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Canadian Citizens' Assembly Breaking New Ground

In case you haven’t heard about the British Columbia Parliament’s innovative experiment in deliberative democracy called “Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform,” I thought I’d post an update. Formed last year by that province’s government to get meanngful citizen input into reforming its entire electoral system, the Citizens Assembly has been holding hearings for months now. As it says on the Citizens’ Assembly website, “nowhere else in the world has such power been handed to randomly selected citizens. Click below to read more, or go to www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/public for more details or to sign up for the e-newsletter.

What is the Citizens’ Assembly?

The Citizens’ Assembly was created by the Government of British Columbia with the unanimous support of the B.C. Legislature. It is an independent, non-partisan assembly of citizens who will meet to examine the province’s electoral system — that is, how our votes determine who gets elected to sit in the provincial Legislature.

The Citizens’ Assembly has 160 members, one man and one woman from each of B.C’s 79 provincial electoral districts (constituencies) plus two Aboriginal members. They are representative of the province as a whole, and work for all British Columbians. Members were picked by random draw from a pool that reflected the gender, age and geographical make-up of British Columbia.

The initiative is unique. Nowhere else in the world has such power been handed to randomly selected citizens.

What will the Assembly do?

The members will spend 11 months in 2004 studying electoral systems in use around the world, holding public hearings, accepting public submissions, and finally reaching a decision. The Assembly must reach a decision — on whether to retain or change the electoral system — by December 2004.

If members propose a change in the system, their recommendation will be put to the voters in British Columbia as a referendum question at the next provincial election, on May 17, 2005.

To pass, the referendum would have to be approved by 60% of all voters, and by a simple majority of voters in 60% of the 79 electoral districts. If the voters endorse a new system, the government has indicated it will be in place for the following provincial election, in 2009.

For the Assembly members, 2004 is divided into three phases: From January-March, they learn about electoral systems. In May and June, they hold public hearings throughout B.C., for members to hear diverse public views. From September-November, members meet to decide if they believe B.C. should have a new electoral system, or retain the current one.

Their final report must be delivered by Dec. 15, 2004. Then the Assembly and its staff will disband.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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