Mayor Paterson of Kingston recently posted an on-line poll to ask Kingstonians what they thought of the prospect of ranked ballots for municipal elections.
While I think it’s a good idea for the Mayor to solicit feedback on such an important initiative, such polls can easily be hijacked by those in favour or opposed to change. Moreover, the fact that one of the Mayor’s choices is “I’m not sure. I’d like more information” is telling. People don’t know how this change would affect the outcome of an election or perhaps their choices. Why would they? Unless you grew up in Australia or voted in city of London, UK, you might not know how ranked ballots work.
Having a discussion of ranked ballots at the municipal level is similar to the conversation that I think we should be having about electoral reform at the national level. Politicians should use this opportunity as a public learning exercise to increase civic literacy.
One way to do this is to convene a citizens’ assembly of randomly selected citizens who could meet in Memorial Hall of City Hall for three Saturdays to learn about how these systems work in practice and what reasons there might be to adopt it in Kingston. A random body of citizens would be representative of the geography of Kingston as well as our demographics (e.g., students, seniors, unemployed, those engaged in politics and those disillusioned). They would meet with an open mind and learn in a neutral way both the advantages and disadvantages of the system. They would see how it works in Australia and in the city of London. They would consult their fellow citizens to hear what others thought. Such a process would be public and transparent so those not selected could observe. After an intensive deliberative process would they make a recommendation to council or better yet, would their recommendation be binding on council who would put their faith and trust in the wisdom of citizens. A citizens’ assembly process is marked by deliberation which is careful reasoning after examining all the evidence — something that is lacking in public opinion polls.
Citizens’ assemblies have been used at the municipal level successfully in Prince Edward County, Calgary, Vancouver among many other places. In the UK the Sheffield and Southampton citizens’ assemblies last year deliberated what powers ought to be devolved to the local government. In all these cases, the process of reasoning and deliberating only followed a phase of learning and information gathering. Unlike expert commissions or expensive consulting firms’ reports, their work is marked by transparency and meaningful public involvement.
There are many reasons to support or oppose ranked ballots in Kingston but there is no reason why citizens shouldn’t make that decision. A citizens’ assembly increases participation, citizen learning and creates legitimacy around a policy where the self interest of politicians is obvious.