There has been considerable discussion recently about whether Vancouver should change its plurality-at-large electoral system. The topic is certainly not novel to the city, as this debate has been stumbling along without resolution since at least 1968.
Vancouver has used the at-large system for its elections since 1936. While this voting system does have some redeeming qualities, such as encouraging councillors to maintain a city-wide perspective and avoid parochialism, at-large unfortunately has numerous downsides. Extremely long ballots that feature upwards of 120 names make it impossible for even the most committed of voters to learn about all of the candidates in detail. At-large also skews geographic representation, as several politicians who live in one area of the city may get elected, while other areas might not elect any of their local candidates.
Under at-large voting, financially-impoverished neighbourhoods usually find themselves with less representation due to lower voter turnout. At-large also makes it nearly impossible for independent candidates to get elected, as they must campaign across the entire city at considerable expense, and they are often an afterthought for citizens who vote by slate due to the incredibly long ballot. Additionally, the at-large electoral system has made it extremely difficult for candidates of South Asian descent and other minorities to get elected in Vancouver; the system’s tendency to hinder certain groups from getting elected has led to American courts forcing hundreds of U.S. municipalities to abandon at-large voting.
Whenever the subject of changing the voting system is raised here in Vancouver, the antidote usually proposed is wards. This system involves carving the city up into numerous areas, with candidates contesting only one area, rather than the entire city. It is similar to how we elect our provincial and federal politicians, by voting for one candidate within our local area.
Wards have numerous advantages over our current at-large system. Neighbourhood representation is much stronger—politicians formally represent one part of the city, thus ensuring that no area is unrepresented. It is also much easier for independent politicians to get elected, as they only need to solicit voters within one area of the city—significantly decreasing the number of votes needed to be elected. Campaigning in a single ward, rather than across the entire city, also greatly reduces the cost of getting elected. A ward system would also result in a much shorter ballot, making it easier for voters to learn about all candidates.
Unfortunately, the ward system also has numerous problems. As with the current at-large system (and our provincial and federal voting systems), wards would cause numerous votes to be “wasted”, and would still result in unproportional election results. Further, wards would pressure Vancouverites into strategic voting, rather than voting for whom they most support—even more than the current at-large system. Detractors of the ward system also argue that councillors would become increasingly focused on neighbourhood issues to the detriment of their city-wide perspective. Further, it would be much easier for individual politicians to remain in power for a long time (sometimes several decades) under the ward system, as popular politicians become ensconced within personal “fiefdoms” that other candidates have difficulty overcoming.
During Vancouver’s first 50 years, our elections almost exclusively featured the ward system, prior to the city switching over to at-large in the mid-1930s. Since 1973, Vancouver has held six referenda on switching away from the at-large system. Three of these resulted in the majority of voters asking for change, but the voting system was not replaced due to the province demanding a 60 percent supermajority threshold. In 2004, the most recent referendum, the ward system was narrowly rejected by Vancouver voters.
Shortly after the recent 2014 Vancouver election, voters were asked by polling company Insights West how they felt about the city’s at-large electoral system. The majority expressed a desire for change, as 52 percent opted for a shift to the ward system, while only 19 percent wanted to retain the current at-large system. However, the question only offered two system choices: at-large or wards. In reality, there are numerous options—some of which are arguably much better and have far fewer downsides than at-large and wards.
Proportional representation (PR) is achieved when a political party is awarded a percentage of seats that closely reflects the percentage of votes it receives. Electoral systems that result in PR are a solution to one of the major flaws of both at-large and ward systems: unproportional election results that lead to “wasted” votes, strategic voting, and false-majorities (i.e. parties receive less than 50 percent of the votes yet win more than 50 percent of the seats and thus have 100 percent of the power). PR voting systems would also likely result in the election of a more proportional number of East Vancouver candidates, as well as candidates of South Asian and other minority backgrounds who tend to struggle under the current at-large system.
The two most common types of PR electoral systems are single-transferable vote (STV) and mixed-member proportional (MMP). Under STV, voters rank multiple candidates; under MMP, voters make one vote for a local candidate and one vote for a political party.
When voting systems are objectively scrutinized, PR is virtually always recommended as the best option. In the past dozen years, there have been nine commissions or citizen assemblies created by governments in Canada, and all of them suggested moving to PR voting systems. Additionally, the Law Commission of Canada released a report in 2004 that proposed using PR for Canada’s elections.
At the national level, the vast majority of the world’s established democracies use a form of PR for their elections. Most countries that still use first-past-the-post voting (the category that includes at-large and wards) were heavily influenced by British imperialism; however, most of the major Commonwealth countries have already partly or fully moved to PR, including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India. Most of the remaining Commonwealth countries that still exclusively use first-past-the-post are located in Africa and the Caribbean.
Even the United Kingdom, the birthplace and major exporter of first-past-the-post, has already ventured down the path to adopting PR: three of its members—Scotland, Wales, and North Ireland—now use PR for local elections and European elections. Canada and the USA are the last two major democracies still dominated by first-past-the-post voting—but even the USA has a couple of municipalities that use PR. Canada is now the only major democracy on the planet to have not adopted PR at all; we are perhaps the electoral equivalent of how the Americans refuse to adopt the superior metric system.
To be fair, no electoral system is perfect, including the various forms of PR. Two of the main criticisms of PR are that it creates larger electoral ridings and larger ballots than what Canadians are used to using in our provincial and federal elections. However, in both cases, PR would be a marked improvement over Vancouver’s at-large system—adopting PR would result in the creation of smaller electoral areas and much simpler ballots than what Vancouver currently uses for city elections. For this reason, Vancouver’s municipal elections are perhaps the best place in all of Canada to adopt a PR voting system.
Vancouver’s political parties should be vociferously advocating for a switch to a PR voting system, as most of them have fallen victim to unproportional election results. For example: in 2008, the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) received 38 percent of the councillor votes, yet was only awarded 10 percent of seats. In both 2011 and 2014, the NPA received more councillor votes than Vision Vancouver, yet the NPA ended up with much fewer councillors than Vision.
It’s not just the NPA that has suffered under Vancouver’s unproportional voting system. COPE earned more than 10 percent of the councillor vote in 2011 and 2014—enough for one councillor under a proportional system—yet didn’t elect anyone due to our current at-large voting system. In 2005, COPE received 21 percent of the votes, yet only received 10 percent of the seats.
Vision Vancouver has fared extremely well under the current at-large electoral system, with the party electing an unproportionally large number of councillors compared to the votes it received over the last four elections. However, if Vision’s popularity declines between now and 2018, that previous electoral advantage would likely become a disadvantage.
The 2014 park board election was perhaps a preview of this: Vision received almost 32 percent of the votes yet only 11 percent of the park commissioner seats, while the NPA was just narrowly ahead with 33 percent of the vote yet received four times as many seats as Vision. It would arguably be in Vision’s interest if Vancouver were to adopt a PR voting system prior to the next municipal election in 2018, lest they too fall victim to the skewed results of at-large voting.
In my follow-up to this article, I will look at the legal obstacles preventing Vancouver from switching to a PR voting system, including the rarely-heard argument that some forms of PR could be adopted without having to amend the Vancouver Charter.