Ways to consensus: being explicit on values

fairvoting-bcThis Canadian example, the British Columbia Citizens Assembly (BCCA) is a very clear example both of the translation of values into a decision, and of the challenges in so doing.

making-every-vote-countThe BCCA was set up by the government of British Columbia to review the electoral system, after two perverse election results with a large mismatch between votes and seats. 160 citizens met regularly throughout most of 2004 learning about and discussing electoral reform. In December 2004, their report, Making Every Vote Count, recommended that British Columbia move from First Past the Post (FPTP) to Single Transferable Vote (STV). The government of British Columbia had promised a referendum on the recommendation. But they also set a hurdle. The change would only happen if 60% of voters were in favour. Only 57.7% were, so no change was made.

All the way through the process, most assembly members were in favour of a change to FPTP. For most, again, the two main candidates were Single Transferable Vote (STV) and Mixed Member Proportional (MMP). I can never keep in my head the details of electoral systems, so here’s a reminder:

STV – In a single transferable vote system, voters rank candidates in their order of preference by numbering the candidates on the ballot. The candidates with the highest preferences are elected.

MMP – The overall total of party members in the elected body is intended to mirror the overall proportion of votes received. There is a set of members elected by geographic constituency who are deducted from the party totals so as to maintain overall proportionality.

Both aim to be more proportionate than FPTP. MMP achieves a high degree of proportionality through the party list, but at the expense of having two sorts of representative , with one lot not attached to a constituency. STV tackles this issue by having multi-member constituencies, so that each constituency can be represented by people from more than one party. It tends to be less proportionate than MMP, because there is a limit to how proportionate you can be in say a three-member constituency. But it has the benefit of having only one type of MP, all of whom are constituency MPs.

The first phase of the Citizens Assembly was a four month learning period, at the end of which MMP was preferred to STV. But by the end of deliberative phase that followed, STV came out ahead. Why the shift? It was all about values. At the start of the discussion phase, people were asked for their values, in the form of criteria that should be used to choose a system. The top three were:

  • Effective local representation
  • Proportionality of votes to seats
  • Maximum voter choice

MMP was initially reckoned to score a bit higher on proportionality, but over time people came to reckon that there wasn’t much in it. STV was preferred because it was felt to do better on the other two criteria. People wanted to be able to vote for a candidate, not just for a party. And the whole Assembly gave weight to the concerns of members from the rural north of the province, fbonnetor whom local – geographic – representation was very important. That is, the rest of the members took on some of the values of those from the north. There would be less of such representation under MMP, because some representatives are not connected to a constituency. So far, so straightforward. But a look under the bonnet shows how tricky it is to apply values. The choice to pay attention to three values was arbitrary. The value that came fourth was diversity. Had this been included, there might have been a swing back to MMP, since it is easier to assure a diverse slate of candidates in a party list system.

Furthermore, the Citizens Assembly members were chosen to be representative in terms of age, gender and geography. They were not screened for ethnicity. An Aboriginal man and woman were added to represent that perspective, but it remained the case that minorities as a whole were under-represented. Having more ethnic minority participants might have pushed diversity into the top three.

I hope it’s clear that I am not criticising the notion of being explicit about values. Each time we do it, then reflect upon our doing, we make it easier for the next occasion to do it better.


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