Choosing a new voting method for British Columbia: the 2018 referendum and the choices on offer

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As British Columbia prepares for a referendum on the voting method for provincial elections, Jameson Quinn (in the first of two posts on the subject) discusses the historical background to the vote, analyses the options on the ballot, and sets out the rules the campaigns will have to follow. 

From October 22nd to November 30th, British Columbia (BC) will be carrying out a vote-by-mail referendum on changing the voting method for provincial elections from choose-one (aka First Past the Post, or FPTP) to some form of proportional representation (which I’ll abbreviate as pro-rep, since the initialism PR has too many other meanings to work well in the age of Google).

In this post, I’ll discuss the context and structure of this referendum, from a largely neutral point of view. I’ll save opinionated advocacy for a separate follow-up post.

This will be the third time the province votes on such a change. The first of BC’s voting reform referendums traces its roots back to the 1996 provincial election. Then, the NDP (center-left New Democratic Party) got 52% of seats despite having 39% of votes, less than the Liberals’ 42% (the province’s rightmost major party). This ‘wrong winner’ election (the province’s first since 1954) motivated Liberals to put voting reform (without specifics) on their platform. Continue reading

Reforming referendums: how can their use and conduct be improved?

jess.sargeant.resizedalan_renwick_webThis week’s turbulent political events represent the fallout from a referendum where the consequences of a ‘change vote’ were unclear. This is just one of many concerns raised about recent UK referendums. To reflect on such problems and consider possible solutions, the Constitution Unit established the Independent Commission on Referendums. Here Jess Sargeant and Alan Renwick summarise the Commission’s conclusions and recommendations.

The Independent Commission on Referendums has published its final report today. This sets out almost 70 conclusions and recommendations, all agreed unanimously by the 12 distinguished Commissioners, who span the major divides in recent referendums. The report is the product of eight months of discussion and deliberation amongst the Commissioners, backed by comprehensive Constitution Unit research into referendums in the UK and other democracies. The Commission has also consulted widely with experts and the public, including seminars in each of the four constituent countries of the UK. We hope that, like the work of the Constitution Unit’s previous commission on referendums, this report will set the agenda for debate about the future use and conduct of referendums. 

Background

The use of referendums internationally has increased dramatically over the past three decades. This has been driven partly by changing public expectations of democracy: deference has declined and public desire for input in decision-making has grown. The UK experience has mirrored this trend. Following the first non-local referendum in 1973, there were three further such polls in the 1970s. A further nine non-local referendums have been held since the late 1990s – two of which were UK-wide.

Unlike many countries, the UK has no formal rules regarding when or on what a referendum should happen. As explored in an earlier blogpost, decisions to hold such votes have been driven by a mixture of principle and pragmatism. Nonetheless, conventions have emerged for holding referendums on fundamental questions to do with devolution and the European Union; in some cases, these conventions have even been codified in law. Referendums provide a mechanism for entrenchment in the absence of a codified constitution: decisions explicitly endorsed by the electorate are hard to reverse without further reference to the people.

The role of referendums in democracy

Referendums can enhance democracy: they can answer fundamental questions about who ‘the people’ are, strengthen the legitimacy of major decisions, and allow the public a direct say on major issues.

But referendums can also in some ways inhibit democracy. Voting is central to democracy, but so are processes such as deliberation, compromise and scrutiny. Binary referendum campaigns don’t necessarily create space for these: rather, they can encourage polarisation and division. Badly designed referendum processes can also risk undermining the institutions of representative democracy, which are essential for democratic governance across the board. There are also some topics, such as those affecting minority rights, where using such a majoritarian device may be inappropriate.

Thus, the Commission recommends that referendums be used with caution. Engaging the public in policy-making processes is essential, but there are often better ways of doing so. Continue reading

Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit full report: launch events

The full report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit was launched last week with well-attended events in parliament and at UCL. Speakers included members of the project team, two Assembly members, an MP and leading EU experts. Hannah Dowling and Kelly Shuttleworth report on what was said.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit gathered together 50 members of the public, who were broadly representative of the UK population in terms of age, sex, ethnicity, social class, where they lived, and how they voted in last year’s referendum. They met over two weekends in September to deliberate on what kind of Brexit they wanted to see.

On 13 December, events were held in parliament and at UCL to launch the Assembly’s full report and to discuss the recommendations the Assembly reached. At both events Dr Alan Renwick, the Director of the Assembly, gave a quick introduction to what the Citizens’ Assembly entailed, outlining the two key aims of the project. These were, firstly, to provide evidence on informed and considered public opinion on the form that Brexit should take, and secondly, to gather evidence on the value of deliberative processes in the UK.

