If province doesn't act, Kennedy Stewart will consider court challenge against city's at-large voting system

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      As a graduate student and as an SFU professor of public policy, Kennedy Stewart has spent an enormous amount of time researching electoral reform.

      For decades, the independent mayoral candidate has been criticizing Vancouver's at-large voting system, in particular, as a racist anachronism.

      In Stewart's opinion, it ensures that people of privilege and wealth retain a disproportionate influence over civic affairs.

      After being elected as an NDP MP in Burnaby in 2011, Stewart continued advocating for electoral reform at the federal level.

      But his efforts were stymied by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who famously—and falsely—said that the 2015 election would be the last to rely on the first-past-the-post system. Trudeau broke his promise on electoral reform.

      In a recent interview at the Georgia Straight office, Stewart said it's "weird" that he would have to become mayor of Vancouver to finally achieve electoral reform and dump the at-large system. 

      "But I will do everything I can to do that," Stewart promised. "In fact, I would also consider legal challenges as well, if I'm blocked."

      He also declared that the 2018 election will be the last in Vancouver that will be held under the at-large system.

      Under the at-large system, voters can cast ballots for up to 10 councillors. They are elected on a citywide basis rather than through proportional representation or in neighbourhood constituencies.

      His platform states that if voters in Vancouver support proportional representation in the upcoming provincewide referendum, he will push for this type of a legislative chamber for Vancouver.

      "I imagine mixed-member proportional would be the best," Stewart said. "That would be the one I would favour, but we would consult afterwards."

      He insisted that the Vancouver Charter does not allow for proportional representation. As a result, he said that he would seek an amendment from the province if he's elected.

      Not everyone agrees with him on the need for this provincial approval.

      Proudly Surrey council candidate and former B.C. Green leader Stuart Parker thinks three forms of proportional representation can be introduced at the civic level through a motion by city council. 

      Parker believes that unlike PR systems involving party lists or STV, the following three approaches would withstand legal challenges: cumulative vote (CV), limited vote (LV), and single non-transferable vote (SNTV).

      "Kennedy's position on voting reform is classic @VisionVancouver deception: find a way to place something outside your jurisdiction so you can shirk all responsibility for delivering it and blame others," Parker tweeted.

      After the Straight brought forth Parker's viewpoint, Stewart reiterated his contention that no form of proportional representation may be introduced in Vancouver without an amendment to the Vancouver Charter.

      If Vancouver voters reject proportional representation, Stewart said he will then try to persuade council to support the introduction of a ward system. This would permit a citizen to vote for the mayor and one councillor in their geographic district. 

      Under section 138 of the Vancouver Charter, council can introduce a motion to change the voting system from at-large to wards.

      However, this must be approved by the provincial cabinet before it can be adopted.

      The Vision Vancouver–controlled council never introduced such a motion during its 10 years with a majority.

      This is despite numerous court decisions in the United States declaring that multi-member districts like Vancouver's at-large system discriminate against minorities and are unconstitutional.

      Stewart said that curbing discrimination is one of the reasons he advocates for electoral reform.

      "If you talk to concentrated visible-minority communities, they need more access to power," he stated.

      If the provincial cabinet decided not to allow Vancouver city council to make this change, he is prepared to use the city's resources to launch a legal challenge.

      That would involve invoking democratic- and equality-rights sections in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and seeking a judicial declaration that Vancouver's system is unconstitutional.

      To Stewart, it's all about fairness.

      "Think about when Vancouver gets to 800,000 people," he said. "How can you run as a park commissioner with no money? It really dilutes your opportunity to talk to people in an election.

      "But if you're in a neighbourhood—whether that's through PR or whether it's through just neighbourhood constituencies—then you can. It's all about improving democracy and reinforcing democracy."