Tag Archives: BC Citizens Assembly

Footnote on BC-STV

Had a really nice breakfast with Taylor Gunn of Student Vote yesterday. For those who aren’t familiar with their work I strongly encourage you to take a look at their website. For me, they are a great reminder that citizenship is a learnt skill and responsibility – and they work as hard as anyone to foster it.

Looking over the Student Vote website I was struck by their results for the BC election. I wasn’t surprised by the NDP’s strong and the Green’s (relatively strong) showing as young people tend to lean left. Indeed, if anything I was surprised the Green’s didn’t do better given how much I thought the party was driven by youth. No what surprised me was the referendum outcome – specifically how poorly the BC-STV vote did among student “voters” particularly in comparison to last time.

Gunn was telling me that last time, student “voters” passed BC-STV whereas this time the referendum was defeated 55.59% vs. 44.41% with 64 districts opposed and only 17 in favour. This means even among some of the most idealistic “voters” in the province support dropped at least %15 and likely more (I don’t know the specific results for the last election). My sense is that there are again two reasons for this:

1) that reframing the question to a choice between two systems as opposed to a “yes” or “no” for change may have affected voters more dramatically then people thought. Do people want change? Frequently they say yes. But show them what the specifics of what that change will be and they are often less enthusiastic. I’ve always been struck by an exit poll I remember seeing after the 2001 election in which only 35% of voters who voted “yes” in the referendum actually knew what they were voting for.

2) the second is that I think more exposure to BC-STV – both positive and negative – had a culminative negative impact. BC-STV supporters beleived that the more people learnt about BC-STV the more they would like it. I think they exact opposite occured. The more they learnt, the more questions they had and the less the understood or liked the proposed system. I’m open to the possibility that all these student voters were exposed to a negative add campaign that shifted their opinions but it feels a little like a stretch.

I’m voting no to BC-STV

For those outside of British Columbia we have a referendum on May 12th to determine if the province should shift from its current voting system, called First Past the Post (FPTP), to Single Transferable Vote (BC-STV).

Watching the back and forth over the referendum on BC-STV has, I sense, left most citizens of British Columbia exasperated and confused. On both sides, people pronounce that a change will either bring political nirvana to the province, or utter disaster. It’s all a little over dramatic.

The truth is, the current system is not a disaster nor is the proposed change a nirvana. Both have strengths and weaknesses – this is because fundamentally, they are seeking to accomplish different things.

At present, our system favours geographic representation. In BC we don’t have a single election, we have 85 individual elections – one in each riding. Consequently, a party that wins 34% in each individual race could win every seat. This means that ideologically – a single perspective get represented. It is rare, but it is possible.

BC-STV is an attempt to create electoral outcomes that better reflect not how individual ridings voted, but how people voted across the province. In short, it seeks to enhance ideological representation by enabling voters who are distributed across ridings to elect representatives whose ideas resonate with them.

The challenge is, one cannot have it both ways. You cannot strengthen province wide ideological representation without weakening local representation. And herein lies the central trade off between the two systems: Local accountability versus great ideological representation at the provincial level.

Both are noble objectives. They just happen to be incompatible, one comes at the expense of the other. For me, this reduces any assessment of BC-STV to this question: do the benefits of improved ideological representation outweigh the costs of reduced local accountability? I think the answer is no.

In part, this is because I happen to place a high value on local representation. Others who think geography is less important than ideology will likely disagree (these are legitimate, and likely irreconcilable perspectives).

However, I’m also concerned about BC-STV because to achieve better ideological representation, I believe it makes some significant and problematic trade-offs (listed below). That, and there are the infamous unknown unknowns involved in adopting a new system.


The biggest problem with BC-STV is that, to achieve a balance between ideological and local representation, it presents votes with a system that is almost impossible to understand. I’m a policy wonk and a political junkie, as such I’m genuinely interested in these things and like to think I know a little about them. I’ve just gone through the literature umpteenth times and while I understand how it works, it is grossly complicated. I have not ideas of what its implications will be nor am I sure that the manner and order by which votes get weighted is fair.

One thing you want from an electoral system is that it be easily understood. This is important so that people know exactly who they are voting for and what their vote means. BC-STV is so complicated that the Vote No campaign websites directs readers to the explanatory video developed by the Citizens Assembly (their opponents). Even its advocates can’t explain it simply.


