Here's how to get rid of Vancouver's racist at-large electoral system

The problem: Vancouver’s at-large electoral system is racist.

The proof: Almost every candidate with a South Asian surname has come last on his or her party’s slate in the past 18 years.

Options available to fix this problem:
a)  a court challenge, which would probably succeed
b)  a human-rights complaint, which would invariably be appealed to the courts, delaying a positive outcome
c)  a motion approved by council creating a ward system, which could be done in less than five minutes with sufficient political will

The barriers:
a)  Councillors don’t want to end the at-large system because it favours incumbents, who have greater name recognition.

b)  Some councillors live in the same neighbourhood, notably the Commercial Drive-Trout Lake area, so they have a vested interest in opposing a ward system because that could force them to either move or run against each other.

c)  Proponents of proportional representation loathe any sort of first-past-the-post system, so they will try to block a ward system.

d)  There is no legal mechanism within the Vancouver Charter for creating a proportional-representation system. So when people raise this issue, it delays an immediate solution to addressing the problem of a racist electoral system.  The only  remedy under the current law is  to create  a partial-ward or a full-ward system, which can be done through a council motion that must be  ratified by the provincial cabinet.

The solution:
The South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy and No One Is Illegal have been leading antiracist organizations in this region for a long time. They and other antiracist groups should educate themselves about how  the at-large system amounts to institutionalized racism (if they haven’t done so already). Then, they should notify the media and organize a protest on the steps of Vancouver City Hall on January 20 at 1:30 p.m. They could bring placards with phrases saying: “No more racism. No more at-large.” Or “I want my kid to have a chance to serve on city council.” They could invite SFU professor Kennedy Stewart to give a speech about how racist at-large systems were defeated in the United States. Veterans of past civil-rights battles, such as  retired SFU professor  Hari Sharma, could give speeches to inspire the younger people. Then at 2:05, the crowd could enter city hall, march up to the third floor, walk into the council chamber, and start chanting, “No more racism. No more at-large.” Then they could present a written demand to each councillor to pass a motion for a ward system in the City of Vancouver.

The outcome:
My guess is that there would be enough  members of council  who would feel sufficient shame about the city’s institutionalized racism that they would probably  pass a motion to  change the status quo. Eventually, it would mean that bright young people of South Asian descent could consider the possibility of serving the citizens as a member of Vancouver city council. Right now, that isn’t an option for them, which is a blemish on all of us.




Dec 11, 2008 at 5:27pm

While I don't disagree there are racial biases evidenced in this latest and previous Vancouver elections, I would not go so far as to claim all the results would be different in a ward system.

Near as I can tell there were racial biases, party biases, perhaps an alphabet bias too. Name bias? People with pleasant sounding names get votes.

How else can one explain Peter Raymond Haskell who ran for both Parks and School Board getting over ten thousand votes. Had a few of those votes gone to someone who actually knew something about the school system (Mr. Haskell can't possibly claim that he does) perhaps Clarence Hansen - the outgoing Chairperson of the Board - might have got more votes than Sophia Woo, a complete unknown.

Lakhbir Singh's biggest problem, near as I can tell, is that he didn't put face time into the election. Sure, some parents might have been able to see him hanging out in the halls during a Trustee debate, but near as I can tell (I attended three debates) Mr. Singh didn't participate in any forum where parents and school stakeholders might have learned why he wanted to run. Thus he benefitted from the "party bias", in receiving over thirty thousand votes, but not from the "we know you bias", which is of course the only bias that should really count.

Now whose fault is that, I wonder?

Another Singh, Alvin Singh, made sure he was available and spoke often during the election campaign. Because of what I heard, he got one of my votes.

I wasn't predisposed to voting for Alvin, not because of his last name, but because of "age bias"; listening to Alvin I quickly put any concern I had over his age aside.

Wards are not necessarily the answer, and perhaps we should first define what the problem is? In the case of school and parks boards, one of the problems voters face is a dearth of information about the many candidates and this problem is made no better by the relative lack of attention the media focuses on these other races.

