Proportional Representation: Coming to Vancouver Municipal Elections?

Devon Rowcliffe wrote an opinion piece for The Tyee:

Starting Oct. 22, British Columbians will receive referendum ballots in the mail asking if they wish to switch the province’s electoral system to a form of proportional representation. But two days earlier, when City of Vancouver residents head to the polls for their municipal election, they will also have the opportunity to select politicians who intend to reform our civic elections.

A record number of Vancouver election candidates have argued that the city’s plurality-at-large voting system is dysfunctional and should be replaced.

Their concerns are valid. U.S. courts have struck down election systems in numerous municipalities for not providing fair representation for minorities.

Here in Vancouver, it has been 46 years since a candidate of South Asian descent was last elected to city council. Even worse, Filipinos have never been elected to any municipal office in Vancouver. This despite these groups being the third- and fourth-largest ethnicities in the city.

At-large elections also frequently produce “wrong-winner” results, in which the party that earns the second-most votes ends up with a majority of seats and full control of council. This happened in both the 2011 and 2014Vancouver elections.

Further, at-large is perhaps the least-accommodating election system for independent councillor candidates, historically making it nearly impossible for those without a party label to win a seat on council.

With at-large sometimes referred to as the worst voting system, calls for replacement usually suggest switching to a ward system, as found in municipal elections in all other provinces across Canada.

However, the typical ward system (also known as “first-past-the-post,” the same system used in provincial and federal elections) is highly problematic for different reasons. Many seats become “safe,” leading to “ward bosses” who remain in power for decades. Incumbency re-election rates can be higher than 90 per cent; challengers face tremendous difficulty getting elected. Visible minorities and women are often under-represented. Roughly half of votes cast do not elect representatives, and voters may feel pressured into strategic voting due to vote splitting.

Ideally, Vancouver should adopt a form of proportional representation if it wants to improve its democracy. Virtually every Canadian study that comprehensively examined voting systems recommended using a proportional system. Similarly, the B.C. Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in 2004 voted overwhelmingly in favour — 142 to 11 — of using a proportional voting system. That same year, the Vancouver Electoral Reform Commission, led by former B.C. Supreme Court judge Thomas Berger, recommended enabling Vancouver to use proportional representation. And just last year, in January 2017, the City’s Independent Election Task Force also recommended that Vancouver adopt a proportional election system.

So what are the Vancouver municipal election candidates and parties suggesting to improve the city’s voting system? Here is a brief overview of what is being proposed.

Kennedy Stewart

This independent mayoral candidate who earned a PhD in governance from the London School of Economics suggests abandoning at-large voting, and using the upcoming provincial referendum results to help choose Vancouver’s next voting system. If the majority of City of Vancouver voters cast a ballot in favour of proportional representation for provincial elections, he would push for Vancouver to switch to a proportional system that incorporates wards. But if most Vancouver voters opt to retain first-past-the-post voting for provincial elections, he feels Vancouver should adopt that.

Shauna Sylvester

Another independent candidate for mayor, Sylvester suggests moving to a hybrid election system that would be half ward-based and half at-large. She also advocates using ranked ballots, which would result in a partly proportional system.

Five ward seats would be elected using a voting system called instant-runoff voting, which is what Australia uses for its national parliamentary elections. Voters would rank the candidates, rather than just selecting one. If no candidate won a majority on the first count, the candidate with the fewest votes would be dropped and the second choices of their supporters would be distributed to the remaining candidates. This would continue until a candidate received 50 per cent of the vote. However the governing party would usually still be elected by only a minority of the popular vote. Additionally, instant-runoff voting’s “winner takes all” nature creates disproportional results, shutting out smaller parties.

Five at-large seats would be elected using single transferable vote. That would result in more proportional results. Visible minorities and independent candidates would fare better under this system.

Graham Cook

An independent councillor candidate, Cook was the first 2018 Vancouver election participant to unequivocally declare his support for municipal proportional representation. He is also the only candidate who advocated for proportional voting in his official candidate profile. Cook’s personal preference would be to elect councillors with single transferable vote — using several large, multi-member wards across the city — as well as a ranked ballot for mayoral elections. He favours forming a citizens’ assembly, composed of residents from across the city, to choose a proportional voting system best suited to Vancouver’s needs.

