Ontario's Citizens' Assembly was charged with examining the current electoral system, learning about alternative models and determining which is best suited for the provincial legislature. The Assembly's final recommendations were defeated in a public referendum.
Problems and Purpose
The assembly was established with the goal of adopting a more representative electoral method for Ontario. The winner-take-all system currently in place had repeatedly come under public scrutiny for failing to produce truly representative results.
However, any change to the system would require the participation of the voting public. Participation by regular citizens would help ensure the equality of a potential method, transcending the self-promoting views of elected officials. In order for this to occur, citizens would need to be presented with understandable information on numerous electoral systems.
The assembly was created to allow citizens to process the various systems and to deliberate among their peers about appropriate alternatives to the current method.
Background History and Context
The Government of Ontario created the Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform in March 2006. The main purpose of this assembly was to closely examine the current electoral system in Ontario, learn about alternative election models, and decipher what method would best suit the people of the province. The assembly in Ontario was very closely modeled after the 2004 British Columbia Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform.
The current electoral system in Ontario is winner take all—or first past the post—wherein the candidate with the highest number of votes (but not necessarily a majority) wins the election outright. The system has been a matter of contention since its adoption since the party with the highest total vote count rarily ends up with a majority of seats in the legislature. This can occur when a political party wins key districts by a slight margin, but fails to receive votes in less populated areas. Furthermore, in Ontario’s current system—single member plurality/winner take all—a party can win many votes, yet end up having few seats or no seats. In an effort to enact change, the government established the assembly with 103 randomly selected citizens. The 103 participants encompassed one person from each electorate in Ontario.
One of the alternative systems under consideration was the 'mixed member proportional representation.' This method would have designated both (1) members elected in local districts and (2) members elected by the whole province from party lists as Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs). Under the new system, voters would supposedly have had greater representation—with the ability to cast two votes on the ballot.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The assembly was organised and paid for by the Ontario government, who bought about the project to combat the thought of low levels of democracy in the region at the time. Although many individuals were seeking electoral reform at the time, the government of Ontario was the main actor in bringing about the assembly and funding it during its time in session. The assembly was maintained under George Thomson, who chaired the project and as such had creative say in the direction and organisation of the meetings and event as a whole.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Elections Ontario was tasked with selecting the participants in the assembly. After researching various methods, it decided to use the method of selection established in the British Columbia case. Potential participants were required to be citizens who were registered to vote. Every registered voter was eligible to participate—with a few exceptions, such as for elected officials.
Although the selection process was mostly random, the selection committee still aimed for certain goals. According to Democracy at Work, a pamphlet published by the assembly, the assembly needed to obey the following rules: “Fifty-two members and two alternates for each of those members were to be female and fifty-one members and two alternates for each of those members were to be male. At least one member was to be a self-identified Aboriginal person.” This was done to ensure that the assembly was a true reflection of the population. Although gender was a selection consideration, organizers placed no focus placed on age. In order to gather citizens to make up the demographics of the assembly, the government of Ontario appointed Elections Ontario, a separate entity, to overlook the selection process to ensure there was no possible bias or influence from elected officials.
Using a random electronic system, Elections Ontario was able to create a list of 123,489 people across all of the electoral districts of Ontario. Every person on the list was sent information about the project. These people were given until May to respond to their letters. By the deadline, Elections Ontario had received 7,033 responses from eligible participants. Using the predecided demographic selection rules, the initial group of respondents was reduced to 1253 and then further reduced to 103 people, 1 from each local riding, via random draw. The selection process began in April 2006 and was completed in June 2006.
Methods and Tools Used
The Ontario Government took inspiration from the province of British Columbia who held their own Citizens Assembly prior on electoral reform. The government formed an all-party Select Committee on Electoral Reform, which ran throughout June 2005 until November 2005, that examined the issue of electoral reform and recommended the idea of a citizens’ assembly to assess other options of electoral systems as a means of direct participation. Creating a citizens’ assembly rather than government debate and policy meant the issue was able to be taken out of the sphere of political bargaining and left up to debate by members of the public.
Creation of the Assembly
The province of Ontario had never before attempted a project as ambitions as the Citizens' Assembly. The project required a great deal of coordination before it could begin. On March 27, 2006, the Minister appointed George Thomas chair of the project. Thomas was then given until May 15, 2007 to present the final recommendation of the assembly.
Due to the large scope of the project, a Secretariat was appointed to help organize the assembly. According to the Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, the purpose of the Secretariat was to “develop and deliver a comprehensive education program for the Assembly members on the nature and impact of the current and alternative electoral systems, to engage a broad range of Ontarians in a consultation process, to support and facilitate the Assembly’s decision-making process, and to support the Assembly in preparing a final report for submission to the Minister Responsible for Democratic Renewal”.
