Citizens Assembly News Digest--September 14, 2007
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Citizens Assembly News Digest

September 14, 2007
Written by J.H. Snider

Ontario’s Public Education Campaign Launches;
U.K.’s Prime Minister Explores Creating a Citizens Assembly

This issue of the Citizens Assembly News Digest is divided into four sections:
 
1) Country-By-Country News
2) New Research
3) Launch of  iSolon.org and Personal News
4) Newspaper Articles

Country-By-Country News

As expected, the big news on citizens assemblies continues to come out of Ontario.  All eyes are now focused on the referendum scheduled for October 10, when the public will have a chance to vote up or down on the Ontario Citizens Assembly’s policy recommendations. 
 
On June 20, Ontario’s Government announced the wording of the referendum question that will be placed on the ballot for the October 10 election.  The question reads:

Which electoral system should Ontario use to elect members to the provincial legislature?

Option #1:   The existing electoral system (first past the post).

Option #2:   The alternative electoral system proposed by the Citizens' Assembly (mixed member proportional).

On August 1, Elections Ontario launched a $6.8 million education campaign on the referendum (this comes out of a total $92.9 million budget for the provincial election).  The campaign is called “Understand the Question.”  Most of the campaign’s big expenditures come after Labor Day.  They include a TV ad blitz, a newspaper and community paper ad blitz (in 25 different languages), and 4.8 million pamphlets mailed to households. Online ads and YouTube videos are also part of the campaign.  
 
Elections Ontario cannot endorse either of the two referendum choices; it must remain strictly neutral.  Its mandate is to alert the public to the existence of the referendum and describe the mechanics of the two types of electoral systems.  Its special campaign website at http://yourbigdecision.ca says it “provides voters with impartial tools to define and understand both the First-Past-the-Post and the Mixed Member Proportional electoral systems and to assess these systems against individual voter priorities and considerations.”
 
In addition to the government website, there is a Yes MPP (http://www.voteformmp.ca/) and a No MPP (http://nommp.ca/) website/campaign.  All reports indicate that the Yes MPP is better funded and organized, with much greater grassroots support.  A quick look at the two websites will confirm this impression.
 
Having said the above, it’s not clear to me how much impact any of this is having on the electorate.  There has been lots of newspaper coverage—since late May more than 300 articles of one nature or another according to a Nexis search.  But most of these articles are reruns of the same article in different publications and many are in the back pages of the newspaper. An Environs poll of 585 Ontarians in early June found that only 28% were familiar with the citizens assembly’s proposal.
 
On the other hand, the wide circulation Toronto Star has run more than a dozen articles since the middle of May.  Indicative of the relatively high salience of the referendum, The Economist, a high prestige national publication, on September 1 ran an article on referendum.  The Economist’s coverage probably has no local political relevance, but I wanted to note it because I am not aware of any other national U.S. publication that has run an article either about the Ontario citizens assembly or the two other citizens assemblies that preceded it. 
 
An important feature of the debate over the referendum is that the major political parties are not taking a position on it.  This significantly lowers its visibility during the provincial election campaign.  Only leaders of the small parties, the Greens and New Democrats, have staked out a public position (both in support of the Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendation).
 
In late June, a flurry of news reports came out of the U.K. that the new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was seriously considering launching a citizens’ assembly to develop a written British Constitution.  In his July 3 speech to parliament on parliamentary and constitional reform, however, the Prime Minister made no mention of creating a citizens assembly.  However, he did say that he had asked his Justice Minister to hold a series of public meetings throughout the fall to discuss constitutional reform.  Thus, there is another opportunity to propose a citizens assembly as a democratic reform mechanism.  Also of note in his speech, he specifically endorsed citizen juries, a related institution based on a randomly selected deliberative body (this should make Ned Crosby—the man who devoted his life to promoting citizen juries—feel that his work might yet pay off.)  The relevant section of his speech is pasted below. I’ve highlighted in bold the points specifically cited above.

