of the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform
was issued on December 10th, 2004. In late January, a copy of the report,
also printed in French, Chinese and Punjabi, was sent to all of British
Columbias 1.5 million households. The Assemblys recommendation will go
to B.C. voters in a referendum to be held along with the provincial election
on May 17, 2005. If the referendum passes, the government is obliged to
bring in appropriate legislation that would ensure the new electoral mode
can be in place for the election of May 2009.
Discussion and Conclusions
Applauded as the Assembly process was by participants and observers- three
issues were especially problematic and demand closer attention. On the
question of representivity, it was never entirely clear whether CA members
conceived of themselves as representing the province, their own region
or district, the contributors to the hearings and submission processes,
or simply themselves. Over the course of the experience, most members came
to rely on their own judgment, regarding themselves as BC society in miniature;
however, the extent to which conflicting identities may have weighed on
their judgment is largely unknown.
The issue of authenticity cast an intermittent shadow over the CA deliberations.
In particular, the influence of the staff in contributing to the early
identification of the critical core values that later served as the basis
for evaluating the various electoral models, and the decisions by staff
surrounding the MMP alternative (e.g., the ambiguities regarding the 79
seat restriction, and the time squeeze imposed on the Assemblys efforts
to tailor the intricacies of the MMP model to the province), may have prevented
a fully autonomous assessment by members of the alternatives.
As well, the question of impartiality in deciding whether to retain the
existing FPTP system may have been affected by the members need to demonstrate
a tangible accomplishment, which in turn may have laid the grounds for
an anti-government bias that materialized into a wave of populist sentiment
on behalf of STV. These are three cardinal dynamics possibly operative
within the CA process and perhaps partly determinative of the outcome,that
ought to be explored in further study.
With regard to the STV recommendation itself, some of its features, already
lambasted by several political pundits, are not as problematic as they
may seem. Although the preferential STV ballot would contain the names
of more candidates, it has not proved too complicated for members in other
jurisdictions where the system has been used. The vote counting procedure,
entailing a dual transfer of votes, is complex and perhaps even opaque
to most voters, but not to the professionals whose job it is to count them,
and as the technical reliability of computers improves, voters will exhibit
more trust in the integrity of the counting process.
On the question of minority or coalition governments (the probable outcome
of either an STV or MMP electoral system), so dreaded by some, particularly
by FPTP majority government supporters, such governments have proven
to be remarkably stable and less adversarial where they have taken root.
If these concerns have been exaggerated, there are, however, some important
criticisms that are pertinent to an evaluation of the STV model.
The argument, made in the Assemblys final report, that the STV system
ensures proportionality must be treated as an exaggeration. Although
STV is regarded as a distinctive variation of the PR systems, district
magnitudes below 5 ensures only a substantial reduction in proportionality,
unless there are only two or three parties contesting for seats. For this
reason, STV has been described by various commentators as quasi-proportional.
It is unclear why multi-member constituencies would offer better local
representation than single-member ridings, at least not until it is known
how MLAs in given ridings would cooperate under these new circumstances,
or whether a system of circuits would develop so that each of the major
communities in a riding is represented by an MLA. Local representation
could be weaker rather than improved in geographically expanded ridings.
In a reversal of the above problem, MLAs may over-commit to a local constituency
and engage in a narrow brokerage politics that ignores regional and province-wide
The claim that the STV system encourages independent candidates may be
so only for candidates who are independently wealthy, have already earned
sufficient political capital to attract funds, or benefit by generous nomination
and campaign finance laws. Ironically, STV may be quite dependent on party
support and big money politics despite its candidate-based characterization.
The argument that competition between candidates of the same party reduces
party discipline and inspires greater local accountability slights the
probability that elections will become more of a popularity contest in
which factors extraneous to serious debate become decisive. In the politically
polarized BC landscape, it is unclear whether a modified political culture
would emerge in order to ensure civil competition between candidates and
subsequent cooperation between winners in the same riding.
With respect to political consequences, there is a danger that medium-sized
and smaller parties will run fewer candidates in order to focus on electoral
ambitions in specific ridings. This would likely weaken the broader grass
roots movement of a party and reduce it to a geographic niche party where,
at best, it may capture only a few seats.
While these concerns are endemic to most STV electoral systems, the main
objection to STV comes from those who favour party-centred systems, such
as FPTP or the party-based systems of PR List and MMP. Unsurprisingly,
STV is unpopular with governing parties whose ability to exert party discipline
over candidates is undermined by intra-party competition.10 On a more ideological
note, those STV opponents who favour party-driven proportionality, argue
that STV encourages the fiction that elections are about choosing individual
representatives, and not about solidifying collective political power (i.e.,
parties) in the interest of achieving radical social change. Indeed, the
fear that smaller parties will cannibalize the base of an established political
organization (rather than form a coalition with it), induces larger parties
to consolidate their control over the candidate nomination process.
