In British Columbia, the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, an independent and non-partisan body composed of ordinary British Colombians convened to study how the province should best translate votes into seats, overwhelmingly came out in favor of a switch away from the current winner-take-all system towards a fairer way of electing representatives. In a referendum on whether or not to move to choice voting held on May 17, 2005, however, the assembly’s proposals were narrowly rejected due to a super-majority requirement. The outcome of the election showed 57 % voting yes on the referendum and 43 % opposed, thereby failing to meet the threshold requirement of 60 % support overall and a majority in 60 % of the ridings needed for passage.
Background to the establishment of the Citizens' Assembly:
Traditionally Canada is one of the few developed democracies -- along with the US and Great Britain -- where most elections are held under winner-take-all rules. However, recently there has been an increasing popular sense that these rules serve the people of Canada poorly. Support for election systems reform has been growing in British Columbia since the 1996 election. The distortions of winner-take-all rules resulted in the New Democratic Party, with 39% of the popular vote, winning more seats (39) in the province's Legislative Assembly than the Liberal party (33) that had won 42% of the popular vote. Thus, the NDP, with less popular support than the Liberal party, formed the government for the next five years. This result motivated the Liberal party, in conjunction with a number of grassroots reform organizations, to make electoral reform a priority in its political campaign for the next election. In the 2001 election the Liberal party promised to create a Citizens' Assembly, which would analyze the benefits of alternative electoral systems.
The Liberal party was elected to power in 2001. It gained 60% of the vote and won over 97% of representation - 77 of 79 seats. Here was further evidence of the distorting effect of winner-take-all. The party's share of the vote, though, did suggest widespread popular approval for the changes that it was advocating, and the Liberal government took steps to bring the Citizens' Assembly into being. 161 British Columbians were randomly selected from the provincial voters list. For 10 months the Assembly studied, researched and debated different election systems. They also held 50 public hearings, and received 1,603 written submissions from the public on their opinions about electoral reform. As a result, when the Citizens' Assembly voted on the best course of action on October 24, 2004, it had both the mandate and the education to make an informed decision. To read more about the deliberations, click here.
Assembly Recommendations and Referendum Results:
After studying the evidence, the Citizens' Assembly showed an impressive degree of consensus in its October vote on what voting system to recommend. Members were asked to vote on three questions. The first was whether or not the current winner-take-all system should be kept. The Assembly voted overwhelmingly against the current system: only 11 people were for maintaining the status quo, against 142 who called for reform. The second question was, if a change were to be made, what system would be the best. The options available to them were a mixed member proportional system, in which 60% of representatives would be elected from single member districts and 40% on a proportional system, and a version of choice voting (known in Canada as STV, short for "single transferable vote") designed specifically for British Columbia. Again, the consensus was clear, with 123 Assembly members voting for choice voting and just 31 favoring a mixed member system. The final issue was if the matter should be put to the public as a referendum. The referendum proposal was approved by 146 votes to 7.
These results from British Columbia show clearly how obvious the limitations of winner-take-all are, in contrast to the advantages of choice voting. The members of the Citizens' Assembly were picked at random from the general public, and had no history of interest in electoral reform. Nevertheless, almost all of them quickly reached the conclusion that choice voting would represent a vast improvement on the current system.
With choice voting, rather than voting for a single candidate, voters would be able to rank as many or as few candidates as they wanted in order of preference. The ballots are counted so that each party will win a share of the legislative seats in line with their percentage of the vote overall. Candidates who gain more votes than they need to win election will have their excess votes transferred to the second preferences of those who voted for them. Candidates who gain an insufficient share of the vote to win election will also have their votes transferred. In British Columbia, if choice voting were adopted, the current single member districts would be combined into multi-member districts. The number of legislature members within the new districts would vary from 2 in sparsely populated rural areas, to up to 7 in urban areas. The overall number of representatives would not change.
The Citizens' Assembly delivered its final report, which finalized the details of the choice voting system and explained what it would mean for voters, on December 15, 2004. Copies of the report were sent to all households in the province in mid- to late January, 2004, as well as to libraries, municipal halls, and government offices at all levels.
When put to a referendum on May 17, 2005, however, the assembly’s proposals were narrowly defeated. The main source of this defeat was the 60/60 formula, which required a super majority of 60 % support overall and a majority in 60 % of the ridings for passage. This rule undermines majoritarian politics and was designed to specifically hamper any electoral reform efforts. A similar rule has also been set in place for a possible Ontario referendum on proposals made by its Citizens’ Assembly, which was organized in September 2006 and is in the process of deliberation. Michael Prue of the NDP attacked the 60/60 formula for setting “the standard beyond the traditions of the entire world. The entire world understands that to change laws you need 50 per cent plus one.” If choice voting is to gain any real progress in Canada, legislators, who are often elected with much less than 60 % and sometimes without a simple majority in a winner-takes-all system, must stop placing unfair voting rules on referendums that concern electoral reform.
To watch a video on how the STV reform would have worked in British Columbia, click here.
Media on the Assembly:
Referendum on deck if Ont. shakes up electoral system. News report on the results of the May 17, 2005, referendum.
Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform Newsletter #20. The final newsletter from the Citizens' Assembly details the final actions of the body, and explains the referendum procedure. December 3, 2004
Victoria News: One, two, three - get ready for B.C.'s new way of voting. A discussion of the implications of STV for British Columbian politics. November 17, 2004
Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform: Newsletter #8, Assembly Reaches Decision. The announcement from the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform of their decision to recommend that British Columbians adopt a new voting system. October 26, 2004
Alaska Highway News: Electoral reform proposes sweeping changes. An analysis of how a possible change to STV will effect the local community as well as an analysis of the merits of STV. October 26, 2004
CBC News: B.C. voters to choose electoral system next May. Announcing The Citizens' Assembly for Electoral Reform recommendation to change to STV elections will be put on the ballot for British Columbia's May 17, 2005 election. October 25, 2004
Vancouver Sun: Assembly approves mixed-vote system. B.C. voters would cast ballots not just for MLAs but also parties under reform plan. The two options being considered by the Citizens' Assembly are a mixed member system and STV. October 18, 2004
Vancouver Sun: Assembly opinions devastating for B.C.'s electoral system. A discussion of the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform's current recommendation that a proportional representation system be implemented in British Columbia. September 14, 2004.
Island Tides: Citizens' Assembly Faces Decision Time. A report on the B.C. Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform's consultations with the public. Although various opinions were put forward, the majority favored a move to a proportional representation system. September 9, 2004
Quotes from Assembly members:
·The people of BC are far more sophisticated than they were 100 years... STV as an electoral system, for me, is part of a natural evolution... Accountability has been a huge issue brought to the Assembly [by the public]. Throwing out governments on a regular basis [under winner-take-all], with the massive costs due to their policy changes, is a poor form of accountability.
·It comes down to democracy to me. . . . Elections to me are about somebody who is representing me and my interests. I haven't yet found a party that really represents me and what I believe in. I see STV as allowing me to vote for a candidate who most closely represents what I like and what issues I would like brought forward.