In order to create greater ideological representation BC-STV has to weaken local representation. It does this by making ridings (districts for Americans) larger. Consequently, in BC-STV we would end up with mega ridings, the largest being 372,000 sq km. But the ratio of elected officials to votes would however, remain the same meaning that each “riding” would be served by somewhere between 2 and 7 MPs. This has several problematic implications.

First, who’s accountable? When there is a problem in your riding who do you complain to? Who is your elected official? Do you complain to all seven? The one you voted for? The member who is part of the government? All of them? A 7 member riding dilutes the connection between the voter and their representatives.

Second, it can create problematic feedback loops. If voters who vote for the Green Party only ever contact the Green Party representative and Liberal Party voters only contact the Liberal Party member in their riding we run the risk of creating a selection bias driven echo chambers. Party’s actually become more ideological and partisan.

Finally, individual MPs voices are diminished. In our current system, MPs influence derives from the fact that they have a machine on the ground and that they know their riding better than anyone. Large ridings make this harder to sustain. More importantly, when there are multiple candidates from a single party in the riding, the party can choose to deploy more resources towards candidates that will not challenge the party or its leader. The outcome is that BC-STV actually weakens the independence of elected officials.

Small Parties, Big Voices

I’m not opposed to coalition governments per se but, unlike many BC-STV supporters, I do not think they are inherently good either. BC-STV supporters are correct in asserting that smaller parties will have a greater voice. What often isn’t explained is that that voice won’t be proportional to the number of seats they elect – it can end up being disproportionately influential. Imagine a small party that garnered 8% of the provincial vote holds the balance of power in the legislature. It can effectively make any demand it wants to prop up the government. As a result, a platform supported by just 8% of voters suddenly becomes dominant. I know many of my environmentalist friends are excited by the prospect of the Green Party holding that balance of power… but there is no guarantee that this would be the outcome. What if the nascent Conservative Party were to be that force? They would almost certainly force the Liberals – arguable the most progressive party on the environment and First Nations issues – to move backwards on issues like the Carbon Tax and the New Relationship.

For these and other reasons, I’m ultimately opposed to BC-STV. Is FPTP perfect? Hardly, but BC-STV is still less so.

I now there are a lot of readers out there who are supporters so feel free to vent below in the comments section. I’ll try to respond to counter arguments as best I can.

For those who want to know more and educate themselves before tomorrow’s vote, here is a link to the BC-STV site and to the No STV site.

The murky future of BC-STV

I confess to reading, with great disappointment, Gordon Gibson’s comments about the upcoming referendum on STV:

“I have watched and taken part in our politics for more than 50 years,” former Liberal leader Gordon Gibson said.

“I have never seen such an opportunity,” he added.

I have. It was about 4 years ago. Something, Gibson briefly began to acknowledge before drifting back into platitudes:

“the last chance in the lifetimes of anyone in this room … a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we must not miss.”

Actually, this would be a twice in a lifetime opportunity, which is the problem.

Unlike in America, where ballot propositions are immediately binding, in Canada referendum’s have no legal relevance. That said, they remain an important source of legitimacy. Which is why the upcoming referendum on BC-STV is troubling. How legitimate is a referendum whose question was asked – and answered – a mere 4 years ago? Why is this referendum more valid than the last one? Why not – for example – take an average of the two?

Collectively, Canadians have endured this dilemma for decades. I remember being at a formal dinner, sitting beside a friendly Quebec sovereigntist who joked about how he would play squash with his good friend who happened to be a federalist politician. Sadly, he said, he lost every time. However, he quipped, he liked to remind his friend that he only had to win once…

Issues like the sovereignty of a province, or the structure of our electoral systems are not squash games, they are core questions about our identity and how we govern ourselves. Any proposal to alter or change them must be made through a process that bestows as much legitimacy as possible unto the new system. Pursuing a process in which you give yourself multiple kicks at the can, and deem valid the one time you reach the threshold does not accomplish this.

At least in Quebec the referendum question was separated by 15 years. This period of time meant it was possible to argue that there had been a generational change (true), that conditions had changed (also true), and that a similar, but new question could be asked once again (again, true).

The same cannot be said for BC-STV. It has only been four years, little has changed in terms of context and the exact same question will be asked.

While it supporters will claim that BC-STV is a better system (a topic for another post) derived from a legitimate process (something I believe to be contestable), the simple fact is voters rejected it a mere 4 years ago.