Notwithstanding these problems, most of which filtered into the discussions
of the Citizens Assembly, members had little difficulty in agreeing to
switch from the alienating paternalism and hierarchy of the FPTP system
to the seemingly trivial dangers inherent in STV.11
A month after the Citizens Assembly disbanded, I engaged in one-hour telephone
interviews with 53 of the 159 members, a sample about evenly divided between
men and women and between Lower Mainland (Vancouver) and other provincial
inhabitants. On questions dealing with the organizational structure and
processes of the Assembly and the integrity of the staff, the responses
were almost uniformly positive. A split was evident, however, when it came
to matters that affected the Assemblys deliberations yet was beyond their
control, or rested with forces outside the purview of the Assembly but
bound to affect the outcome of the referendum vote.
On these issues, half to most of the members continued to feel that aspects
of the imposed mandate were too restrictive, and that the crucial 60% threshold
was unattainably high. Many were disturbed by the media coverage to dateeither
too sparse or excessively critical of the Assemblys recommendation. They
doubted that the BC electorate would be sufficiently informed to cast an
intelligent vote at the time of the election given the governments inaction
on public education initiatives, and they expected the major political
parties to be indifferent or hostile to their recommendation.
In sum, the members expressed thorough confidence in their process and
its merits as a tool of democratic governance, but they had grave misgivings
about the intentions of those who were needed to endorse and implement
their recommendationthe government, the political parties, the media,
and the public. Moreover, they felt sorely deprived in their attempt to
serve as ambassadors for the recommendation in the period leading up
to the May 2005 election, and they euphemistically categorized their efforts
as informational rather than advocacy, since the latter required an
ample resource flow unavailable to them.
In the face of these obstacles and rather dim prospects for passage of
the referendum, members remained motivated by their stolid conviction that
the citizens of BC wanted a change, and if properly informed on the referendum
question, would come to understand that the flaws of the current system
were unacceptable and that the Assemblys recommendation would be a way
to strengthen the democratic process. Most of them will be extremely disappointed
if the recommendation does not pass and become enshrined in law, although
they take early consolation in knowing that they have performed a valuable
check-up on democracy in BC, and they hope that the CA process will be
utilized in other venues that enable direct citizen input on issues such
as health delivery and education. Above all, they return to their communities
in a more critical but constructive frame of mind, refreshed by the learning
and camaraderie afforded by a year long journey that many described as
the best experience of my life.
1. See, Gordon Campbell, et al., The British Columbia Citizens Assembly:
A Round Table, Canadian Parliamentary Review, vol. 26, no.2, Summer 2003,
2. Excerpt from presentation by Gordon Gibson at the North American Summit
on Citizen Engagement, Vancouver/Whistler Conference, Morris Wosk Centre
for Dialogue, Vancouver, B.C., Public Forum on What Leaders Need to Know
about Citizen Assemblies, November 10, 2004.
3. Nick Loenen, Citizenship and Democracy: A Case for Proportional Representation,
1997, Dundurn Press:Toronto.
4. Kenneth R. Carty, Doing Democracy Differently: Has Electoral Reform
Finally Arrived? The Timlin Lecture, March 1, 2004, University of Saskatchewan,
5. For an informative account of events leading up to the inception of
the Citizens Assembly, see Norman J. Ruff, Electoral Reform and Deliberative
Democracy: The British Columbia Citizens Assembly, Chapter 11, in Steps
Toward Making Every Vote Count: Electoral System Reform in Canada and its
Provinces, ed. Henry Milner, 2004, Broadview Press: Toronto, pp.235-248.
6. For a summary and discussion of the selection and learning phases of
the Assembly, see R.S. Ratner, British Columbias Citizens Assembly:
The Learning Phase, Canadian Parliamentary Review, vol. 27, no.2, Summer
2004, pp. 20-26.
7. The Report was translated into Chinese, Punjabi and French and was made
available to the public on-line and by request. The goal was to stimulate
dialogue on electoral systems prior to the start of the public hearings.
8. A detailed account of the mechanics, problems and out comes of the Public
Hearings and Submission processes appears on pp. 71-87 (and supporting
Appendices) of the Assemblys Technical Report, Making Every Vote Count:
The Case for Electoral Reform in British Columbia, December 204, 264 pp.
9. This was followed by a limited debate on the None-of-the-Above (NOTA)
option. NOTA is not an electoral system per se but a direct democracy
initiative which provides a box marked None of the Above on the ballot
form. Should the NOTA vote gain a majority, constituency representatives
would be selected at random from the NOTA electoral model. Although the
members decided against including the NOTA option in any recommended model,
the fact that a substantial number spoke in its favour signalled the degree
of anti-party sentiment prevailing in the Assembly.
10. David M. Farrell, Malcolm Mackerras and Ian McAllister, Designing
Electoral Institutions: STV Systems and their Consequences, Political
Studies, vol. xliv, no.1, 1996, pp. 24-43.
11. For a discussion of why an STV system was not recommended for Prince
Edward Island, see, John Andrew Cousins, Electoral Reform for Prince Edward
Island, Canadian Parliamentary Review, vol. 25, no. 4, Winter 2002-03,