Apologies for the long comment but let me close with this: aside from party bias, I'd say the number one other "bias" influencing people's votes is "random choice of inoffensive sounding names" bias.

It has been weeks and I'm still wondering how in the world Haskell and some of these more "out there" candidates garnered as many votes as they did. Clearly it wasn't based on their profiles in the voter information brochure!


Travis Lupick

Dec 11, 2008 at 5:41pm

"People with pleasant sounding names get votes."

Can I ask what your criteria is for a "pleasant sounding" name?

Charlie Smith

Dec 11, 2008 at 8:59pm

At the risk of being stoned by the pro-rep fanatics, I will say this: STV is far from perfect for the following reasons:
a) It is predicated on larger districts, which gives more influence to wealthier and more conservative voters who are more apt to turn out on election day.
b) STV is a multi-member system; the B.C. Supreme Court struck down dual-member constituencies in the 1980s, so there could be legal issues that arise.
c) STV could have the exact same effect as the at-large system in a Vancouver municipal election by shutting out certain groups from ever getting representation in the council chamber.

I suspect there could be a greater than 50-50 chance that the courts will not uphold STV. I don't know why the premier won't submit it to the court on a reference before the referendum next May. The only explanation I can think of is that he knows that the B.C. Liberals will benefit more than the NDP under an STV system.


Dec 11, 2008 at 10:22pm

Travis "random choice" 'bias' must certainly exist - its the only context which explains the return some candidates received. As for "inoffensive / pleasant sounding names" -- that's an influence which I suspect is there, because even if you've got the most ill-informed voter randomly choosing names I have to assume there'll be a selection bias and if so, of course it will be in the eye of the beholder, so to speak, what seems pleasant or less threatening.

Personally I prefer to learn about the candidates and pick them the old fashioned way, based on merit alone.

Bottom line: I agree with at least part of the premise of Charlie's article - that there is a racial bias evident in voting patterns in this city. I'm not sure that wards is an answer, perhaps because of the irony entailed in proposing a system that would perhaps allow some candidates to *better* exploit their cultural community for votes, in order to overcome racial bias.

How about next election we have a more fulsome discussion of the merits of every candidate of every race, not just the one big job? That seems to me to be the very best way to start knocking down remaining cultural barriers.

Antony Hodgson

Dec 12, 2008 at 10:57am

I don't know if Charlie Smith actually knows any of us 'pro-rep fanatics', but I suspect he'd find that we're a lot more thoughtful than he gives us credit for. Personally, I think that wards have several advantages over our current at-large voting system, which I regard as the worst of all possible voting systems since it often gives a plurality of the voters (often as few as 40% or even less) the ability to elect a whole slate of candidates, thereby ensuring that the other 60% of voters have little or no representation on council. Add to that the fact that Indo-Canadian candidates typically get only 70-80% of the votes of the average candidate on their slate, and you have a recipe for poor overall representation.

Nonetheless, wards are not without their problems. With more than two parties contesting a seat, winners tend to win with about 40% of the vote, so again we have 60% of voters not being represented on council. There are also concerns about excessively parochial politics under a ward system. On the other hand, wards would ensure that there was better geographical balance and likely a wider variety of parties represented, so it is certainly a proposal worth considering.

My biggest concern with Smith's proposal, however, is that it currently lacks public legitimacy - a ward system was recently turned down in a referendum. It would be paternalistic and damaging to civic democracy if council were to claim voters were mistaken and to over-ride their choice arbitrarily, especially since there are numerous voting systems available which, in my opinion, can address the concerns Smith raises Also, this issue does not have to be resolved immediately - we have three years until the next election - though it would be prudent to BEGIN immediately). I would therefore call on the new city council to select and commit themselves to an electoral reform process which would run its course in plenty of time to be implemented for the 2011 elections. Both Vision and COPE have expressed support for electoral reform efforts. COPE favours a council-led consultation and/or a Mayor’s task force followed by a referendum. Vision would prefer to strike an independent commission (1st choice) or a citizens’ assembly, but would also support a council committee, and would prefer to submit the result to a referendum but believes that council would also be able to make this decision directly (see statements by the different parties at

I would therefore suggest that SANSD and NOII march on city hall and demand this reform process. I'm sure that Fair Voting BC would fully support them.