The assembly was completely independent of the government of Ontario. Participants were free to come to their own conclusions without government influence. However, they remained subject to governmental budgeting constraints and general guidelines, such as administrative procedures.
The Chair and his supporters were tasked with organizing almost the entire project. They were provided with office space, a location for the assembly's meetings, and a website. While the process was entirely new to Ontario, organizers were able to refer to the successful British Columbia model when formulating the project.
The Chair followed three main guidelines when making decisions about the project:
- "Make it possible for the Assembly members to carry out their task successfully in the time available."
- "Give the members the information and support necessary to do their important job."
- "Involve as many Ontarians as possible in the process."
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Beginning in September 2006, members of the Assembly met about twice a month for eight months. Together, they examined the electoral system and learned about other systems. They consulted with the public through meetings and written submissions. Using what they learned and heard, they recommended that Ontario adopt a new electoral system.
Before discussion could begin, participants learned first about the electoral system in Ontario and other system designs. The assembly created a learning team to handle this phase of the project and to educate participants. Jonathan Rose, a professor at Queen's University, was selected to be the Academic Director of the learning team. Rose acted as the primary instructor and assembled the rest of the learning team. The team consisted of guest speakers, facilitators, discussion group leaders, academic consultants, and the Academic Reference Group.
The Secretariat produced the following learning materials:
- Summer reading list and package
- Annotated bibliographies and readings at introductory, intermediate, and advanced levels
- A summary of the principles and characteristics related to electoral systems
- A text book, From Votes to Seats: Four Families of Electoral Systems
- Slide presentations on each learning topic
- An animation, Billy Ballot, explaining families of electoral systems”
During the learning phase, the assembly participants met for a total of 12 weekends to examine different electoral methods.
A brief consultation phase took place immediately following the learning process. This stage of the project was open to the public. Individuals could register to give oral presentations to the assembly. 252 individuals pre-registered, 43 registered on-site, and additional 206 individuals were granted informal presentations. Members of the public were given many opportunities to speak, and discussion was further facilitated by the availability of a French language service.
Members of the assembly were provided information about their daily tasks before the day began. The Chair and his supporters wanted the members of the assembly to drive the conversation. To help assist the members, the Chair recommended following the following four ideals of good deliberation:
- Identity, common goals, and shared interests
- Avoid a fixed position, despite pre-existing views
- Recognize the risk of conflict
- Start with a conversation, not a debate
Deliberation took place through discussion groups, formal presentations, voting, and consensus forming between groups. The assembly was analyzed and chose from alternative electoral system designs. Participants worked together to create mutually agreed upon, practical, working models for a mixed member proportional system and a single transferable vote system and then voted to choose the best alternative design, ultimately selecting a mixed member proportional (MMP) system. After selecting MMP as an alternative system, assembly members then deliberated on the benefits of the current system versus an MMP system. After selecting the, MMP system as preferable to the existing single member plurality system, the assembly then voted to recommend the system change to the electorate.
The deliberation phase ended with the release of a final report on May 15, 2007. The report was submitted to the government and contained the assembly’s recommendation.
Influence, Outcomes and Effects
The assembly decided that the best system for Ontario was a mixed member proportional system. The MMP system is currently employed by Germany, New Zealand, and parts of the United Kingdom.
The final recommendation of the Assembly were as follows:
Each party nominates its local candidates, as well as a list of candidates for the whole province—in the order that it wants them to be elected. Before the election, parties must submit both their lists and the details of the process they used to create them to Elections Ontario. Elections Ontario will then publish this information widely, so voters will know who is on a list before they vote for a party. Voters will be able to assess whether a party created its list in a fair and transparent way. Voters will also be able to see whether a party’s list has a good balance of men and women, includes candidates from all of Ontario’s regions, and reflects the diversity of Ontario’s population. In short, voters vote for a local candidate and for a party, but the party vote determines the share of seats a party wins in the legislature.
This new system would thus allow two votes per ballot, with one vote for a party and one vote for a specific local candidate. The candidate does not have to be from the same party. This system could create a fairer and more representative electoral body. For example, if a party received 33% of the total votes, they would be awarded a roughly equivalent number of seats in the legislature. To ensure legitimacy, groups/candidates would be required to earn 3% of the total vote.
