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December 02, 2004

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Assembly is new tool for governing

The fact that we, in B.C., are dealing with electoral reform is not unique. What is profoundly unique is the process we are using - entrusting an important public policy question to ordinary citizens.
BY JACK BLANEY

This past year I've had the honour of being involved with 160 absolutely extraordinary British Columbians - members of the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform.

In 2003, the government of British Columbia announced, and the legislature unanimously endorsed, the creation of the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform. One hundred and sixty British Columbians were randomly selected from the voters list and invited to join this historic experiment in citizen-led public policy creation. The task these ordinary British Columbians took on was to recommend, after thorough review, the best electoral system for British Columbia.

The fact that we, in B.C., are dealing with electoral reform is not unique. Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario and the Yukon are reviewing their voting systems as well. What is profoundly unique is the process we are using - entrusting such an important public policy question to ordinary citizens. Just recently, Ontario announced it will copy B.C.'s lead.

This was a bold and courageous move on the part of the government and legislature of British Columbia. Traditionally, we would have struck a commission of experts or politicians. Instead, our political leaders have asked ordinary citizens to review the electoral system, and they gave these citizens real power to initiate change. Not only does the assembly report their recommendation directly to the people of B.C., members are also writing the referendum question voters will respond to in the May 17 election.

Entrusted with this important task, unprecedented power and complete independence from government, these 160 citizens have responded with unparalleled dedication, unflagging energy and exemplary integrity. Over the course of this past year, they have become the most extraordinary British Columbians.

Members of the assembly are truly a cross-section of society. The assembly has equal numbers of men and women; their ages range from 19 to 80; they come from all walks of life, a range of occupational backgrounds and every region of the province. Attendance at our weekend meetings has averaged an amazing 97 per cent. Only one of our original members has withdrawn.

Recently, the assembly announced its recommendation to the people of B.C., a recommendation to change the electoral system to one devised by the assembly specifically for the needs and values of our province - a system branded BC-STV.

The assembly's recommendation will now go to a province-wide referendum on May 17, 2005- the same day as the next provincial election. If it is approved, the government has pledged to introduce enabling legislation in time for the provincial election of 2009.

The process by which the assembly came to a decision was intense and the discussions were passionate. But, throughout, the proceedings were characterized by genuine civility, mutual respect, intellectual honesty and non-partisan debate.

There are several reasons I believe this assembly has been so successful. One is the random invitation. The assembly's make-up mirrors B.C. Members are not representing organizations or vested interests. They represent only themselves -- and, by extension, British Columbians.

The second reason it has worked so well, I believe, is the self-selection. For every 200 people randomly selected and contacted, an average of 12 came to a selection meeting, where members' names were drawn from a hat. They came forward with a very strong commitment to community. Whether they are courier drivers or chiropractors, they all have this commitment in common.

A third major reason this has been so phenomenal is the real power entrusted to the assembly.

Right here in British Columbia, we have invented a tool of democracy that has not been used anywhere else in the world. The government of British Columbia, with full support of the legislature, has created a brand new tool of governance: randomly selected citizens' assemblies. Nowhere has this been tried before, and the world is watching our success.

What is BC-STV

After months devoted to studying electoral systems, reading 1,600 written submissions, listening to the views of hundreds of British Columbians at 50 public hearings and passionately and respectfully debating among themselves the merits of each option, the Citizens' Assembly recommended B.C. adopt a new system for electing our MLAs.

This system, which members custom-designed to meet British Columbians' specific needs and values, is a variation of the proportional representation by single transferable vote system - often abbreviated STV.

STV is currently used in a number of countries for electing various levels of government. The Republic of Ireland has used STV for most of the last century. Despite attempts by their government to change the system, Irish voters have steadfastly voted to retain STV.

The assembly believes the reason STV is not more commonly used is that the system gives voters more choice and more control. It is a system designed for voters, by voters.
The assembly's made-in-B.C. electoral system, dubbed BC-STV, was selected over competitors because it best addressed the three values most often expressed by British Columbians: fair election results, local representation and voter choice.

BC-STV is designed to treat voters fairly and equally by making more votes count, and by reflecting voters' support for candidates and parties as fairly as possible. Under this system, each party's share of seats in the legislature reflects its share of voter support. This proportionality means voters' views are fairly represented.

Proportionality is achieved by enlarging electoral districts so that two or more MLAs are elected in each. This offers independents and candidates from smaller parties more chance of being elected in each riding.

All 79 MLAs would continue to be locally elected, providing effective local representation. The size of ridings, and the number of MLAs elected per riding, would vary across the province to reflect regional conditions. In sparsely populated areas, as few as two MLAs would be elected in a riding and, in denser urban districts, as many as seven MLAs - depending on the riding population. For example, the 10 existing Vancouver ridings could be combined to form two ridings each electing five MLAs.

The ballot used in BC-STV allows voters much more scope for expressing their preferences and more power in determining who represents them. Voters rank order candidates on what is called a preferential ballot (1, 2, 3, 4, etc), picking and choosing between candidates from the same party or different parties. So, if your first choice candidate doesn't have enough votes to be elected, your ballot could help elect your second choice.

With multiple seats up for election, parties likely will put forward a diverse list of candidates in each riding, giving voters the power to decide which, if any, of a party's candidates are elected. This encourages candidates to work hard to earn voter support and encourages effective local representation.

After the polls close, ballots are counted in such a way as to ensure those candidates with the most support are elected.



Jack Blaney is chair of the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform and SFU president emeritus. For information on the Citizens' Assembly and the BC-STV electoral system go to www.citizensassembly.bc.ca.















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