Katherine Ramdeen

Another independent for councillor, Ramdeen is an actor from the U.S. television series Supernatural. She is strongly in favour of switching to a proportional voting system for Vancouver’s elections, and prefers mixed-member proportional representation. At the municipal level, this would likely mean six council seats elected under first-past-the-post (single-member wards), with four at-large or regional seats based upon party votes.

OneCity

Although this nascent political party doesn’t explicitly support proportional representation, OneCity suggests establishing a municipal citizens’ assemblyto choose an election system that would be best for the city’s needs. The party would then push for a municipal referendum on adopting the recommended system. Candidate Christine Boyle personally supports proportional representation for provincial elections, and recently posted on Twitter that a replacement for Vancouver’s municipal elections would be “ideally a form of ProRep [proportional representation].”

COPE

Vancouver’s oldest left-wing party states in its platform that it would prefer a mix of at-large and wards for municipal elections, but makes no mention of proportionality. This is arguably a regression from COPE’s 2014 position of holding a referendum to move to either the typical ward system (first-past-the-post) or a proportional system. However, confusing matters, the party also recently stated in a 123Vancouver policy survey that “COPE completely and totally supports switching to a proportional voting system that ensures every vote counts as well as a fair geographical representation for neighbourhoods across the city.” Candidate Derrick O’Keefe has publicly commented in favour of proportional representation, particularly regarding provincial and federal elections.

Other parties

No other political party has expressed support for proportional representation in their election platform. Vision Vancouver previously passedseveral council resolutions in favour of removing barriers to using other voting systems, but the party has been neutral on which electoral system to switch to. However, it’s worth remembering that Vision promised electoral reform in 2008 prior to coming to power, only to break their pledge once they took office.

In stark contrast to their provincial counterparts, the Green Party of Vancouver has never championed electoral reform in their platforms. Incumbent councillor Adriane Carr received some criticism for not supporting single transferable vote during the 2005 provincial referendum when she was leader of the provincial party, as she preferred a different type of proportional representation. The municipal Greens benefited from disproportional results in 2011 but were subsequently hindered by them in 2014.

The Non-Partisan Association (NPA), Yes Vancouver and Coalition Vancouver all oppose electoral reform.

ProVancouver suggests using instant-runoff voting — the combination of single-member wards and ranked ballots — for all city elections. Unlike mayoral candidate Sylvester, who proposes only using this disproportional voting system to elect half of the councillor seats, ProVancouver would prefer to use instant-runoff voting for all municipal seats.

Meanwhile, in Surrey…

One caveat is that the Vancouver Charter (or the Community Charter for all other B.C. municipalities) would need to be amended by the provincial government before proportional representation could be adopted for municipal elections. Some have argued that this has provided municipal politicians with a convenient scapegoat and excuse for not advancing electoral reform, and instead sticking with a voting system that helped put them into power.

One political party outside the City of Vancouver feels it has a solution. Proudly Surrey proposes switching to a semi-proportional voting system known as cumulative voting. Citizens would still have eight votes for the eight council seats, but they could choose to cast more than one vote for a candidate. The party notes that would allow “smaller communities of voters, like green-minded folks or residents of Surrey’s farmland, pool their votes together to get a representative who reflects their wishes.”

Proudly Surrey is of the legal opinion that adopting such a system would not violate the wording of the Community Charter, and thus could be immediately implemented as it would not require the provincial government to amend legislation.

Proportional representation’s inevitable return?

With a B.C. provincial referendum beginning later this month, a newly-elected government in Quebec that has pledged to table legislation within the next year to adopt mixed-member proportional representation (MMP), and Prince Edward Island to hold yet another referendum after their previous vote resulted in victory for MMP, it seems inevitable that a proportional electoral system will soon make a return somewhere across Canada. But will Vancouver be the first municipality in the country to re-adopt a proportional voting system? We may be much closer to knowing the answer within the next few weeks.


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