Antony Hodgson
Director, Fair Voting BC
Supporting the recommendation of the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform
Check for information on the May 12th referendum

Antony Hodgson

Dec 12, 2008 at 11:49am

I won't attempt to stone Charlie Smith :), but his arguments against STV are either incorrect, weak or incomplete.

I've already rebutted his argument about west side/east side differences in turnout at the provincial level (the average participation rate on the east side (Fraserview, Kensington, Kingsway, Hastings and Mount Pleasant) was 54% in 2005 while on the west side (Burrard, Fairview, Quilchena, Point Grey and Langara) it was 56%, so there is more myth than reality about east-west differences in provincial elections - see for more details; Smith has never responded to this argument). He may have more of a point at the civic level, but this is easily addressed under STV simply by creating a westside district and an eastside district (and maybe a downtown district) - this will ensure that the councilor to population ratio will be approximately constant regardless of turnout within each district.

The Supreme Court decision in the 1980's (Dixon v BC) Smith refers to was primarily about the discrepancies in the population represented by each MLA (a 15-fold difference between Atlin and the Lower Mainland). Premier Vanderzalm eliminated dual-member ridings for other more political reasons.

I think Smith misunderstands how STV works when he claims that it would shut out certain groups. It would have exactly the opposite effect by ensuring that any candidate who wins about 10,000 votes would be elected. An Indo-Canadian candidate would no longer have to win votes from 40,000 voters from all across Vancouver, but could concentrate on winning about half the votes from a portion of the city where they are better known. This should make it much easier to get elected.

Finally, Smith persists in believing that STV is some kind of right wing plot, when in fact it is scrupulously fair to all parties. At the provincial level, he should consider how likely it is that the NDP will ever win in the Fraser Valley or the Okanagan under our current system. Yes, there will be places (like the east side of Vancouver) where the Liberals will gain seats, but there will be other places where the NDP will make inroads. BC-STV is designed to be proportional, so we'll never again have a situation like in 2001 where the opposition was nearly entirely wiped out.

Antony Hodgson
Director, Fair Voting BC
Supporting the recommendation of the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform
Check for information on the May 12th referendum

Charlie Smith

Dec 12, 2008 at 4:56pm

I suggest you look at Kennedy Stewart's master's thesis, which listed voting turnout in Vancouver municipal elections (yes, we are talking about a municipal contest, which is usually of greater interest to property owners than renters). It's not appropriate to overlay provincial turnout rates on a municipal election because provincial voters are motivated by a wide range of issues. Three things to consider:

1. The Vancouver Charter has three options: at-large, mixed wards and at-large, or a full ward system. There is no pro-rep option, so anytime the discussion turns to pro-rep in municipal elections, it just delays dealing with the racist at-large system.

2. The first order of business should be to get rid of this racist at-large system as soon as possible. It's outrageous that in 2008, a resident of Vancouver would decline to put his name forward for public office because his surname would preclude him from having a chance of winning.

3. After the at-large system is dumped, then the discussion can move to whether it should be wards or proportional representation or a combination of both. The provincial government can amend the Vancouver Charter (which it will never ever do without years of discussion with the Union of BC Municipalities) to make pro-rep possible. But if we wait for that to happen as a precursor to doing anything, we'll probably all be dead and buried before the at-large system is replaced.

By the way, I think it's a shame that someone has to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a court challenge because our Indo-Canadian attorney general is either too lazy or too incompetent to change the law to eliminate discrimination against his fellow Indo-Canadians. It's absurd that a Caucasian journalist at a weekly paper has to embarrass him and his friends in cabinet to do the right thing when this very same attorney general has probably endured enormous racism himself. There have been times when I've wondered if his own family surname has been anglicized (Uppal is a much more common Punjabi Sikh name than Oppal) to pave his way forward in the world. But I'm not going to make a big deal out of this ironic twist to the at-large story apart from suggesting this: maybe Lakhbir Singh should change his name to Lucky Sang before the next provincial election, because it could just help him make it into cabinet.


