Being South African and setting great significance on the value of democratic participation, I’ve been following the debate over the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum with interest. I am particularly fascinated in the process leading up to the referendum. With the relatively high levels of dissatisfaction over government and MP performance over the last few years, fed by the expenses scandal, I think it’s encouraging that the public are involved in deciding whether a different voting system would make a difference or not. People are debating, thinking and talking about their views on what works and what doesn’t. The referendum is giving people an opportunity to have a direct say in how their country will be run. Although arguably the opportunity is limited, because I think the level of public participation is constrained. In reality, there is little space for meaningful dialogue. As colleague Annie Quick argued in her blog, The AV Referendum: How to get the conversation back on track there are no formal arrangements in place to deliberate on the issues. All debate on electoral reform is polarised between the two camps.
The AV system to be offered to the electorate in the May referendum is a controversial system. It’s not perfect, but then First Past the Post (FPTP) isn’t either. All systems have their pros and cons and none are without an element of failure. As observed by Hix et al. (2010) whichever system used will involve a trade-off between representativeness (favoured by AV supporters) and government accountability (favoured by FPTP supporters). This is a difficult decision for the electorate to make.
However, I think the greatest flaw to effective participation is that the options presented to the public, of FPTP or AV has been decided by politicians. This is particularly distressing; they are badly placed to make this type of decision as they are the ones who stand to win or lose the most depending on which electoral system in place. The public should have had more say in the proposed alternative to FPTP, such as the case in British Columbia, Canada.
In the beginning of 2004, British Columbia (BC) established a Citizen Assembly on Electoral Reform composed of 160 members, one man and one woman from each of BC’s 79 electoral districts, plus two Aboriginal members. Members were randomly selected by a civic lottery that ensured age and geographical distribution. Over the first 7 months, the Assembly went through a ‘learning phase’ where experts were brought in to discuss the ups and downs of various voting systems and their effects on the political process. Afterwards, members deliberated over which electoral system to recommend as an alternative to FPTP. The Assembly members voted to recommend STV (single transferable vote) and this was what was presented to the BC legislature. This recommendation was put to the public in a referendum in 2005 and needed a double majority; 60% of all votes cast plus simple majorities in 60% of the 79 districts. Although it did have majority support in 77 of the electoral districts, only 57.7% of votes were in favour and the motion was not passed into law. Despite failing at the last hurdle, many observers were surprised that the vote was so close to succeeding, particularly given the lack of spending on publicity about the referendum and the choices to be made.
Although the voting system was not changed, the BC case shows that the public are very much capable and willing to determine what works best for them. It suggests that citizens can (and should) play a more decisive role in determining which electoral system would work best.
I think two differences between the UK and BC case stand out. Firstly, BC citizens were given a lot of power over the electoral reform. Public participation started off with a clean slate: the Assembly could discuss and thoughtfully consider the merits of all voting systems before narrowing down the alternatives. This is unlike the UK, where the public have been presented with the (politically) pre-determined options. Secondly, the results of the Citizen’s Assembly were taken directly to the electorate in a referendum as opposed to being approved by Parliament before being offered to the public.
The BC case can be seen as a very successful example on deliberative democracy on a very difficult topic, one in which there are strong reasons for not allowing the usual decision makers to wield and influence the outcome, considering their vested interests. How can the public have any faith in how these decisions are made if it’s the politicians who are making them? Next time there’s a major decision to be made about the future of the UK’s democracy, I hope the UK will learn from BC’s example and give the public a more direct say in framing the discussion before the final act of ticking a box in the polling booth. Democracy would be richer for it.
Image used: man choosing between yes or no by renjith krishnan