And herein lies the problem for BC-STV. It’s not clear there can be a positive result for its supporters. If they lose, they will be unhappy. However, if they win, what does it mean? Will the result carry sufficient credibility and legitimacy? What if it barely passes? Say 60.1%? My sense is that, barring an overwhelming or near unanimous vote – say 80% the result will be, at the very minimum, tainted. An ominous beginning for a process which all citizens should feel was enacted in a fair and legitmate manner.

Citizen Assemblies: Overstating the wisdom of crowds

On numerous occasions over the past few months I’ve heard people refer to Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds” when explaining why any group driven project is inherently good.

My favourite has been the explanation regarding how citizen’s assemblies – because they tend to be composed of 100 or more members – are inherently wise and therefor produce a good outcome. To begin with, I find it interesting that those who defend electoral reform rarely talk about the merits of the proposal and instead refer to the soundness of the decision making process used to reach them. Citizen assemblies, it must be said, are not some magical process that produce inherently good outcomes. Indeed, if those who invoke his book had actually read it, they’d realize the Surowiecki’s analysis not only fails to support their contention about the process, it may actually do the opposite.

Pause for a second, and think about the logic that says a solution is good simply because it was arrived at by a large group of people. It is actually quite frightening. Indeed, one of the first things Surowiecki points out is that not all crowds are wise. The statement hardly needs supporting, but Surowiecki nonetheless trots out numerous examples of unwise crowds – angry mobs, investors in a stock bubble, and the various branches of US intelligence services. It’s not simply the size of a crowd that makes it “wise” it is also the rules that guide its behaviour. To be specific Surowiecki cites four key elements (which I’ve cribbed from wikipedia):

Diversity of opinion: Crowds – even those whose members hold ill-informed or eccentric interpretation of the known facts – will be wiser then groups that possess identical data, similar perspectives, or interpret data in a similar fashion.

Independence: Crowd members opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.

Decentralization: People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.

Aggregation: A mechanism for turning private judgments into a collective decisions.

Violate one of these elements and your crowd risks becoming a mob. By my estimation, citizen assemblies run the risk of violating three.

First, the diversity of opinion is at risk. While citizen assemblies’ proponents would have you believe they are composed randomly, this is in fact, not the case. Firstly, there are a number of people who, for reasons of work or family, would not participate. But what really interests me is that people opposed to change (and possibly those who are simply indifferent) are less likely to participate. If you thought a proposition (such as electoral reform) was silly, would you spend a year debating it – or would you simply await your opportunity to vote against it at the end of the process? Participation in these assemblies is almost assuredly tilted toward those predisposed to favour change – e.g. the crowd is more likely to be homogeneous in its desire for change and its perception of the electoral system.

Second, citizen assemblies are less likely to be independent. If you enter into a process to change the voting system the pressure to support change, any change, must be intense. Imagine if you sat around for a year listening, debating and arguing, and came out of the process agreeing that the status quo was ultimately superior to any other option. What a frustrating outcome! Tax payers would question why the money was spent and your friends would ridicule you for “wasting your time.” Worst still, what if the assembly couldn’t agree? What would that say about its constituent members? The internally created pressure on assembly members to put forward something, anything(!) new, and to have a clear majority of assembly members support this proposal was likely intense. I’d wager that once momentum for one solution began to emerge, other members were willing to bandwagon along “for the sake of the process.” In short, assembly members allowed their opinions to be determined by the opinions of those around them. (except, of course for those who held out. The same people who – from first hand accounts – were invariable referred to as stick in the muds and ‘difficult’ people. “Think like the rest of us or we’ll socially ostracize you…” isn’t that a sign of a mob?)

Finally, citizen assemblies have poor mechanisms for aggregation. Although neither the BC nor the Ontario Citizen assemblies required it, both placed strong emphasis on reaching consensus – articulating it as an ideal. If there is one system of decision-making Surowiecki believes makes a crowd dumb, it is a consensus-based approach. In order to reach consensus crowd members sacrifice the previous three elements – diversity, independence and decentralization – in order to gravitate towards the group’s mean. In effect the group’s collective knowledge and diversity of analytical ability is lost. This is the antithesis of a wise crowd. It is a crowd that actually gets dumber with time because it has less data, less analysis and fewer perspectives with which to assess the problem. It isn’t that people agree – they simply censor themselves to prevent disagreement.