The Assembly members considered two key aspects of the future UK–EU relationship: trade and migration. The majority of members of the Assembly wanted to pursue a close, bespoke relationship with the EU. If such an agreement proved impossible, the majority of members preferred the option of the UK staying in the Single Market and the Customs Union rather than leaving the EU with no deal on future relations. This is a significant recommendation considering the current rhetoric from some Brexit supporters on the possibility of no deal.

Present to speak about the Assembly from different perspectives were Sarah Allan, Suella Fernandes MP, Professor Anand Menon, Professor Catherine Barnard and two members of the Assembly.

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Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: full report launched today

Over two weekends in September 2017, the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit brought together 50 randomly selected citizens to consider and make recommendations on the form of Brexit that they wanted the UK to pursue. Today, just two days before the European Council is expected to give the green light to starting negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU, the Assembly’s full report is publishedRebecca McKee and Alan Renwick here highlight some of the key findings.

The European Council is expected to agree on Friday that sufficient progress has been made in the Brexit talks to move on to stage two, focusing on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. Reports suggest that the cabinet is having its first detailed discussions of that future relationship – and whether the UK should seek ‘high alignment’ or ‘low alignment’ with the EU – this week and next.

What do the public think on these issues? Though the referendum vote in 2016 decided that the UK is leaving the European Union, it did not allow voters to indicate the type of Brexit they wanted. If the Brexit process is to remain democratic, that is crucial information. As the government embarks upon the next phase of negotiations, we need to understand voters’ priorities and preferences.

That is what is provided by the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, whose full report is launched today. The Assembly was held in Manchester in September and brought together 50 randomly selected UK citizens to learn about, reflect on, discuss and make recommendations on the type of Brexit they wanted the UK government and others to pursue. The Assembly members deliberated on two key aspects of the future UK–EU relationship: trade and migration.

Who was in the Citizens’ Assembly?

The Assembly consisted of 50 people from across the UK who were selected at random to be broadly representative of the electorate. They reflected the population in terms of age, social class, ethnicity, gender, where they lived, and how they voted in the EU referendum. The figure below illustrates the number of people in each category. You can read in detail about the process of recruiting the Assembly members here.

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Is the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit a citizens’ assembly at all?

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, held over two weekends in the autumn, brought together a representative sample of the population to discuss the form Brexit should take with respect to immigration and trade. But, as an unofficial body in contrast to past and present assemblies in Canada, the Netherlands and Ireland, should it really be classed as a proper citizens’ assembly? Graham Smith argues that it meets the most pertinent criteria and therefore should enter the small, but select, pantheon of genuine citizens’ assemblies.

What counts as a ‘citizens’ assembly’? The bar seems to have been set pretty high by the original assemblies in British Columbia (2003), Ontario (2006/7) and the Netherlands (2006), in which 104 to 160 randomly selected citizens met for between 10 and 12 weekends to learn, deliberate and make recommendations on whether new electoral systems ought to be introduced. The current Irish Citizens’ Assembly is running over 16 months, with 99 citizens coming together for 11 weekends working on a range of issues, including abortion, climate change and fixed-term parliaments. In all cases, the assemblies have been sponsored by political authorities.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit (CAB) brought 50 randomly selected citizens together over two weekends in September 2017 to learn, deliberate and make recommendations about trade and immigration policy post-Brexit. But is it too small, too short and too far removed from official decision making processes to be thought of as a ‘proper’ citizens’ assembly?

Are there hard and fast rules here on numbers, length of service and political sponsorship? Are these the characteristics that define a citizens’ assembly as a particular form of deliberative mini-public? It is critical to have standards for different forms of engagement to ensure quality, although it is positive for democratic experimentation and innovation that no one has attempted yet to copyright ‘citizens’ assemblies’ as James Fishkin has done for deliberative polls.

Let us take the relationship with official decision making first. One of the features of previous citizens’ assemblies – and many other deliberative mini-publics – is that their charge is set by those with political authority. This no doubt limits what citizens’ assemblies are asked to work on, but couples them closely to the formal political process. While the Irish Citizens’ Assembly has shown that they can work on the most controversial topics – in this case abortion – this was an issue where the government was glad to pass the buck to a group of citizens. In the UK, this is not the case. The government has not developed a structured approach to engaging citizens on the question of what Brexit should look like. Does that mean a citizens’ assembly should not be organised where there is no explicit sponsorship by political authorities? Surely not. Surely a citizens’ assembly can be used as an intervention by those outside circles of political power in an attempt to change the terms of debate and bring citizens’ voices to bear.

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