Arash Abizadeh: Take electoral reform away from politicians and let citizens decide

David Schecter wrote to point out an article in the Canadian Globe and Mail by Arash Abizadeh, a professor of political science at McGill University:

Take electoral reform away from politicians and let citizens decide

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on a promise to change the way we elect Parliament. Here’s the problem: letting politicians who won the last election decide future election rules is like letting the team who won the last playoff game decide rules for the next game. There’s an obvious conflict of interest. Electoral rules determine who forms government, and different rules favour different parties.


One solution is a referendum. But the Liberals have ruled this out. Maybe they’re right to do so. Referenda are expensive, few Canadians care much about electoral reform, and fewer still will cuddle up with a treatise on voting systems this Sunday evening. A referendum might be a big waste of money in which few vote and fewer still care to learn about the pros and cons of alternative electoral systems.

But without a referendum, how could electoral reform be legitimized? We need a manifestly fair procedure – a neutral body, unbeholden to politicians, that will reasonably evaluate the alternatives.

Fortunately, political scientists have a solution that fits the bill – a randomly selected citizen assembly. The idea is this: randomly select a few thousand Canadians, ask if they are willing to serve, and, from those saying yes, randomly select 100 to 200 to serve on an assembly empowered to determine federal election rules.

Putting regular citizens in charge may initially seem crazy. Wouldn’t citizens with no special experience or expertise make incompetent decisions? But that’s who decides referenda, too. In fact, Canada is a pioneer in using citizen assemblies to make decisions about voting systems.

We’ve done it twice before, in B.C. and Ontario. Political scientists have studied both cases, and both were in many respects a great success. Once our fellow citizens received expert advice (about voting systems) and consulted the public, they became well informed, and their deliberations and decision-making were extremely competent and reasonable.

No surprise here: it’s well known to social scientists that under the right conditions, there is intelligence in numbers. The decisions of an assembly of regular but diverse individuals are often more intelligent than decisions by a lone genius or expert.

2 Responses

  1. Canadian electoral reform.

    Just one addition to this excellent suggestion: set up a dedicated and well-edited website on which an open entry debate can flourish, and tell the panel of deciders that they must address any substantial claim made in that debate.


  2. This is the correct and democratic way to decide election rules in all countries.

    I would add the following:

    1. The procedures and arrangements for the juries that decide the election rules, which can be called “election rules juries” (or “election rules citizen assemblies”) must not be decided by politicians because of the conflicts of interest they have (they can for example design it in a way that is stacked against change, as the politicians did re the B.C. and Ontario Citizens’ Assemblies on Electoral Reform). Instead, as I’ve said elsewhere, I think the procedures and arrangements must themselves be decided by juries, and that those juries can be advised by an advisory directorate overseen by one or more directors chosen by jury.

    2. The Liberals, Greens, Conservatives, NDP, Bloc, public interest groups and others, can all put forward proposals for the election rules jury to consider, on the topic before it (such as whether to move from first past the post to some form of PR or ranked ballot or such, and if so which option exactly).

    3. Referendums are highly inappropriate for deciding election rules. One problem is that they are not suited for making an informed decision. Another problem is that typically in a referendum there is only one option on the ballot, either the status quo or one particular alternative option. If for example there were to be a referendum between the status quo and the option of ranked ballot single member districts that would be totally undemocratic because it would deny the voters an open choice, and could well mean that the option most people would prefer (were they to be well informed) was not on the ballot. So, a democratic referendum would require a full range of options in order to be democratic, but that would be an absurdity because the public will not become well informed about even one of the options on the ballot, never mind about all of the several or many options on such a ballot.

    As a democratic choice must be both well informed, and also must be an open choice of the possible options that are available (not just a choice between the status quo and one alternative option), deciding election rules by referendum is a bad and undemocratic idea that needs to be rejected.

    The only democratic way to decide election rules is by randomly sampled juries.


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