Changing how we vote can improve turnout and civility

Keith Poore wrote an opinion piece for Vancouver Sun:

Ontario has just introduced legislation to allow all municipalities in the province to switch away from their current voting system. Will British Columbia take action, or will it fall behind?

Citizens are impacted the most by the decisions made by our mayors and councillors, the parks boards, and school boards. From public transit to how waste is handled, development of land and property tax increases, municipal councils choose how the city operates. At the core of their decision making is voters’ decision making.

 

The way we vote is key to the decision-making process at City Hall. We vote strategically when we don’t want a party in office. Our current system encourages strategic voting, voting for a party that may not be your first choice, just to oust the unfavourable party.

The Ontario legislation will give municipalities the flexibility to make their own decisions, which promotes the idea that municipal leaders understand the needs of their citizens. The City of Vancouver asked for such flexibility five times between 2005 and 2013. Each time, the vote was unanimous across three different councils. Each time, the provincial government failed to respect the wish of the citizens in Vancouver.

Our winner-take-all voting system is obviously flawed. We have to look no further than the 2014 Vancouver election to see why it is unfair and outdated. Incumbents can win with less than 35 per cent of the vote — and 90 per cent of councillors elected in the last election were incumbents. Only one new face was added to council in 2014, even though 60 per cent of the total vote went to non-incumbents.

We also struggle with voter turnout in local elections. In the past two decades, voter turnout has ranged from 30 per cent to 50 per cent. These numbers are astonishingly low compared to the federal and provincial elections. Voting reform has helped increase voter participation in the municipalities in the U.S. that have adopted change.

The politicians ran more civil campaigns as well, with fewer personal attacks and more constructive discussion on issues. In Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), all candidates are vying for your first, second, or third preference, so candidates will get away from negative campaigning and focus on positive campaigns.

By being more positive during a campaign, candidates are fostering an environment that is more inclusive and more accessible to all voters. Cities across North America are moving toward voting reform that works for their municipality. Since 2000, there have been 10 American cities that have switched to RCV. Voters in Minneapolis have commented on how there were “a lot less personal attacks”, “less negative” with “less mudslinging.” Campaigners had to be more positive to become second or third preference on the ballot.

By giving B.C. municipalities freedom to change their voting system, voters will have the freedom to choose their governments much more appreciably. This is a no-cost change the provincial government can provide to all municipalities making local elections fairer.

Premier Christy Clark once told voters that electoral reform at the provincial level could bring about “civility in politics”. She also expressed concern about voter turnout with “fewer and fewer young people going to the polls every single year”. If she really means it, the premier should pursue this issue and empower municipalities to pursue a brighter political future.

Keith Poore is president of 123Vancouver and project coordinator at Local Choice B.C.


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