Ontario Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform 2006

Ontario Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform 2006



Problems and Purpose and History

The Ontario Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform was a response to the supposed democratic deficiency in Canada at the time of its inception. The Ontario Government took inspiration from the province of British Columbia who held their own Citizens Assembly prior on electoral reform. The government formed an all-party Select Committee on Electoral Reform, which ran throughout June 2005 until November 2005, that examined the issue of electoral reform and recommended the idea of a citizens’ assembly to assess other options of electoral systems as a means of direct participation. Creating a citizens’ assembly rather than government debate and policy meant the issue was able to be taken out of the sphere of political bargaining and left up to debate by members of the public. The citizens’ assembly was formed on March 27 2006, and ran until May 15 2007, in which the assembly finished its assessment and finalised its report.  

Originating Entities and Funding

The assembly was organised and paid for by the Ontario government, who bought about the project to combat the thought of low levels of democracy in the region at the time. Although many individuals were seeking electoral reform at the time, the government of Ontario was the main actor in bringing about the assembly and funding it during its time in session. The assembly was maintained under George Thomson, who chaired the project and as such had creative say in the direction and organisation of the meetings and event as a whole.  

Participant Selection, Methods and Tools Used

In order to gather citizens to make up the demographics of the assembly, the government of Ontario appointed Elections Ontario, a separate entity, to overlook the selection process to ensure there was no possible bias or influence from elected officials. Elections Ontario then proceeded to send out letters asking the electorate if they were willing to participate in the event surrounding electoral reform. Afterwards, 7000 people replied saying they were willing and thus were shortlisted as possible participants. The participants of the Assembly were chosen between May and July 2006, in which the 7000 people shortlisted was reduced to 1253 non-randomly, and then reduced further to 103 people, 1 from each local riding, via random draw, creating an assembly similar to the Athenian Ekklesia. In addition to having 1 person from each district, controls were placed on the selection by aiming to comprise the assembly of 52 females, 51 males and 1 identified aboriginal. Although gender, geography, and race was largely controlled for, age was more difficult to include as most people were of an older age. Certain people were denied the ability to participate in the citizens’ assembly, including any person in an elected to any public office in the province of Ontario. This restriction allowed the assembly to be completely independent and free from any possible outside influence bought about by an elected official who may hold some previous ties or bias’s to the electoral reform debate. Participation among the assembly remained the same among the entire timeline of the process, as those selected were a final selection, which meant nobody could be removed from the assembly, even if the other participants felt that they were not contributing to the event or taking it seriously.  

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

The aim of the citizens’ assembly was for the members to determine whether Ontario should keep and maintain their current electoral system of First Past the Post, or to change it, and if so, a certain other electoral system it should be changed to. As many of the participants had no knowledge of electoral systems as a whole due to the selection from the general public rather than a group of knowledgeable elites, the event was structured to contain three different phases. Firstly, was the learning phase, in which the participants were introduced via lectures to various electoral systems, how they are run, and the foundational positives and negatives that could potentially surround each system. This allowed for the non-experts to learn the basics, and tasks were undertaken to see if the members of the assembly correctly understood the nature of all the systems by asking them questions on the system they had just been taught. Weekly questionnaires and surveys were provided to the members to show that they were able to understand the complexities. This allowed for the assembly organisers to be sure that the result of the assembly would be an informed decision rather than people blindly following other suggestions. After the learning phase, the consultation phase was introduced in which the assembly was able to listen to interested parties who may be involved in the debate surrounding electoral reform. The consultation phase allowed for interested people to express their views to the assembly without having a direct influence on the result and decision made throughout the process, only to provide further education on the subject matter and demonstrate their beliefs to the participants. Following from the consultation phase was the deliberation phase, in which all the electoral systems were discussed by the members of the assembly and evaluated amongst them. The different families of electoral systems were examined in this period and the choice had to be reduced to a select few. During this stage, the participants had to make a choice garnered from the knowledge they received in whether a new electoral system should be put in place for the province of Ontario, or if First Past the Post should be kept. Once it was decided in favour of electoral reform, the choice of what electoral system to replace it was chosen. These decisions were made by a simple vote involving the participants of the assembly, in which a majority voted in favour of changing the electoral system, and voted in favour of replacing the system with Mixed Member Plurality. Although some members of the assembly voted against reforming the system, and against the possible new system being Mixed Member Plurality, the assembly did not require a consensus among the participants, just a majority. Throughout the deliberation process, not much contact was kept with the general public on Ontario, as the assembly was kept rather private, leading to many of the public not even knowing of the existence of the citizens’ assembly.  

