Spencer McKay: Why Vancouver’s electoral system is broken

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      Free and fair elections are a basic aspect of democracy. Vancouver’s elections may be free, but are they fair?

      This November, many Vancouverites will check the election results only to find out that their votes did not count. This will not be the result of a miscount, electoral fraud, or faulty voting machines. Instead, it will be another illustration of our fundamentally flawed electoral process.

      Vancouver elects its city councillors, park commissioners, and school trustees through a system known as plurality-at-large, or block voting, that allows each voter in Vancouver to cast one vote per available seat. For example, since city council has 10 seats, each voter can select up to 10 candidates. However, such a system regularly distorts the preferences of citizens when most candidates are affiliated with political parties.

      Consider a city, Electiontown, with two political parties, Party A and Party B, and citizens choosing to vote along party lines. There are 10 seats, each party has 10 candidates, and each voter votes for all 10 candidates in his or her favoured party. If the overall tally of votes is 51 percent for Party A and 49 percent for Party B, Party A will fill all 10 seats and the 49 percent of citizens who voted for Party B will have no voice in Electiontown’s government. This is a winner-take-all vision of democracy that can lead to a tyranny of the majority, with no diversity of voices to benefit society or hold government accountable.

      The most recent municipal election in 2011 demonstrated how significantly flawed the current system is. In Burnaby, all the council seats went to one party, leaving 37 percent of the population without representation on council. In Vancouver, Vision Vancouver received 73 percent of council seats, despite only having won 53 percent of the popular vote while the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) only got 18 percent of the seats although they received 40 percent of the votes! In its plainest terms, this is inequality: each vote for the NPA is worth less than each vote for Vision Vancouver and a vote for a party that won no seats is worthless. Arguably the only reason that Vancouver does not suffer from Burnaby’s extreme results is that Vancouver’s dominant party chooses not to run enough candidates to fill every seat.

      To be clear, we are not upset that any particular party has won or lost elections. Rather, we are concerned about violations of democracy’s basic requirement that every citizen be treated equally. Elections determine who will represent citizens in governmental decision-making processes. One way to evaluate success in this regard is to determine if the composition of city council reflects the composition of the voter base. By this measure, the current system is a failure. Elections in Vancouver would be unrecognizable to Canadians across the country. Countries such as Mongolia had the good sense to abandon block voting, leaving Vancouver in the company of democratic stalwarts such as Laos and Syria.

      The City of Vancouver has announced that it wants to “give [voters] as many opportunities to be part of this year’s election as possible” by providing several days of advance voting and allowing voters to choose the most convenient polling booth in the city. Unfortunately, making it easier to access a broken system just means that more people will ultimately be disappointed by the process. Many Vancouverites are currently underrepresented, or not represented at all, because they had the gall to vote for a party that was unlikely to win the most votes.

      Vancouver can’t afford to be a first-class city with a second-rate democracy so Fair Vote Canada’s Vancouver chapter is launching its new campaign: Make Every Vote Count. We’re calling on candidates to announce their support for electoral reform and for voters to demand better. There are many ways of voting that produce proportional representation and any of them would improve democracy in Vancouver. It may be too late for 2014, but by 2018, we want to make every vote count!

      Spencer McKay is the public affairs coordinator for Fair Vote Canada’s Vancouver chapter, a grassroots, multi-partisan citizens’ campaign for voting system reform. He is also a PhD student in the department of political science at the University of British Columbia.

      Did you find a typo?




      Sep 19, 2014 at 10:50am

      We don't have proportional representation in any of our political systems. Although a different system than we have provincially and federally, the results are often the same. At a local level if I vote for MP candidate A who gets 48% of the vote she may lose to candidate B that got 52%. Does that mean my vote didn't count? No, my candidate was simply unsuccessful. On a macro level often a governing party (federal or provincial) will have lost the popular vote but have a majority of seats.

      So basically this is in no way a Vancouver specific issue. If you want advocate for proportional representation that's fine but don't misleadingly suggest this is an issue that's in any way unique to Vancouver.

      ursa minor

      Sep 19, 2014 at 11:34am

      Vancouver needs to grow up and adopt a ward system and implement campaign finance reform, even if it's in defiance of the provincial government. We need a City Hall that listens to voices of people who live and vote here, not real estate developers and other corporate interests who bankroll Vision and the NPA.

      Spare us the fear-mongering of how wards will put one part of the city against another - I'd rather have a system where there are trade offs among wards where Aldermen deal on the strength of their constituents rather than being dictated to by Councillors dealing on the strength of their corporate political party.

      Wards get the vote out - people are more likely to vote for a representative that they feel belongs to them, rather than picking from a thin selection of 'teams' that are really playing the same shell game for their donors.

      Fair Vote Canada - Vancouver

      Sep 19, 2014 at 12:16pm

      Just to clarify -- Fair Vote advocates for electoral reform at all levels of government. The current campaign is focused on Vancouver's civic elections since they are coming up shortly.


      Sep 19, 2014 at 12:30pm

      I've been living in Vancouver for 30 years and this argument comes up every year around election time, but it's never been strong enough for people to care much. I see more concern about voter apathy and maybe if we can get more people interested in voting, then they might have a better understanding of any flaws (real or perceived) in the system.

      Facts check

      Oct 29, 2014 at 3:15pm

      Let's look at the 'facts' as these are presented in the article using the 2011 statistics, and consider the 10 seats for Councillors (10/11 on City Council).

      Vision Vancouver received 413,879 votes
      A total of 790,594 votes were cast for other Council candidates.

      A total of 1,204,473 votes were cast.

      In other words, 34.36% of the total votes went to Vision candidates. Yet Vision elected 7 out of 10 City Councillors.

      Since the voter turnout was only 34.57%, a total of 11.88% of eligible votes went to electing a Vision Council majority.

      The system is broken. Wards are better. Proportional representation is better. We also need real campaign finance reform.