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Why Referenda — on Electoral Reform or Any Other Issue — Are Bad Democracy

Citizens’ assemblies offer a way to involve public in informed decisions.

Ruben Anderson and Naomi Devine 26 May

Ruben Anderson is a former government staffer who now consults on behaviour change and sustainable systems. Naomi Devine is a sustainability consultant and was communications director and campaign strategist for Andrew Weaver’s first Green Party campaign in 2013.

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‘It is easy to laugh at the public’s choice of Boaty McBoatface as the name for a new British polar exploration ship. But the damage caused by referenda in California is no laughing matter.’ Photo from NERC, U.K.

After the election, with the NDP a few seats behind the Liberals, Tyee columnist Bill Tieleman eased up on his criticism of the Greens and played nice for a couple of weeks.

This week he returned to form, trumpeting that electoral reform — supported by both the NDP and Greens — must go through a referendum.

In the past Tieleman has led two B.C. campaigns against electoral reform, even after the innovative and widely admired Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform made its recommendations. He also was deeply involved in the referendum against the HST, with former Socred premier Bill Vander Zalm his strange bedfellow.

Given this, it’s reasonable to suspect that Tieleman, a former NDP strategist, wants to retain a system that gives his party a shot at majority control.

Partisans try to paint referenda as the pinnacle of democracy — whenever it suits their needs — but politicians and researchers have held that democracy is more than just a vote.

Thomas Jefferson said, “A properly functioning democracy depends on an informed electorate.” Jennifer L. Hochschild wrote, “Almost every democratic theorist or democratic political actor sees an informed electorate as essential to good democratic practice.”

Tieleman himself quotes Jefferson — just not Jefferson’s bothersome thoughts about being informed.

What, then, does it take to be informed?

Elected representatives show up to work and find hundreds or thousands of pages of briefing notes, reports and legislation, which they are expected to read and comprehend quickly. They are asked to understand and make decisions on complex engineering problems, major urban planning decisions or changes to education or health care systems.

It is unreasonable to expect politicians to fully understand the complexity of many of the issues they are asked to decide on. The history of public boondoggles in B.C. shows how easy it can be to pass flawed plans.

What would it take to be truly informed about electoral reform? In B.C. we have a case study — the year-long process employed by the Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform to reach a decision in 2004, with its multiple steps.

• A 12-week “learning phase,” which included expert presentations, access to a wide range of source materials and regular discussions of findings;

• A review of global electoral systems, their functioning and adoption processes; and

• A two-month public consultation phase with 50 public hearings and 1,603 submissions from the public.  

This is what an informed vote looks like. It is inconvenient for political spin doctors, but advocating for less than this is advocating for mob rule, not informed democracy.

Following this process for every issue we face would be daunting for us regular folks, though. Most of us don’t have time to get our dishes done and help the kids with their homework. Who has a year to study electoral reform?

Let’s do a quick thought experiment. Pretend every voting British Columbian devotes a year to reading and participating in public hearings about electoral reform. At the end of the year, as informed voters, we will hold a referendum.

Meanwhile, nearly 1,000 people died of overdoses in B.C. last year, and many believe our legal and medical approach to addiction needs to a total overhaul. Shall we just let another thousand people die while we are focussed on electoral reform?

How about health care? How about the Site C dam? How about any of the other complex issues that voters face?

So we are in a bind. Our system of governance relies on informed voters, but we are dealing with issues too complex for people to become fully informed, issues so complex that people devote their entire lives to their study.

And it is not just our lack of time. Neuroscience has established that there are limits to our cognitive capacity. Our brain really is like a muscle — work it and it gets tired. Our brain has very deep defence mechanisms to protect the time and energy it needs for us to get through our day. When our legs are just too tired to walk anymore, we sit down. When our brain is too tired to think, we stop making informed choices — we fall back on old habits, rules of thumb and biases.

Climate denialism is a good illustration. When educated about climate change, deniers become more hardened in their position, not less. This inconvenient truth sandbagged Al Gore.

Cognitive science, thinkers like Jefferson, and the experience of our own lives all speak against referenda.

So how should we move forward from a system that never worked as advertised?

The citizen’s assembly gives us two answers.

Assembly members were randomly selected by lottery, real people, beholden to no corporation or party. They spent a year diving deep into study and consultation. This is the closest thing to a truly informed vote Canada has ever seen.

And these people found that our system is broken and recommended that we need a system of proportional representation.

Other countries — like New Zealand — avoided two flaws with our assembly process: the 60 per cent referendum super majority required for implementation; and the referendum being held before a trial run under the new system. Despite these flaws and despite Tieleman’s best campaign efforts, 57 per cent of British

Columbians still voted for the recommendation of the assembly in the 2005 referendum. How often does a majority government get that much of the popular vote?

We are overdue for electoral reform. It is hard to imagine a better, more informed process, so let’s just do it. Tieleman might not like that approach, but it is one that is actually supported by cognitive science.

A proportional system will deliver us a mix of elected officials reflecting our votes, which finally will be the representative government so anathema to power-hungry partisans.

And that is progress. But will it cut down on the size of the stacks of paper and the complexity of issues governments face? Not at all.

We also need an enhanced form of citizen participation in our democracy. The truth is, citizens are eager to do more than just vote every four years. The lottery for the citizen’s assembly had far more people volunteer — for months of service — than could be accommodated. So why stop with electoral reform?

Let’s wildly expand the use of citizen’s assemblies. What the hell is going on with BC Hydro? Let’s convene an assembly. Site C? Assembly. MSP? Assembly.

Referenda demand votes from people who don’t have the time or opportunity to get informed — they are not and cannot be the simple solution to complex issues. It is easy to laugh at the public’s choice of Boaty McBoatface as the name for a new British polar exploration ship. But the damage caused by referenda in California is no laughing matter.

If you want informed citizens determining the path that British Columbia takes, then citizen’s assemblies will be a welcome change.

If you want to maintain elite power, even if that means putting up with majority government from a slightly different group of elites, then you will not like citizen’s assemblies.

But you are also no fan of democracy.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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