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Electoral Reform in British Columbia

updated January 2005

Background to the establishment of the Citizens' Assembly

Assembly recommendations and future actions

Media on the Assembly

Quotes from Assembly Members

Further information on Electoral Reform in Canada

The campaign for electoral systems reform is gathering momentum in Canada.  The province of British Colombia could shortly see a switch to the choice voting form of full representation.  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, has overwhelmingly come out in favor of a switch away from the current winner-take-all system towards a fairer way of electing representatives.  A referendum on whether or not to move to choice voting will be held on May 17, 2005. 

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 this 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 2002.  It gained 60% of the vote and won over 97% of the 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 which 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 Future Actions:

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 finalizes the details of the choice voting system and explains what it will mean for voters, on December 15, 2004.  Copies of the report will be sent to all households in the province in mid- to late January, as well as to libraries, municipal halls, and government offices at all levels.   

The referendum in which voters can decide whether to adopt the new system is scheduled for May 17, 2005.  To be adopted, choice voting will require the approval of at least 60% of all voters and at least 60% of all voting districts.  Many assembly members feel that they still have a responsibility to British Columbians as they make their decision, and will continue to participate in the public debate in a non-partisan and independent capacity up until the referendum.  The BC government will also set up an information office to educate the public about the BC-STV recommendation, although it will remain neutral.  If voters approve of the change, the first choice voting election will take place in 2009.

Media on the Assembly:  

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 votingA 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 full 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 full representation system. September 9, 2004

The Globe and Mail: 5 Provinces Consider Voting Changes.  Although the effort to switch to proportional representation in Canada at a national level may be blocked, five provinces, British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, are considering the adoption of proportional representation.  July 9, 2004.

Canadian Press: B.C.'s Citizens' Assembly on electoral reform getting close to decision. Discusses the different election systems that B.C.'s Citizens' Assembly considered as well as the way the assembly will arrive at a decision. September 6, 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.

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