After the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform released their report recommending the new system, a referendum was held on October 10, 2007 in conjunction with the Ontario provincial election. The new system was rejected, with 63% of voters opposing the plan. Despite the failed reform effort, the Citizens’ Assembly was the first effort of its kind for Ontario, and was an attempt to make citizens a more formative part of the electoral, policy-making process.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Despite failing to reform the electoral system, the Citizens' Assembly allowed people who may not have ordinarily engaged in politics and who may not have had an indepth understanding of the nation's electoral system to become educated on the subject matter and to at least exercise some power over the decision to change to another form of voting. The holding of a Citizens' Assembly arguably increased the level of participatory democracy in the region since it responded to complaints of a democratic deficiency and lack of public consultation. The citizens’ assembly in Ontario in 2006 drew inspiration from a similar assembly on electoral reform that took place in the Canadian province of British Columbia the year before. Therefore, a positive taken from the assembly of Ontario may be that despite its failings and opposition, it was the latest in a push of electoral reform and the combatting of democratic deficiency in Canada, which may help to push an increase of participatory democracy and policy reform in Canada in the future.
If the assembly took place again, there are factors which could have been done differently, especially surrounding the public information campaign. Most citizens of Ontario did not have any knowledge that an assembly surrounding electoral reform was taking place, meaning the possibility of enacting change was restrained from the start. Although Elections Ontario spent $6.8 million on distributing information, it did not result in the public being adequately informed. This meant the assembly could not provide their reasoning to the public, which Thompson states is at the core of all theories of deliberative democracy, the expectation of justifying your position to the public. In other ways, the idea of a citizens’ assembly leading to policy change may be hamstrung initially as Fournier et al say elected representatives wouldn’t be willing to provide citizens a role in reformation, which showed in the aftermath as not many politicians spoke on the outcome.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Although gender, geography, and race was largely controlled for, age was more difficult to include as most people were of an older age. Certain people were denied the ability to participate in the citizens’ assembly, including any person in an elected to any public office in the province of Ontario. This restriction allowed the assembly to be completely independent and free from any possible outside influence bought about by an elected official who may hold some previous ties or bias’s to the electoral reform debate. Participation among the assembly remained the same among the entire timeline of the process, as those selected were a final selection, which meant nobody could be removed from the assembly, even if the other participants felt that they were not contributing to the event or taking it seriously.
Despite the efforts of the assembly to limit elected influence, the results of the assembly were still indirectly affected by politicians. In addition to this problem involving the citizens’ assembly, another negative affecting it was the media. The media initially reacted negatively to the outcome that the participants reached, with only 19% of the articles written by the press were able to be considered positive surrounding the assembly and its final report, compared to 45% that could be considered negative towards the assemblies’ deliberation, proposal and choice of alternative electoral system. These factors helped limit the influence and success of the assembly, with the media being the most vocal critic of the entire process.
Citizens' Assembly (method)
BC Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform (case)
Cross, William (2005) "The Rush to electoral reform in the Canadian provinces: Why now?", Representation, 41: 2, 75 — 84
Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, Public Consultation Reports(Citizens' Assembly Secretariat, 2007)
Democracy at Work: The Ontario Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform A Record of Ontario's First Citizens' Assembly Process, (Toronto: Queen's Printer for Ontario, 2007)
Fournier, P., van der Kolk, H., Carty, R., Blais, A. and Rose, J. (2013). When Citizens Decide: Lessons from Citizens' Assemblies on Electoral Reform. Perspectives on Politics, 11(02), pp.670-672.
LeDuc, L. (2011) Electoral Reform and Direct Democracy in Canada: When Citizens Become Involved in West European Politics. 34(3), pp.551-567.
One Ballot, Two Votes A New Way to Vote in Ontario: Recommendation of the Ontario Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform (Toronto: Queen's Printer for Ontario, 2007)
Pal, M. (2012) The Promise and Limits of Citizens' Assemblies: Deliberation, Institutions and the Law of Democracy in Queens Law Journal. 38(1)
Perrella, A. Brown, S. Kay, B. and Docherty, D. (2007) The 2007 Provincial Election and Electoral System Referendum in Ontario in Canadian Political Science Review. 2(1). pp.78-87.
Rose, J. (2007) The Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. Available from: http://revparl.ca/30/3/30n3_07e_Rose.pdf [Accessed on 7 November 2017].
Thompson, D. (2008) Deliberative Democratic Theory and Empirical Political Science in Annual Review of Political Science. 11, pp.497-520.
Portions of this case entry come from Andreas Hoffelder's 2010 submission to Vitalizing Democracy for the 2011 Reinhard Mohn Prize and from a duplicate case entry by gsexton on participedia.net.
Lead image: Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images https://goo.gl/bZwvQg
Secondary image: Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform https://goo.gl/dGX2u4