Vision Vancouver’s only unsuccessful election candidate is considering legal action against the City of Vancouver because, he says, the at-large voting system discriminates against candidates with South Asian names. All six candidates from this community came last on their respective slates in the November 15 election. Kashmir Dhaliwal, Vision’s sole South Asian council candidate, placed 11th in his bid for a city-council slot.
“From the core of my heart, I want a ward system,” Dhaliwal told the Georgia Straight by phone. “I have to discuss with my friends what we should do, and those within my community, and if they all give me the green light, then I will take legal action.”
Dhaliwal garnered 44,854 votes—1,023 votes behind COPE councillor-elect Ellen Woodsworth (45,877). Incoming park commissioner Raj Hundal, Vision’s only elected official of South Asian descent, came 7,904 votes behind the next-closest Vision candidate for park board.
Dhaliwal, president of the Khalsa Diwan Society, has support from failed Non-Partisan Association park-board candidate Naresh Shukla, who placed 14th (with 27,350 votes) vying for a position on a board comprising seven commissioners. Shukla, the NPA’s only park-board candidate of South Asian descent, came last among NPA candidates—5,779 votes behind the next-lowest NPA park-board candidate, Sharon Urton.
“Regarding a legal challenge, I don’t know, but I have always advocated a ward system,” Shukla told the Straight by phone. “There is something wrong there with the system. Last time in 1993, [original Punjabi Market Association president] Daljit Sidhu was a candidate with the NPA, and he was the only one who lost that time. Now with Kashmir, well, everybody else got 58,000 or 60,000 votes, except for Kashmir.”
Dhaliwal was almost 5,000 votes behind Vision councillor-elect Geoff Meggs, who garnered 49,538 votes in ninth place. (Meggs placed ahead of Woodsworth but well behind Vision’s top six councillors, who were all within the vote bracket Shukla described.)
Councillors are currently elected on a citywide basis from a large alphabetical list of candidates, rather than on a geographic basis, as would be the case with a ward system. Lawyer Jason Gratl told the Straight by phone that even in the event the “results of a vote are racist”, that does not warrant a challenge of the Vancouver Charter. However, he added: “If the entire election system is racist or sexist or homophobic, the system itself is subject to judicial review.”
He said this extends “in theory” to Vancouver’s at-large system.
“But in practice, a petitioner would have to demonstrate that the at-large system promotes racist results, either deliberately or accidentally,” said Gratl, former president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. “Is the candidate’s nonelection a consequence of nonracist voter preferences, racist voter preferences, or a system that empowers racial/racist preferences? Only in the latter case would a charter violation be found.”
COPE’s only school-board candidate of South Asian descent, 24-year-old Alvin Singh, came 2,227 votes behind the next-lowest COPE school-board candidate, Bill Bargeman, well outside the ninth spot on the board. Speaking to the Straight by phone, Singh said he is an opponent of the at-large system for “many reasons”.
However, he said, he is urging a nuanced and “careful” response when discussing a move to a ward system “if race is the motivation alone”.
“The only danger I foresee is a ghettoization of the political process, where you have South Asian people running in South Asian areas, because it’s the only place they can be successful,” Singh said.
In an earlier interview regarding Dhaliwal’s exclusion, Singh said: “I’m not going to be able to say whether or not there should be a legal challenge mounted.”¦I think there is a segment of the Punjabi community that is extraordinarily motivated. I think what we have also seen is some frustration about municipal politics, and a lot of the South Asian community has moved on to provincial and federal politics.”