Frequently Asked Questions about a National Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform
How are the citizens' selected?
Participants in citizens’ assemblies are chosen randomly with special care to ensure that the resulting assembly is representative of the population. You can read more about the selection process on the Key Principles page.
Who decides the question(s) the Assembly will study? Could the outcome be "predetermined"?
When a citizens’ assembly is mandated by the government, parliamentarians set the terms.
In a majority government situation, the party in power can set the terms. In a minority government, parties will need to negotiate the question(s) to be examined by the Assembly.
The Citizens’ Assemblies in BC and Ontario had very open ended question – all options were on the table, including a recommendation of no change. This builds the most legitimacy and the broadest possible support for the Assembly’s recommendation.
In addition, Citizens’ Assemblies work independently of the government and political parties. They are administered by a neutral third party organization or respected person with expertise in running deliberative processes. They hear from a full range of experts and have the autonomy to ask to learn more from whomever they choose.
One of the key findings of a comprehensive study of the Citizens’ Assemblies in BC, Ontario and the Netherlands was how the Assembly members worked with citizens in mind:
Assembly members appear to have been completely unmoved by their personal partisan inclinations. These results are entirely consonant with our own observation of the process. Members were genuinely struggling to find the ‘best’ system for their community, and whether any option might benefit or hurt any specific party was not a relevant consideration.
– When Citizens Decide. Fornier, Van Der Kolk, Carty, Blais and Rose (2011). When Citizens Decide: Lessons from Citizens’ Assemblies on Electoral Reform. Oxford University Press.
Questions in BC and Ontario:
British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly: “Our mandate was to assess different models for electing members of the Legislative Assembly and to recommend whether our current system for provincial elections should be retained or whether a new model should be adopted.”
Ontario Citizens’ Assembly: “The Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform brought together a diverse group of ordinary citizens to assess Ontario’s electoral system (the way votes are translated into seats in the legislature), compare it with systems used in other democracies, and recommend the best system for the province – our existing system or a new one the Assembly would design specifically for Ontario.”
What happens to the Assembly's recommendation?
The recommendations of Citizens’ Assemblies are informed advice to the government. They are usually not binding on government. However, their recommendations will be seen as credible and influential – immediately and in years to come. Citizens’ Assemblies have been held around the world to advise governments on issues as diverse as flood mitigation, climate change, elder care, storage of nuclear waste and abortion.
The government may choose to implement some or all of the Assembly’s recommendations. They may choose to hold a vote in Parliament on the recommendations. In some cases, they may choose to put the recommendation to a referendum, but a referendum is not required. A Citizens’ Assembly is designed to be a truly representative “mini public”, thus their recommendations can be seen as a reflection of what a fully informed public would choose.
What would the timeline be for implementing electoral reform?
If electoral reform is recommended for 2023, it may require boundaries commissions. It is important that a National Citizens’ Assembly be convened as early as possible after the election, so it can complete its work in the first year.