Shoni Field, former member of the BC Citizens’ Assembly, 2004
In January 2004, I embarked on a precedent setting, year-long process with 159 of my fellow citizens to examine whether B.C.’s current electoral system served us well. I was very fortunate to have been randomly chosen as a member of the BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.
I had known there were problems with First Past the Post– but I wasn’t sure that 160 of us would be able to agree on a solution – not to mention whether it would be one that met the needs of over four million British Columbians.
We might agree on what is bad, but could we possibly agree on what is good? I imagined that our diverse backgrounds, our partisan inclinations and our individual biases would push us in different directions. And yet, what I thought would be well nigh impossible proved not to be that difficult at all.
Imagine my surprise when we found – after a year of deliberative democracy at its finest, after listening to British Columbians at hearings across the province and reading over 1600 submissions– imagine my surprise when we found that British Columbians were united. They were united both in their extreme disenchantment with the current system, and with a shared vision of how we would like to see politics conducted in this province.
Over the last twelve years my ongoing volunteer work for electoral reform has led to my realization that Canadians from coast to coast to coast share a similar vision – a vision that crosses the political spectrum, that is shared by young and old, rural and urban, men and women.
This vision is reflected in the three core values identified by The BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.
Fair election results through proportionality
Democracy is “rule by the people,” therefore, the results of an election—the number of seats won by each party— should reflect the number of votes each party has earned from the voters. The results—votes to seats—should be “proportional.” The preference of voters should determine who sits in our legislature. That is fair. Anything else can place considerable strain on the health and legitimacy of our democracy. There have been 12 commissions/assemblies/citizen committees on this issue in Canada, it is no coincidence that each one has recommended a more proportional voting system. Fair election results through proportionality must be the foundation of Canada’s new electoral system.
Effective local representation
Regions have distinct personalities; each makes its own unique contribution to our democracy. To be effectively represented, communities/regions need the opportunity to choose the people who speak for them, and to be able to hold them accountable in democratic elections. Strengthening local representation should be a test of any electoral reform. It is well worth noting that while Political Science textbooks consider that First Past the Post delivers strong local representation, the majority of the citizens we heard from would take issue with that sentiment. There is a disenchantment with our current system where a) party discipline means that local representation often results in those elected reporting back to their community on the will of their party, and not representing their community’s best interests in the Parliament or Legislature, and b) our non-proportional system leads to many safe seats where voters are unable to effectively hold poor representatives accountable. There is a yearning for local representation that is responsive, and accountable, to local voters.
Greater voter choice
Voters want more viable choices: we want to be able to vote our conscience without worrying about splitting the vote, we want to be able to pick a candidate we like rather than feeling compelled to vote for a bad candidate from our preferred party – we want to vote for a good choice rather than against a bad one. We know that our legislature needs many different talents to operate successfully and we want a vote that allows us to express that. We know our country is a diverse place and we want our choices to reflect this diversity. Canadian voters are far more sophisticated and nuanced in their choices than our current system allows – our country will be stronger if they have a chance to express those choices at the ballot box.
In the past twelve years I’ve met Canadians from a diversity of backgrounds united by their desire for fair election results through proportionality. And, starting from a foundation of proportionality, a desire for effective local representation and greater voter choice.
Sadly, the flaws of our current system has bred distrust and disengagement amongst voters.
- Our current system pushes us to partisan extremes while Canadians desire stability, continuity and consensus.
- Our current system excludes more people than it includes while Canadians want to be fair to all.
- Our current system means that most of our votes don’t contribute at all to the outcome, while Canadians desperately want to be able to contribute in a meaningful way and know that voters matter.
It is critical that you deliberatively engage Canadians to build trust in your process and eventual recommendations. The BC’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform was fortunate to gain the trust of British Columbians. You have a challenge before you: overcoming people’s perceptions that ‘allowing politicians to determine how they are hired’ is unlikely to meet the needs of the people. To gain their confidence, Canadians must see their values, starting with fair results through proportionality, reflected in your work. I extend to you my best wishes for your work, and look forward to your recommendations.
Member, BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, 2004
Democracy, electoral system and citizen engagement experience includes:
Co-Chair and Media Spokesperson – Citizens’ Assembly Alumni, 2004-2008
Board Member, Fair Voting BC, 2005-2009
Provincial Spokesperson & Campaign Executive– British Columbians for BC-STV, 2009
Director, Canadian Women Voters Congress, 2009
President, National Council, Fair Vote Canada, 2010- 2013
Co-Founder, 123Vancouver, 2013 – 15
Co-Founder, Unlock Democracy, 2013- present
Member, Vancouver Election Task Force, 2016
Ted Savelle and Catherine Baquero – Members of the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, 2006-2007
We are writing to share with the Committee on Electoral Reform what we, as former members of the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly, have learned about electoral systems. The seven-month journey for each of the 103 randomly-selected members took us from electoral system neophytes to a group of individuals who could easily discuss electoral systems used around the world. We hope that the Select Committee will consider our views and values in your deliberations. We would encourage the Committee to heed what we have learned during our Citizens’ Assembly experience: It is time for Canada to have a new, proportional electoral system.
By far, the single most revealing fact that we learned during our wide public consultation process with the Citizens’ Assembly was that FPTP does not reflect the values held by our fellow citizens. Most notably, FPTP fails to address the value of fairness. FPTP allocates seats in the legislature in a way that is not representative of the popular vote. We heard that many people stay away from polling stations as they feel that their votes are wasted and their voices not heard.
After extensively studying and comparing electoral systems used by other countries, the Citizens’ Assembly recommended a type of proportional representation, MMP, which we tailored specifically for Ontario. We felt that MMP— a proportional system—better reflected the voice of the electorate.
We chose MMP as an alternative, proportional electoral system for Ontario because not only did it better reflect Ontarians’ value of fairness but it produces stable, effective governments, which we also heard was a critical value for Ontarians. In addition, it maintains an element of geographic representation, which was important to most people who participated in our public consultation process.
We hope that in your work, the Select Committee will consider the lessons learned by regular citizens in the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. When you go through the process of deliberation, we hope that you take into account the values of everyday Canadians and recommend an electoral system that truly represents their wishes. We ask that you consider for Canada, a made-for-Canada electoral system that includes an element of proportionality.