Citizens Assembly

An Effective Vehicle for Political Reform

The Problem

A number of promising reforms have been proposed for making the California political system more representative and responsive— from independent redistricting, term limits, and open primaries to more modern electoral systems and public financing of campaigns—but all face the same obstacle: entrenched interests, including elected lawmakers, who benefit from the status quo.

One means of removing partisanship and incumbent protectionism from the political reform process is known as a Citizens Assembly, which convenes a body of average citizens empowered to formally propose electoral reforms that politicians have too strong a conflict of interest to propose themselves. Already successfully employed in British Columbia, California’s legislature is now considering a Citizen Assembly measure of its own.

The British Columbia Model

The Citizens Assembly in British Columbia was established by the legislature, with a mandate to focus on electoral reform. The assembly's 160 members were chosen by a random selection process, just like a jury pool. First there was a draw of 100 men and 100 women from all of the province's 79 electoral districts, asking how many would agree to serve. Eventually one man and one woman were selected from each of the 79 districts, and two more members were added to ensure representation of native Canadians, a total of 160 members.

The Assembly's tenure was divided into three phases: first, learning about reform from noted experts, January-March 2004; second, over 50 public hearings, May-June; and third, final deliberations, Sept-Nov. They met on weekends, their expenses and a per diem of about $1000 per month paid by the government. They were addressed by top experts from all political perspectives who gave them the benefit of their knowledge and analysis.

Nearly 11 months later in December 2004 the Assembly delivered its final report. 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," stated Jack Blaney, the chair of the Citizens Assembly.

For the complete paper, please see the attached PDF version.

Citizens Assemblies could be important vehicles for modernizing our political system because trust is placed in a deliberative process involving average citizens who have more credibility than the political class.