[EM] oped in Mercury News on Citizens' Assemblies (forwarded from Steven Hill)

Chris Benham chrisbenham at bigpond.com
Sat Nov 19 09:12:55 PST 2005

From: Steven Hill, New America Foundation 

Dear friends, I have an oped in yesterday's San Jose Mercury News about
Citizens' Assemblies as a vehicle for political reform. I thought you would
find it interesting. Please forward to your lists and others interested.


Steven Hill

In Canada, regular folks are put to work on reforms
By Steven Hill
San Jose Mercury News
Wed, Nov. 16, 2005

Despite voters rejecting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's attempts to end-run
the Legislature, that does not mean voters don't want change. California's
political leaders must try to pick up the pieces of what is left of state
politics. The challenges are daunting, particularly because both the
governor and Legislature have lost so much credibility.

The question is: How do we move forward? One of the solutions may lie across
the border in Canada. It's called a Citizens' Assembly, and it was on
display last year in the province of British Columbia. The government there
turned over to the people the task of basic political reform, and by doing
so took the partisanship out of the process, something California badly

Here's how it worked: The government randomly selected 160 average citizens
to participate in the Citizens' Assembly, like selecting a jury pool. The
Assembly had 80 women and 80 men from all of the province's 79 electoral
districts. It was an independent, non-partisan body charged with a
particular focus: to examine British Columbia's electoral system, and how
their winner-take-all system was performing in determining who got elected
to the Legislature.

This effort was unique. Often such task forces are dominated by the usual
political insiders or good-government activists. Nowhere in the world had
randomly selected citizens with no history of interest in electoral reform
been so empowered to shape major proposals. Yet the work of the Assembly was
unanimously endorsed by the political parties in the Legislature and
community leaders.

The Assembly's tenure was divided into three phases: Learning about reform,
January-March 2004; public hearings, May-June; and deliberations,
September-November. They met on weekends, their expenses and a small per
diem paid for by the government. They were visited by top experts from all
political perspectives who gave them the benefit of their knowledge and

The Assembly delivered a final report in December 2004. It voted 146-7 to
toss out its longtime winner-take-all, single-seat district electoral system
and replace it with a proportional representation system. ``This really is
power to the people,'' enthused Jack Blaney, the chair of the Citizens'

The Assembly's proposal was submitted by the legislature directly to the
voters in a referendum last May. Because the Citizens' Assembly was composed
of average citizens, their recommendation had tremendous legitimacy with the
public. A robust 58 percent of voters supported the measure.

The Citizens' Assembly in British Columbia focused on the electoral system,
but the focus just as well could have been on other aspects of the political
system. In California, a Citizens Assembly could focus on redistricting
reform or campaign finance reform; or reforming our broken primary system
and the electoral system.

The Citizens' Assembly solves a real dilemma: How do we enact meaningful
political reform, which California so badly needs, when both the governor
and the Legislature have conflicts of interest that induce them to
manipulate the rules in their favor?

Citizens' Assemblies could be important vehicles for modernizing our
political system because trust is placed in average citizens who have more
credibility than the political class. If you truly believe in democracy,
that's where trust belongs.

In the mid-1990s, a California Constitutional Revision Commission
deliberated on some of these fundamental issues, but it was too timid and
politically weak to enact change. The Citizens' Assembly points the
direction that Schwarzenegger and Democrats in the Legislature should lead.
The governor opened the debate with redistricting reform, but now is the
time to inject fairness and non-partisanship into state politics. What
better way than by establishing a Citizens' Assembly that empowers average
citizens to decide what political reform is best for California?

STEVEN HILL is an Irvine senior fellow with the New America Foundation and
author of ``Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All
Politics'' (www.fixingelections.com). To find out more about British
Columbia's Citizens' Assembly, visit www.citizensassembly.bc.ca  

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