This isn’t to say the Citizen Assemblies came to a bad solution for electoral reform (although to confess, I think in both BC and Ontario they did) . Again, all I wish to convey is that the citizen assemblies are not some magical process that produce inherently good outcomes. These process are neither democratic, representative, nor inherently superior – so don’t let supporters of the ballot initiatives bully you with process arguments. Let’s assess these proposals based on their contents – and what they do to democracy in Canada (which, in Ontario’s case, strengthens the parties and the backroom boys).

Citizens' Assemblies – In opposition to responsible government

Some of you may recall this great debate we had on the site over the merits of Citizens’ Assemblies. My friend, David Brock has gone and added fuel to the fire with an op-ed entitled “Ontario abdicates its duty on electoral reformin Thursday’s Toronto Star.

David punches a number of holes into the Citizens’ Assembly process, but I think his ultimate critique drives to the heart of the matter – that even citizens’ assemblies cannot escape the problem of representation. Someone, somewhere, made choices about which groups should and shouldn’t be represented within the assembly. This, naturally, has an impact the outcome. Choices will be made that favour some over others.

Representative democracy is far from perfect, but it at least allows those choices to be debated openly. Citizens’ Assemblies, in contrast, are top-down, opaque processes with little oversight or self-correcting mechanisms. I’m still searching for the evidence to see how they produce better, more equitable or more ‘representative’ outcomes.

The Trouble with Citizens' Assemblies

My friend Peter MacLeod published this web-exclusive op-ed in today’s Globe and Mail where he complained about the critics’ harsh treatment of Citizens’ Assemblies. Peter (and I) may not like the language used by some of its critics but he still has to explain why citizens’ assemblies are an appropriate approach to decision making, something I’m not sure his op-ed accomplishes.

What is that famous Churchill quote? “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Let’s be clear, citizens’ assemblies, despite their non-binding nature, are a form of governance. Moreover, despite what their champions claim, they are not democratic. Randomly selecting citizens cannot ensure a province or country’s citizens’ diverse interests and concerns are effectively represented. We use democracy to make decisions because we believe it is the best process by which conflicting interests can be debated and citizens’ issues can be engaged. Is it perfect? Hardly. But citizens’ assemblies are less so.

To see their possible shortcomings one need only look at the BC citizens’ assembly. As Andrew Potter notes in This Magazine “The Assembly’s director of research (i.e. the fellow in charge of bringing in the experts) is Ken Carty, former chair of the UBC poli sci department. According to a colleague of mine who worked in the department under Carty, decisions at faculty meetings were always entertaining, because of the mechanism Carty used to take decisions. What mechanism was that? STV voting. Coincidence?” Moreover, a scan of Carty’s publications shows that his initial writing focused on politics in Ireland: the only other country in the world to use the system like BC STV. Does this mean Carty unduly influenced the assembly? I don’t know. But this, a problematic process, is exactly the type of issue an opposition party would bring to the publics’ attention in a public debate on a policy initiative – and yet where is the role of opposition in a citizens’ assembly?

If a community felt it couldn’t trust its politician on a given issue – such as electoral reform – why not call a commission? Although less sexy, Canada’s history is filled with notable and effective commissions that have laid the groundwork for some of the country’s most significant reforms and policy decisions. These include: public healthcare, bilingualism, and free trade. Because commissions bring together experts with diverse opinions and engage in public consultations they can accomplish many of the goals of citizen assemblies while simultaneously ensuring that numerous informed opinions are represented in the discussion. Can anyone name a process where we purposefully select non-experts to make a decision? When I get on a plane I don’t believe I will be best served if the pilot and crew are randomly selected from the passenger manifest! I’d definitely prefer an expert pilot and crew to manage the flight. The passengers may tell them where they’d like to go and offer some other suggestions, but I think we’d probably all feel safer knowing there was an expert behind the wheel. Moreover, as life and death flying a plane may be, I’m fairly certain decisions about our country are actually still more important.

My friends know I’m a fan of open-source public policy, mostly because I believe it will allow citizens, in a sophisticated and cumulative manner, to shape how our country should operate. However, there is nothing about open source public policy that is democratic – a constraint we must recognize and live by. The problem with citizen assemblies is its champions don’t believe they are bound by such constraints. A citizen assembly’s product is usually pre-sold as democratic and legitimate. Maybe one day the process will be refined in such a way that this will be true, but for now, such a description is misleading, and dangerously so, as it popularizes these assemblies’ recommendations on a false foundation.

[tags]Citizens’ Assemblies, electoral reform, Canadian politics, BC Citizens’ Assembly, Ken Carty[/tags]