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

After the conclusion and final report produced by the citizens’ assembly, the resolution was adopted in April 2007, meaning the possibility of changing the electoral system was bought to a public referendum involving the citizens of Ontario. In this sense, the assembly was a success as it bought about a referendum, which showed visible progress and summation of the work undertaken by the assembly and its participants. The government of Ontario kept their promise of bringing the issue of electoral reform to the public if the assembly voted in favour of disregarding the current system, however the result of the referendum involved the public voting against the possibility of changing the voting system in Ontario, and no further meaningful action around electoral reform in the province has taken place.  

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Overall, the citizens’ assembly, despite failing in their goal of reforming the electoral system, led to people, who may not have been engaged in politics and not have an understanding of voting and the various systems, being educated on the subject matter which arguably increases the level of participatory democracy in the region, after complaints of a democratic deficiency before the assembly took place. If the assembly took place again, there are factors which could have been done differently, especially surrounding the public information campaign. Most citizens of Ontario did not have any knowledge that an assembly surrounding electoral reform was taking place, meaning the possibility of enacting change was restrained from the start. Although Elections Ontario spent $6.8 million on distributing information, it did not result in the public being adequately informed. This meant the assembly could not provide their reasoning to the public, which Thompson states is at the core of all theories of deliberative democracy, the expectation of justifying your position to the public. In other ways, the idea of a citizens’ assembly leading to policy change may be hamstrung initially as Fournier et al say elected representatives wouldn’t be willing to provide citizens a role in reformation, which showed in the aftermath as not many politicians spoke on the outcome. Despite the efforts of the assembly to limit elected influence, the results of the assembly were still indirectly affected by politicians. In addition to this problem involving the citizens’ assembly, another negative affecting it was the media. The media initially reacted negatively to the outcome that the participants reached, with only 19% of the articles written by the press were able to be considered positive surrounding the assembly and its final report, compared to 45% that could be considered negative towards the assemblies’ deliberation, proposal and choice of alternative electoral system. These factors helped limit the influence and success of the assembly, with the media being the most vocal critic of the entire process. However, the citizens’ assembly in Ontario in 2006 drew inspiration from a similar assembly on electoral reform that took place in the Canadian province of British Columbia previous to the Ontario one. Therefore, a positive taken from the assembly of Ontario may be that despite its failings and opposition, it was the latest in a push of electoral reform and the combatting of democratic deficiency in Canada, which may help to push an increase of participatory democracy and policy reform in Canada in the future.

Secondary Sources

Fournier, P., van der Kolk, H., Carty, R., Blais, A. and Rose, J. (2013). When Citizens Decide: Lessons from Citizens' Assemblies on Electoral Reform. Perspectives on Politics, 11(02), pp.670-672.

LeDuc, L. (2011) Electoral Reform and Direct Democracy in Canada: When Citizens Become Involved in West European Politics. 34(3), pp.551-567.

Pal, M. (2012) The Promise and Limits of Citizens' Assemblies: Deliberation, Institutions and the Law of Democracy in Queens Law Journal. 38(1)

Perrella, A. Brown, S. Kay, B. and Docherty, D. (2007) The 2007 Provincial Election and Electoral System Referendum in Ontario in Canadian Political Science Review. 2(1). pp.78-87.

Rose, J. (2007) The Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. Available from: http://revparl.ca/30/3/30n3_07e_Rose.pdf [Accessed on 7 November 2017].

Thompson, D. (2008) Deliberative Democratic Theory and Empirical Political Science in Annual Review of Political Science. 11, pp.497-520.  

External Links




Case Data


Specific Topic(s): 
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Ontario CA
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Start Date: 
Sunday, March 26, 2006
End Date: 
Monday, May 14, 2007
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Who paid for the project or initiative?: 
Ontario Government
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