Since the last Citizens Assembly News Digest came out on April 25, 2009, the biggest citizens assembly news has been the defeat of the referendum proposed by the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. This special edition of the Citizens Assembly News Digest calls your attention to the best analysis of that defeat I’ve yet seen.
Analysis of the British Columbia Referendum
In an article, Who Killed BC-STV?, published on July 8, 2009, Ken Carty, Fred Cutler, and Patrick Fournier analyze the defeat of the referendum proposed by the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. Ken Carty and Fred Cutler are professors of political science at the University of British Columbia. Patrick Fournier is a professor of political science at the University of Montreal. All three have written extensively about the citizens’ assembly experiments in Canada. Ken Carty, the former President of the Canadian Political Science Association, was the research chair of British Columbia’s Citizens’ Assembly.
What explains why the referendum got 57% of the vote in 2005 but only 38% in 2009? Carty and Cutler point to a number of factors, but they focus on the drastic change of support for the referendum among Liberal Party supporters, who represented the majority. In 2005, Liberals split their vote 50/50 for and against the referendum. This time only 20% supported it, a precipitous drop. In contrast, support among the two minority parties, NDP and Green, remained above 60%--nearly the same as four years before.
I interpret their data to mean that when you’re out of power you want democratic reform to increase your power. But when you’re in power, you do not. When Liberal Party voters felt that the electoral system had kept them out of power, they wanted to change the system. But once their party was ensconced in power, they decided they liked the system that gave their party power.
This suggests that the incentives of incumbency that characterize representative democracy may also apply to democracy by citizens assembly based referendum. Just as elected representatives don’t want to reform the system that brought them to power, neither do majority party voters.
It will be interesting to see if this analysis holds up under scrutiny. If so, I will be disappointed. For the analysis suggests that citizens do not apply a Rawlsian “Veil of Ignorance” when voting on democratic reform. That is, they don’t ask “what is the just democratic system irrespective of how I will personally benefit?” Rather, they act like the proverbial re-election seeking politicians: voting for a change only if it will bring them immediate electoral advantage. If so, then citizens assembly recommendations designed to strengthen minority parties may be doomed to failure. To win, they must be perceived to enhance all elected officials’ democratic accountability, so majority party supporters don’t feel like losers.
The next regular edition of the Citizens Assembly News Digest won’t be out before Fall 2009.