While our system of representative democracy - local as well as national - is at the heart of our constitution, it can be enhanced by devolving more power directly to the people and I propose we start the debate and consult on empowering citizens and communities in four areas.

First, powers of initiative, extending the right of the British people to intervene with their elected local representatives to ensure action - through a new community right to call for action and new duties on public bodies to involve local people.

Second, new rights for the British people to be consulted through mechanisms such as 'citizens juries' on major decisions affecting their lives.

Third, powers of redress, new rights for the British people to scrutinise and improve the delivery of local services.

And fourth, powers to ballot on spending decisions in areas such as neighbourhood budgets and youth budgets, with decisions on finance made by local people themselves.

At the same time, we must give new life to the very idea of citizenship itself.
All of us in this House would acknowledge there are very specific challenges we must meet on engaging young people and improving citizenship education - and I hope there will be all-party support for a Commission to review this and make recommendations….

In Britain we have a largely unwritten constitution. To change that would represent a fundamental and historic shift in our constitutional arrangements. So it is right to involve the public in a sustained debate whether there is a case for the United Kingdom developing a full British Bill of Rights and Duties, or for moving towards a written constitution.

And because such fundamental changes should happen only where there is a settled consensus on whether to proceed, I have asked my Right Honourable Friend the Secretary for Justice to lead a dialogue within Parliament and with people across the United Kingdom by holding a series of hearings, starting in the autumn, in all regions and nations of this country - and he will consult with the other parties on this process.

Mr Speaker, the changes we propose today and the national debate we now begin are founded upon the conviction that the best answer to disengagement from our democracy is to strengthen our democracy.

It is my hope that this dialogue of all parties and the British people will lead to a new consensus, a more effective democracy and a stronger sense of shared national purpose.
 

Scotland, one of Europe’s leaders in implementing e-democracy, may also be a good prospect for a citizens assembly.  On August 14, 2007, the Scottish Government released a white paper on the future of governance in Scotland, which included a call for a “National Conversation.”  Unlock Democracy, a democratic reform advocacy group, has used that call to call on the government to create a “Citizens’ Convention” modeled after the citizens assemblies in British Columbia and Ontario.
 
In many other countries, leading Green Party candidates have called for the creation of a citizens assembly to implement electoral reform.  Green parties presumably endorse citizens assemblies because they believe they are a way to get proportional representation, a type of electoral system that favors small parties.  Since the last issue of the Citizens Assembly News Digest, these Green Party calls have come from Manitoba (Canada), Nova Scotia (Canada), and New Zealand.  These calls raise the visibility of the citizens assembly reform idea.  But because the Green Party is not a major party in any of these jurisdictions, they probably have little more political salience than a newspaper op-ed calling for a particular democratic reform.
 
In the Netherlands, despite the high repute with which the citizens assembly has been credited with conducting its business, the Parliament appears unlikely to pass its recommended reforms.  This is ironic because the recommendations of the Netherlands Citizens Assembly were far more modest than the recommendations of the British Columbia and Ontario Citizens Assemblies.  The key difference may be that in the Netherlands the Citizens Assembly’s recommendations were purely advisory, whereas in British Columbia and Ontario they were put on the ballot as a referendum.  In an e-mail to me on September 5, 2007, Professor Henk van der Kolk, a political scientist from the University of Twente, describes for this Citizens Assembly New Digest the dismal odds of Parliament passing the Citizens Assembly’s recommendations.

State of affairs, Dutch Burgerforum

The new government (formed after the November 2006 elections) is still discussing its position towards the proposals of the Citizens Assembly. The new minister of the Interior and Kingdom relations (PvdA) has shifted responsibility of this file to the junior minister (or ‘state secretary’) (CDA). Since the PvdA is officially in favor of the change (see below) this probably indicates the minister does not see a chance within the coalition to change the electoral law and/or is not willing to fight for it.
 