Dec 15, 2008 at 7:44pm

The entire electoral process at the municipal level in Vancouver needs revamping. Party politics at the municipal level?? Nonsense. A bottleneck in the system thats really slows the wheels of progress down.
A ward system makes the most sense as the electorate know exactly who their councillor is and who is responsible to them.
Party polictics at the municipal level is just another example of the narrow mindedness of the west coast.

Antony Hodgson

Dec 17, 2008 at 8:00pm

Hi Charlie,

I do understand the differences in turnout at the provincial and municipal levels (my previous comment was in response to an article of yours about the provincial proposal - I'd still be interested in hearing what you think about that) and I did acknowledge the possible validity of your concern about the different turnout rates at the municipal level in different parts of the city (contrary to your implication, I didn't suggest that it was appropriate to apply provincial turnout rates to city elections, but simply used that example to point out that the concern you expressed might not turn out to be as significant as predicted).

In any case, since then, I've conducted an analysis of the 2008 city election and trust you'll be interested in the results. I divided the city into four zones - Downtown (including the West End, Yaletown and the DTES polls 1-18 - see for details of locations), East Side North (polls 22-54), East Side South (polls 57-94) and West Side (polls 95-142). These zones respectively contained 15%, 22%, 28% and 35% of the city's registered voters (or 1.5, 2.2, 2.8 and 3.5 seats' worth of votes, if influence were evenly distributed). The turnout in the different zones was 20% in Downtown, 28% in ESN, 26% in ESS, and 30% on the west side, so there is definitely a difference, but it shouldn't be exaggerated - the influence of Downtown, as measured by the ratio of percentage of voters there to percentage of registered voters, is 75% of the citywide average, while the influence of the west side is 111% of the citywide average. The east side, excluding Downtown, has 100% of the citywide average influence. This would be the worst-case scenario if STV were applied citywide in a single large 10-member district - the DTES would have 25% less influence than under a ward system and the West Side would have 11% more.

However, you will recall that I suggested that if we were to use STV at the city level, it would probably be more reasonable to have several wards. Based on the numbers above, we could imagine a 2-seat Downtown district (maybe including another 10 polls along the waterfront and including Chinatown and the area just east of there), a 4-seat Eastside district (also maybe ~10 polls smaller than I've picked above, achievable by shifting the west of Main polls to the Westside district), and a 4-seat Westside district. With the poll adjustments I've discussed, each district would have a nearly equal ratio of registered voters to councillors (you could do a similar thing to produce a near-equal ratio of population to councillors, if you preferred). Under this scenario, there would be no impact of differential turnout on representation.

Re: your other points.

I agree that the way our current voting system treats Indo-Canadians is outrageous, and I also agree that legally speaking we could switch to a ward system tomorrow; personally, I would prefer that to our at-large system, but I don't think it's optimal. You argued that we should switch to wards first and then consider other options. I think this is unrealistic for three reasons:

a) If we make one change, voters will be unwilling to have us change again immediately. We should consider the options carefully, make the change we want, and then live with it for a while.

b) As I pointed out last time, your suggestion has little public legitimacy. The voters turned wards down in a referendum in 2004.

c) We don't have to change to wards right away in any case - we have three years before the next civic election. Assuming that we start soon, we have 1-2 years to conduct a reasonable public process to produce a recommendation and another year to get the necessary changes made to the Charter. One possible outcome of this process might be an agreement to use wards or a combination of wards and at-large in the 2011 election as an interim measure if it looks as if the Charter changes will take too long. At least now we have a council which is on record as wanting to do something about electoral reform. In fact, Raymond Louie recently sent me a note saying that "we must press forward on changes to the way Civic elections are conducted. I think that it will be councillor Chow that will be lead on this issue but as soon as we are a bit more settled we will let you know." I suggest you press the new council to take some concrete steps on this. I know that most of the Fair Voting BC supporters in Vancouver would be delighted to take part in such a process.

Antony Hodgson
Director, Fair Voting BC
Supporting the recommendation of the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform
Check for information on the May 12th referendum