The British Columbia Citizens Assembly (BCCA) has enthused me ever since I heard about it. It has been very well studied, and is full of lessons for Extinction Rebellion and anyone else wondering how to set up an assembly. In this blog I show how the way in which the Assembly was designed influenced the outcome. I do this not to be critical of the idea of an Assembly but to draw out those lessons.
In a second blog I will comment on the legitimacy of the Assembly and its recommendation.
The BCCA was set up by the government of British Columbia in Canada to review the electoral system, after two perverse election results with a large mismatch between votes and seats. 160 citizens met regularly throughout most of 2004 learning about and discussing electoral reform. In December 2004, their report, Making Every Vote Count, recommended that British Columbia move from First Past the Post (FPTP) to Single Transferable Vote (STV). The government of British Columbia had promised a referendum on the recommendation. But they also set a hurdle. The change would only happen if 60% of voters were in favour. Only 57.7% were, so no change was made.
All the way through the process, most assembly members were in favour of a change to FPTP. For most, again, the two main candidates were Single Transferable Vote (STV) and Mixed Member Proportional (MMP). I can never keep in my head the details of electoral systems. Read the italic text below if you want a reminder.
Both aim to be more proportionate than FPTP. MMP achieves a high degree of proportionality through the party list, but at the expense of having two sorts of representative, with one lot not attached to a constituency. STV aims for proportionality by having multi-member constituencies, so that each constituency can be represented by people from more than one party. It tends to be less proportionate than MMP, because there is a limit to how proportionate you can be in say a three-member constituency. But it has the benefit of having only one type of MP, all of whom are constituency MPs.
The first phase of the Citizens Assembly was a four month learning period, at the end of which MMP was preferred to STV. But by the end of deliberative phase that followed, STV came out ahead. Why the shift? It was all about values. At the start of the discussion phase, people were asked for their values, in the form of criteria that should be used to choose a system. The top three were:
- Effective local representation
- Proportionality of votes to seats
- Maximum voter choice
Furthermore, diversity might have made the top three had the members of the Assembly been chosen on a slightly different basis. They were selected to be representative in terms of age, gender and geography. They were not screened for ethnicity. An Aboriginal man and woman were added to represent that perspective, but it remained the case that minorities as a whole were under-represented. Having more ethnic minority participants might have pushed diversity into the top three.
Apparently small decisions in setting up a deliberative process such as this can also affect the overall result. The Assembly members were told that it was a given that the number of seats in the legislature should stay fixed at 79. To work well, MMP would have needed more seats.
I’d like to end on a note of uplift, so give the last word to the chair of the BCCA, Jack Blaney. Looking back on the assembly, he wrote, “With an impressive commitment to learning so many new concepts and skills, and with a grace and respect for one another in their discussions that was truly remarkable, the Assembly members demonstrated a quality of citizenship that inspired us all.”
STV – Rather than one person representing everyone in a small area, bigger areas elect a small team of representatives. Voters go through the list of candidates. They mark their favourite as number one, their second favourite as number two, and so on. They can put numbers next to as many or as few candidates as they like.
To get elected, a candidate needs a set amount of votes, known as the quota. The people counting the votes work out the quota based on the number of vacancies and the number of votes cast.
Any candidate who has more number ones than the quota is elected. Extra votes above the quota move to each voter’s second favourite candidate.
If no one reaches the quota, then the people counting the vote remove the least popular candidate. People who voted for them have their votes moved to their second favourite candidate. This process continues until every vacancy is filled.
MMP – Voters get two votes: one to decide the representative for their single-seat constituency, usually on a First Past the Post basis, and one for a political party.
How many seats each party gets is calculated so that the party’s share of the seats is the same as its share of the votes. Here’s an example. The Perry party gets a quarter of the votes. That means it also gets a quarter of the seats. Suppose there are 100 seats in the parliament, and that 10 constituency representatives from my party have been elected. The party gets an extra 15 seats, because 10 + 15 = 25, a quarter of the total.
The party representatives usually come from a list chosen by the party.
In the UK, this method is used in Scotland, Wales, and the London Assembly, but is called the Additional Member system.
My main sources
- R. Kenneth Carty, André Blais, Patrick Fournier, When Citizens Choose to Reform SMP: the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, chapter 5 of André Blais, editor, To Keep or To Change First Past The Post?: The Politics of Electoral Reform, Oxford University Press, 2008
- Graham Smith, Democratic Innovations, Designing Institutions for Citizen Participation, Cambridge University Press, 2009
- John Parkinson and Jane Mansbridge, eds, Deliberative Systems, Cambridge University Press, 2013