The CDA junior minister has three options: to accept the proposal, to indicate ‘she will not take actions to implement the change’, or to reject the proposal. The third option means she has to explain her decision in parliament and the opposition (especially D66 and GreenLeft) will use this decision to criticize the undemocratic attitude of the government. The first option means she has to implement a proposal which she and her party probably do not like very much. So the most likely option is the second; leaving the decision to parliament. In that case, D66 [the small party that pushed for creating the citizens assembly and endorsed its recommendations] will take a parliamentary initiative, which will subsequently be rejected by a majority in parliament (maybe supported by PvdA and GreenLeft). 

Professor Henk’s conclusion was based on the following data that he compiled.

Party

Party family

Votes 2006

Seats

Current coalition

Position of the party

Christen Democratisch Appèl (CDA)

Christain democracts

2.608.573

41

X

No known (official) position, probably not very positive towards institutional change

Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA)

Social democrats

2.085.077

33

X

The proposal to introduce a ‘party vote’ in addition to the personal vote, was already an element of the party platform of the PvdA before the CA proposed this idea. However, enthusiasm for this promise within the party seems to be lacking.

Socialistische Partij (SP)

Socialists

1.630.803

25

 

No known (official) position, probably not very positive towards institutional change, not very positive towards the idea of a CA

http://www.sp.nl/nieuws/
spanning/200605/
binnenstebuiten.shtml

Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD)

Conservative liberals

1.443.312

22

 

No known (official) position, probably not very positive towards institutional change

Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV)

Right wing

579.490

9

 

In favor of a fully open list system (see www.pvv.nl), unknown position towards the CA

GroenLinks (GL)

GreenLeft

453.054

7

 

Unknown, may be positive however.

ChristenUnie (CU)

Orthodox Christian

390.969

6

X

Not known for its positive attitude towards institutional change, probably not in favour

Democraten 66 (D66)

Progressive liberals

193.232

3

 

D66 was strongly in favor of introducing the CA and will support the proposal;

 

http://www.d66.nl/9359000/
1/j9vvhc6cwgbojx9/
vhfopcgltuq0?ctx=vhdrkxw42lyy

Partij voor de Dieren (PvdD)

Animal party

179.988

2

 

Unknown, at least in favor (like most other parties) of PR

Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij (SGP)

Orthodox Christians

153.266

2

 

Most likely against this institutional reform

 

 

9.654.475

(turnout 80%)

150

 

 

New Research

There has been a burst of scholarly work on citizens assemblies, and I intend to list that scholarship and on occasion review it in future issues of the Citizens Assembly News Digest.  Please send me any work you have done in this area so that others can benefit from it.
 
My own book review essay on democratic theorists who have proposed legislative bodies made up of randomly selected citizens, From Dahl to O'Leary: 36 Years of the 'Yale School of Democratic Reform', was published in the current issue of the Journal of Public Deliberation, which is also looking for other work on citizens assemblies.  The book review essay was stimulated by Kevin O’Leary’s new book, Saving Democracy: A Plan for Real Representation in America (Stanford University Press, 2006), which calls for government sponsored randomly selected citizen bodies in every congressional district in the United States. 
 
The 2007 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, held in Chicago over Labor Day weekend, had two panels that substantially focused on citizens assemblies.  One panel consisted of electoral system experts; the other democratic deliberation experts.   The panel on electoral systems had an excellent turnout, with 27 folks in the audience and a vigorous question and answer session.  Those who regularly attend APSA panels will know how rare it is to have an audience of such size and quality.  Both panels were dominated by Canadian scholars. 
 
The 2007 Annual Meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association had one paper presented by three authors intimately familiar with the Ontario Citizens Assembly. 
 
These papers and other are listed in the Academic Conferences and Academic Publications sections of my new website and non-profit organization, iSolon.org.
 
In general, there has been a recent shift in the literature on citizens assemblies from time series studies of a paricular citizens assembly (British Columbia) to comparative studies of the three citizens assemblies to date (British Columbia, the Netherlands, and Ontario).  Of course, this type of analysis wasn’t possible even a year ago because British Columbia was the only case study available. 
 
This expansion in the scope of study is a welcome development, but I believe it doesn’t go far enough.  I suggest that we divide the citizens assembly process into three macro stages; the pre-citizens assembly stage (e.g., where the members of the citizens assembly are selected), the citizens assembly stage (where the members of the citizens assembly deliberate and come to judgment), and the post-citizens assembly stage (e.g, where the public is educated about the pros and cons of the citizens assembly’s recommendations).  The studies to date have all focused on the citizens assembly stage.  I believe we need to see more work on the pre- and post-stages.  This may require that political scientists with other types of expertise (such as in public opinion, political communication, and political behavior) take an interest in citizens assemblies.
 
On the pre-citizens assembly stage, I’d like to know more about why less than 10% of randomly selected citizens agree to participate in a citizens assembly.  Who exactly are the folks that participate and don’t participate?  For example, if a citizens assembly is based in Vancouver, is someone 1,000 miles away near the Artic Circle less likely to participate than someone who lives in Vancouver?  To what extent is money and age a factor in participation?  What do people learn at the informational sessions that lead a large fraction to decide not to participate?  It seems to me that if we don’t know why people do and don’t participate, we cannot take effective steps to bolster the participation rate, which is vital for the democratic legitimacy of this type of institution.  The stratified random sampling partially compensates for the low participation rate, but it is not enough.   Unfortunately, it is too late to gather data to answer many of these questions.  The data have to be gathered upfront as part of the citizens assembly’s institutional design. 
 
On the post-citizens assembly stage, I’d like to know more about what types of communications are most influential and why citizens vote for or against the referendum.  One thing we have learned from the three citizens assemblies is that party elites are unlikely to take a public stand on a citizens assembly’s recommendations.  This is a big problem because the press tends to heavily rely on elite disagreement in choosing what to cover and how to cover it. 
 
Nevertheless, in Ontario there has been substantial press coverage of the citizens assembly.  However, the press focuses its coverage on the strenghts and weaknesses of the citizens assembly’s final recommendations.  But it might be that voters primarily make their decision based on their trust of the citizens assembly process.  The press seems to expect that the voters will replicate the decision making process of the citizens assembly members.  But that may be asking an uncreasonable amount of voters.  It would be great if on October 10 we could get a well designed exit poll that would seek to answer some of these questions.  What percentage of voters know of the ballot item by election day?  Are voters that have the most knowledge most likely to support or oppose the citizens assembly’s recommendations?  Do voters vote for or against the referendum item based on their knowledge of electoral systems or their trust in the citizens assembly process?
 
In February 2008 Cambridge University Press is publishing Designing Deliberative Democracy: The British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly, a collection of scholarly articles on the British Columbia Citizens Assembly.  I’ll have more to say about this book as its publication deadline approaches.  A look at its table of contents demonstrates that it’s going to be a book of great substance.

Launch of iSolon.org and Personal News

After close to seven years at the New America Foundation, where I held the titles of Senior Research Fellow and Research Director, I finally left in August (although I am still officially listed as New America staff on its website).  I submitted my resignation last March but agreed to stay on while a replacement was sought.  My last report for New America, “The Art of Spectrum Lobbying: America's $480 Billion Spectrum Giveaway, How it Happened, and How to Prevent it from Recurring,” was released at an event in mid-July and as a glossy report in mid-August.   
 
In February of this year. I incorporated a non-profit, iSolon.org, and this week I launched the iSolon.org website.  Please check it out at www.iSolon.org.  That website includes a clearinghouse of information on citizens assemblies, which I hope will be of use to members of this community.  In addition to launching iSolon.org, I am writing an e-democracy book for a major public affairs press and will have the title of Affliated Researcher at Columbia University’s Institute for Tele-Information.
 
On July 3, 2007 my daughter was sworn into office as a school board member for the Anne Arundel County public schools, a school district with close to a $1 billion budget and 10,000 employees.  Although she is the student member of the Board, she has full voting powers like the adult members.  The occasion of her taking office led the Baltimore Sun to run a profile of the Snider family on the front page of its Maryland Section, which has a claimed circulation of more than a million people.  By late October my daughter hopes to launch a state-of-the-art e-democracy website for the students, including a discussion forum, e-petitions tool, and digg.com-style review of articles about the school system.  A beta version of the website can be found at www.aacstudents.org .

Newspapers Articles

Below is a smattering of news articles that had valid links within a few weeks of when this Citizens Assembly News Digest was published.  For a much more thorough listing of articles, consult a database such as Nexis or Factiva.

Sept. 4, 2007

Let's get proportional for Newsdurhamregion.com - Durham,Canada By Geoff Daw The Ontario Citizens Assembly was a randomly chosen group of 103 Ontarians from across

Reform's on the ballot: Now if only they cared Toronto Star - Ontario, Canada While the 104-member Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform held months of public hearings

Sept. 1, 2007

Let's look at ward system The North Bay Nugget - North Bay,Ontario,Canada

Silence of the lambs Hamilton Mountain News - Ontario, Canada

Questions surround MMP Toronto Star - Ontario, Canada

Aug 28, 2007

Vote for MMP Online drive launched: Ontarians invited to give ... Canada NewsWire (press release) – Canada

Aug. 27, 2007

Proposed reforms are far from perfect Waterloo Record - Waterloo,Ontario,Canada

Aug 22, 2007

Local election campaign kirks off SooToday.com - USA

MMP would be more representation, not less Cambridge Times - Cambridge,Ontario,Canada

A duty to be informed Guelph Tribune - Guelph,ON,Canada

Aug 21, 2007

MMP system can work here: reader Orillia Packet & Times - Orillia,Ontario,Canada

Aug 20, 2007

Electoral reform map clarifies the issue but not the outcome Vancouver Sun - British Columbia, Canada

Aug 17, 2007

Defence of old vote system weak: reader Orillia Packet & Times - Orillia,Ontario,Canada

Aug 16, 2007

Panel recommends boosting number of BC MLAs by two Globe and Mail – Canada

Get informed on Referendum 2007' Fort Frances Times - ON, Canada

Aug 10, 2007

Ontarians to participate in referendum vote this fall Orangeville Citizen - Orangeville,Canada

Aug 9, 2007

Grey County cool to electoral reform—Anita Droog Bayshore Broadcasting News Centre - Owen Sound,Ontario,Canada

Cast a smart vote on election reform Toronto Star - Ontario, Canada

Get informed on reform Toronto Star - Ontario, Canada

Could make world of difference when you vote Cambridge Times - Cambridge,Ontario,Canada

Aug 3, 2007

MMP would provide better representation: local supporter Orillia Packet & Times - Orillia,Ontario,Canada

Aug 2, 2007

Elections Ontario Launches Referendum Public Education Campaign ... Canada NewsWire (press release) - Canada

Deciding democracy Globe and Mail – Canada

Aug 1, 2007

Voters: verify the claims of electoral reform critics before Oct. 10 Orillia Packet & Times - Orillia,Ontario,Canada

July 29, 2007

Think long and hard before deciding on electoral referendum Orillia Packet & Times - Orillia,Ontario,Canada

July 12, 2007

Are you informed on electoral reform? Huntsville Forester - Ontario, Canada

July 9, 2007

Why Traditions Matter or Why MMP is Wrong for Ontario pt. 8 By aginsberg(aginsberg)

July 4, 2007

Un-democracy; Proposed electoral system will undermine the voting ... Sudbury Star - Sudbury,Ontario,Canada

July 2, 2007

Campaigns for referendum on electoral reform gear up Toronto Star - Ontario, Canada

June 30, 2007

No 'radical' change: prof The Kingston Whig-Standard - Kingston,Ontario,Canada

June 29, 2007

Changing how we vote; Why a group of citizens is pressing for ... The Kingston Whig-Standard - Kingston,Ontario,Canada

June 26, 2007

Electoral reform critic doesn't grasp benefits Peterborough Examiner - Peterborough,Ontario,Canada

June 25, 2007

Ontario government releases referendum question on electoral reform Fort Frances Times - ON, Canada

June 23, 2007

Vote for change Rabble.ca - Montreal,QC,Canada

Ontario government releases referendum question on electoral reform Canada East - Canada

Yes Campaign pushing for political change; Group pushing citizens ... Owen Sound Sun Times - Owen Sound,Ontario,Canada

June 21, 2007

Yes Campaign pushing for political change Owen Sound Sun Times - Owen Sound,Ontario,Canada

Ontario referendum question formulated Globe and Mail - Canada

McGuinty Government Announces Referendum Question Canada NewsWire (press release) - Canada

June 19, 2007

A more positive way of voting Northumberland Today - Cobourg,Ontario,Canada

June 18, 2007

Electoral system overhaul proposed Hamilton Spectator - Ontario, Canada

June 16, 2007

Proposed new voting system explained Mon. Northumberland Today - Cobourg,Ontario,Canada

PCs delay on vote changes London Free Press - Canada

No evidence that adding MPPs gives better government Peterborough Examiner - Peterborough,Ontario,Canada

Learn of possible voting changes Monday Northumberland Today - Cobourg,Ontario,Canada

June 14, 2007

Cost of adding MPPs is astronomical Hamilton Spectator - Ontario, Canada

June 9, 2007

New voting system works well

June 6, 2007

Meeting on proposed new voting system Northumberland Today - Cobourg,Ontario,Canada

Residents look at proposed election changes parrysound.com - Parry Sound,Ontario,Canada

Bolton woman seeks local Green nomination Caledon Citizen - Caledon,Ontario,Canada

Monday, June 4, 2007, at the North Carolina General Assembly Myrtle Beach Sun News - Myrtle Beach,SC,USA

SES students receive awards at assembly News-Democrat & Leader - Russellville,KY,USA

Bolton woman seeks local Green nomination Caledon Citizen - Caledon,Ontario,Canada

June 3, 2007

Electoral reform: how much is really needed? Orangeville Citizen - Orangeville,Canada

Planning Council to debate Ontario's proposed voting system Sudbury Star - Sudbury,Ontario,Canada

Bar set high to change outdated system of electing MPPs Peterborough Examiner - Peterborough,Ontario,Canada

June 2, 2007

Democratic advance Peterborough Examiner - Peterborough,Ontario,Canada

Voting reform focus of meeting Sudbury Star - Sudbury,Ontario,Canada Susan Pigott from the Citizens' Assembly Secretariat and Citizen's Assembly members Richard Bowdidge

June 1, 2007

Ontarians to vote on electoral change The Charlatan - Ottawa,Canada

May 30, 2007

Questions, criticism at electoral reform night Peterborough Examiner - Peterborough,Ontario,Canada

May 29, 2007

Another Ill-Informed Toronto Columnist Agoravox - Paris,France

May 28, 2007

Midland Says Yes! By Chris Tindal

May 26, 2007

Referendum will determine whether changes to Ontario's electoral ... Huntsville Forester - Huntsville,Ontario,Canada

May 25, 2007

One ballot, two votes: a new way to vote in Ontario Northumberland Today - Cobourg,Ontario,Canada

May 24, 2007

Electoral reform issue is 'under-reported' King Township Sentinel - Beeton,ON,Canada

May 22, 2007

Why electoral reform won't work Toronto Star - Toronto,Ontario,Canada

If Gordon Brown doesn't listen he'll entrench public mistrust Guardian Unlimited - UK

May 20, 2007

Citizens' panel recommends overhaul of electoral system Hamilton Spectator - Hamilton,Ontario,Canada

Passing judgment on election system Waterloo Record - Waterloo,Ontario,Canada

Hampton lauds final report on electoral reform Fort Frances Times - Fort Frances,Ontario,Canada

Voters will decide on electoral reform Orillia Packet & Times - Orillia,Ontario,Canada

Panel of citizens recommends Ontario overhaul electoral system The Chronicle Journal - Thunder Bay,Ontario,Canada

 

J.H. Snider, President
iSolon.org
September 14, 2007