Apr 30, 2009

Reflections on the Citizens’ Assembly


One of the most interesting stories behind BC’s Single Transferable Vote referendum is how we got there. The Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform ran for a year, a fascinating exercise in deliberative democracy, and perhaps the most interesting and forward-looking thing done by the Liberals in their first term. Wendy Bergerud was a CA member and is also a CCPA member. Here are her reflections, from our new BC Commentary special section on STV.

Reflections on the Citizens’ Assembly

By Wendy Bergerud

Have you ever had your name pulled out of a hat? I did! And it gave me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to be one of the 160 members of BC’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. In 2003, one man and one woman were chosen at random from the lists of voters in each of BC’s 79 ridings to form this assembly, along with two members from the aboriginal community. This innovative process created a group of people that closely mirrored the population of BC.

The Assembly worked throughout 2004 to learn about voting systems, consult with our fellow citizens, and decide if we thought a change would be appropriate and, if so, what that change should be. Like most assembly members I knew very little about voting systems when I started. I did know that I wasn’t happy with how negative our politics had become.

I was puzzled how a party could form government with less of the popular vote than the other party got, as happened in 1996. Or how, in 2001, a popular vote of almost 58% gave the former opposition most of the seats while the former governing party got only two seats with 22% of the popular vote. Huh? Our voting system wasn’t creating legislatures that mirrored how we voted. I didn’t know if there was a better voting system out there, but I hoped there was at least one.

Our common goal was to make a decision, whatever it might be, that most, if not all of us, could agree on. We met at the Wosk Centre in downtown Vancouver in a room with tiered circular rows of seats, similar to the parliaments of many European countries that use proportional representation. It was a great place for 160 people to work together in a truly democratic fashion. We met every second weekend during the learning phase. During plenary sessions we would learn about voting systems, then engage in smaller breakout group discussions.

At the end of the learning phase we were asked to produce a preliminary statement that would include which alternate voting system we were considering. We didn’t feel this was appropriate – how could we honestly say that we were listening to the public if we had already made a choice before attending the public hearings scheduled for April and May! So our report instead discussed our criteria for judging voting systems. It included a description of our process, as well as encouraging people to come out to our 50 public hearings – about 3,000 people did! And during the summer, we received 1,600 written submissions. Most commissions hold only a few public hearings and might receive a hundred or so submissions. So the response to our work was incredible!

As some of us read through these submissions, we discussed them using a private online forum. This inspired some intense discussions that informed our weekend deliberations. Without the online forum and its debates I wouldn’t have been able to develop my thoughts as well as I was able to.

At the beginning of the deliberation phase, we had two clear contenders for the alternate voting system: STV and MMP, or Mixed Member Proportional (a system that looks like the current system of ridings but gives additional seats to parties in order to achieve proportionality; Ontario voted on and rejected this system in 2007). We built a specific model of each one, debated their merits and finally chose STV over MMP by a ratio of four to one.

An important issue for us was rural representation. It got a lot of “air time” during our plenary sessions. How could we design a system that was fair to all, regardless of where we lived? This led us to ask what local representation was. We decided that it had two different meanings: 1) the constituency work of the MLAs; and 2) the partisan representation of voters in the legislature, that is, the ability of your MLA to represent your point of view about how government should be run and how it should handle the big issues. Given that only about half of us who vote get the MLA we chose means that most of us don’t feel represented in this second way, even if we have an MLA who does great constituency work.

As we studied STV we realized that it would improve local representation. Even in a two-member district we are likely to have one MLA in the governing party and one in opposition. This gives us a choice of MLAs to approach about our concerns. And, since STV is a proportional voting system, the numbers of seats each party receives will closely match how we voted, further improving our partisan representation in the legislature.

Women’s representation was another important issue. We learned that people vote as willingly for women as for men; the main stumbling block in the past was cultural. As culture has changed, countries with proportional voting systems have responded faster and elected more women. With our current system, the nomination process has been a roadblock for women getting on the ballot. But with STV, parties can easily create gender balance within the lists of candidates they put forward in each district.

After lots of debate, our final decision was to recommend BC-STV to our fellow voters: 146 voted yes with just 7 against. We had reached our original goal: that most of us would support our final decision, whatever that might be.

We now have a second chance to consider which voting system is more likely to produce legislatures that actually reflect the way we vote. While my personal choice is clear, I urge you to study both systems based on the issues most important to you, choose one or the other, and support it with your vote on May 12, 2009.

Wendy Bergerud has worked for the Ministry of Forests since 1981. In 2003 she was chosen at random to be a member of the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform from the Victoria-Hillside (now Victoria-Swan Lake) riding. She is now a director with Fair Voting BC (www.stv.ca) and is on the national council of Fair Vote Canada (www.fairvote.ca). She has been a member of CCPA for many years.