Citizens’ Assembly: An Experiment in Democracy

  • Apr. 20, 2009 4:00 p.m.

Article written by Nick Loenen and submitted by Karen McMurray–In 2004, the BC legislature with all-party consent unanimously created a Citizens’ Assembly consisting of one woman and one man from each constituency to recommend to British Columbians whether to keep our voting system, or accept a new way of electing MLAs. The assembly on electoral reform consisted of 160 randomly selected voters. It had no political agenda, represented every part of the province, was gender balanced, committed a year to study and deliberation, listened to 383 presentations at 50 public hearings, and consulted 1,600 on-line submissions. It was deliberative democracy at its best. Voting systems are always imposed by politicians. BC did it differently. Our assembly members, free of political influence had only one objective: What system serves the interest of voters? The assembly members are our neighbours, they understand. They discussed all the frustrations people feel at election time. And they acted. With near unanimity they recommend we change to BC-STV. It is their system of choice. In the 2005 referendum, almost 58 percent of British Columbians accepted the assembly’s recommendation. It was an impressive majority; not enough to make it law, but too close to ignore. Now, we get to do it again, on 12 May. It requires 60 percent to pass into law.After listening to British Columbians, the assembly decided on three values a voting system fit for our province should embody. Fair results- In the 2001 election, every 11,907 Liberal voters were rewarded with one seat, but it took 171,578 NDP voters to get one seat, and the nearly 200,000 Green voters got no seat. Such results are unfair to voters. Effective local representation-While MLAs can be counted on to lobby for their communities and help individuals deal with the bureaucracy, local representatives have no legislative role. On important public policy issues whether it is the carbon tax, fish farming, or privatizing BC Rail, local MLAs are largely captive to the party bosses.More choice-Have you ever voted for a party you did not like, to stop a party you liked even less, or found that the best candidate was with a party that wouldn’t have a chance of winning in your riding, or you supported a party and leader but not their local candidate? It need not be thus. In 2005, a high school class in Smithers choose pizza toppings by using first the current system and then BC-STV. Using the current system, 36 percent ended up with pizzas that were not among their top three choices. With BC-STV, only 2 of the 74 students didn’t get one of their top three choices. It’s a telling example that we can do better. The assembly listened and then guided by the three basic values: Fair Results, Effective Local Representation, and More Choice, concluded British Columbians deserve better. They recommended the single transferable vote, one of the oldest voting systems in the world, tweaked it to suit our situation, and called it BC-STV. How BC-STV works and why it holds promise to meet the assembly’s three values is the subject of following columns. Nick Loenen is a former Richmond City Councillor and MLA. For more visit: or contact: