Attempts to reform the Canadian province of British Columbia's electoral system involved educational outreach, a citizen's assembly to determine the best alternative to the current first-past-the-post system, and public hearings, culminating in a popular referendum.
Problems and Purpose
Plans to reform BC's electoral process were initiated by a growing public opposition to the existing first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. Anomolous electoral results in 1996 and 2001 were blamed on FPTP and party leaders and civil society groups began calling for reform. It was hoped that, with adequate public support, the FPTP system could be replaced by either single-transferable-vote or Mixed Member Proportionality — both of which were thought to result in a more fair vote-to-seat ratio.
Background History and Context
Public support for reform began with the anomolous results of the 1996 New Democratic Party election and increased after the Liberal Party came to power in 2001 through similar circumstances. Despite government promises and a failed effort by the Green Party to force a referendum on the issue, progress on reform began in earnest in 2002 with the hiring of Gordon Gibson to design a citizens' assembly.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
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Participant Recruitment and Selection
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Methods and Tools Used
Public support through referendum was required to reform the electoral system. To this end, numerous methods of public outreach were pursued by government and civil society groups. Educational resources were printed in newspapers and made available online. A Citizens' Assembly was established to determine the best alternative to first-past-the-post. Over 50 public hearings were called and written submissions were accepted and considered by the Assembly. Polls were also conducted on both the public's knowledge and opinion of electoral systems. Finally, a referendum was called on the issue.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Public interaction during the reform process was varied, including educational campaigns by civil society groups and government officials. Polling was conducted before, during, and after the reform process by polling firms such as Angus Reid and Nordic Research Group. Polls indicated that voters remained uninformed on the technical aspects of electoral systems despite efforts by the government, the citizens' assembly, and various non-partisan groups. While the citizens' assembly was restricted to those chosen through random selection, the assembly was open to public feedback and made a point of issuing a technical report ahead of the referendum to inform citizens and encourage them to participate in the process through written submissions and over 50 public hearings.
The citizens' assembly was formally established by the governing Liberal party in 2003 and provided a forum for structured deliberation and debate on the issue of electoral reform. Specifically, the assembly was charged with weighing the pros and cons of each type of electoral system. The group heard from experts during Q&A panels and from the public during a public hearing. The assembly decided that single-transferable-vote (STV) was the most attractive alternative to FPTP due to its design which "make[s] every vote count, and...reflect[s] voters' support for candidates and parties as fairly as possible".
The recommendations of the citizens' assembly were put to popular vote through a referendum scheduled to coincide with the provinicial elections in May 2005.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The Citizens' Assembly was largely a success, coming to a rational, informed decision after hearing from numerous experts, conducting research, engaging the public, and debating opinions. The referendum, however, failed to return a favourable result, falling just short of the super-majoritarian 60% requirement instated by the ruling Liberal government.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
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 Pilon, D. (2010). The 2005 and 2009 Referenda on Voting System Change in British Columbia. Canadian Political Science Review 4(2-3). https://ojs.unbc.ca/index.php/cpsr/article/view/251/301
 Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform. Final Report. http://citizensassembly.arts.ubc.ca/