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Opinion: Electoral Reform via Randomly Selected Citizen Assemblies

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

Parliament Hill Ottawa - Credit: W. Lloyd MacKenzie

Take electoral reform away from politicians and let citizens decide


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on a promise to change the way we elect Parliament. Here’s the problem: letting politicians who won the last election decide future election rules is like letting the team who won the last playoff game decide rules for the next game. There’s an obvious conflict of interest. Electoral rules determine who forms government, and different rules favour different parties.

That’s why the Conservatives have gone on the attack, and why their attacks have traction. Even my five-year-old understands that he can’t decide the rules for racing his younger sister. (His preferred rule is: whatever happens, he wins.)

It’s true that the Conservatives don’t have much credibility on this issue. (They tried to rig the system via the “Fair Elections Act” to lower voter turnout, which favours them.) But that’s the point: no party has credibility on this issue, because they are all interested parties. So an “all-party” commission won’t do, either: it would reflect the biases of incumbent politicians, and the governing party would ultimately decide anyway.

One solution is a referendum. But the Liberals have ruled this out. Maybe they’re right to do so. Referenda are expensive, few Canadians care much about electoral reform, and fewer still will cuddle up with a treatise on voting systems this Sunday evening. A referendum might be a big waste of money in which few vote and fewer still care to learn about the pros and cons of alternative electoral systems.

But without a referendum, how could electoral reform be legitimized? We need a manifestly fair procedure – a neutral body, unbeholden to politicians, that will reasonably evaluate the alternatives.

Fortunately, political scientists have a solution that fits the bill – a randomly selected citizen assembly. The idea is this: randomly select a few thousand Canadians, ask if they are willing to serve, and, from those saying yes, randomly select 100 to 200 to serve on an assembly empowered to determine federal election rules.

Putting regular citizens in charge may initially seem crazy. Wouldn’t citizens with no special experience or expertise make incompetent decisions? But that’s who decides referenda, too. In fact, Canada is a pioneer in using citizen assemblies to make decisions about voting systems.

We’ve done it twice before, in B.C. and Ontario. Political scientists have studied both cases, and both were in many respects a great success. Once our fellow citizens received expert advice (about voting systems) and consulted the public, they became well informed, and their deliberations and decision-making were extremely competent and reasonable.

No surprise here: it’s well known to social scientists that under the right conditions, there is intelligence in numbers. The decisions of an assembly of regular but diverse individuals are often more intelligent than decisions by a lone genius or expert.

It’s true that in one respect the B.C. and Ontario assemblies “failed.” Each recommended a reform ultimately rejected by referendum. (In B.C., 57 per cent voted in favour, but the government had set a 60-per-cent threshold.) This must be why the Liberals haven’t opted to repeat the experience. Who wants to expend energy without results?

But if, rather than politicians, a citizen assembly is deciding, then it’s not clear we need a referendum. The assembly would be representative of Canadians; it would not suffer a conflict of interest; it would be competent; and it would not be beholden to politicians. Precisely for these reasons, Canadians would view its decisions as legitimate.

That’s the other lesson from B.C. and Ontario. The more voters knew about the assembly – how its members were chosen, its freedom from partisan influence, etc. – the more likely they were to vote for its recommendation even when they didn’t know much about voting systems.

They didn’t need to know about voting systems: they trusted the assembly, rightly assuming that its decisions reflected what they themselves might have decided if they had taken the time to study the matter.

A citizen assembly can avoid the pitfalls of referenda and of letting politicians decide. We should establish citizen assemblies not only for one-time reforms, but to set rules for elections on an ongoing basis.

Photo Credit: W. Lloyd MacKenzie

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