Replacing Vancouver’s antiquated voting system is an unfinished conversation that has lingered without resolution for almost 50 years.
In a previous article, I looked at the problems of Vancouver’s at-large voting system, and summarized the major alternatives: the ward system and proportional representation (PR). I ultimately argued that it would be best for Vancouver to adopt a form of PR for its elections.
If PR would result in fairer elections, what is preventing Vancouver from adopting such a voting system?
The Vancouver Charter—the statute that gives Vancouver more and different powers than other municipalities in B.C.—acts as a legal obstacle. The two most common types of PR would violate the current wording of the charter, and thus an amendment to the charter by the province would be required before Vancouver could adopt a PR voting system.
Efforts have been made by the city to encourage the B.C. government to amend the charter. In 2004, the Vancouver Electoral Reform Commission, led by former B.C. Supreme Court judge Thomas Berger, recommended “that the Charter should be amended so as to permit systems of proportional representation to be tried in the city should Council and Vancouverites decide to do so.” In the decade since, Vancouver’s city council has passed several motions asking the province to amend the charter accordingly. Unfortunately, the B.C. Liberal government has been unwilling to do so.
How supportive of PR has Vancouver’s current governing party been? When Vision Vancouver came to power in 2008, it was perceived as being an ardent proponent of municipal voting reform—and perhaps to a lesser degree, of PR specifically. For example, Vision’s 2008 election campaign platform included “reforming our electoral process”. That commitment later expanded in the form of Mayor Gregor Roberton promising to hold an electoral-system plebiscite during the subsequent 2011 municipal election. According to Kennedy Stewart, then an associate professor at SFU’s School of Public Policy (and subsequently an NDP member of Parliament), Mayor Robertson said that he preferred a “mixed electoral system”. Stewart suggested such a system was “best explained as a mixed-member proportional system (MMP)”—a type of PR. Additionally, councillor Andrea Reimer made frequent comments, particularly in early 2009, in favour of MMP.
However, by October 2009, Vision councillor Kerry Jang had distanced the party from voting-system reform, stating that the matter was “just not hot on people’s agenda”. He said that the party instead wanted to advocate for a more “comprehensive package” of electoral reform that included campaign finance and disclosure rules. As such, the promised 2011 plebiscite on Vancouver’s voting system did not materialize.
Since then, Vision’s statements about PR have been carefully crafted to appear supportive of PR without explicitly advocating for it. For example, Vision’s current policy is “that any change to the electoral system should be done through a binding city-wide plebiscite, and that this should not occur until such time as the provincial government approves PR to be an option in that plebiscite.”
When I recently asked Vision councillor Reimer—the party’s lead on electoral reform—which voting system she thought would be best for Vancouver, she refrained from declaring her preference, and instead stated that “without knowing what options the provincial government is prepared to allow, it's impossible to say which potential option would be the best one.” Much like Councillor Jang back in late 2009, Councillor Reimer emphasized that campaign-finance reform is a “critical pre-requisite” for electoral reform.
With Vision now waiting for the province to amend the Vancouver Charter before taking any significant action on municipal-voting reform, are any developments likely to occur from the B.C. government? Probably not. The B.C. Liberals have shown zero interest in Vancouver’s requests over the past decade to have more choice in its voting system.
In late 2009, the province launched the Local Government Elections Task Force. It released a report in May 2010 which contained public feedback for improving local elections, including the topic of “implementing alternative voting systems (such as proportional representation).” 89 emails were received stating that “choice of voting system should be top priority”. Despite acknowledging the public’s desire for municipalities to have more voting-system choice, the task force’s report otherwise completely ignored the subject and did not make any recommendations for change.
When I recently contacted Minister of Community Coralee Oakes about the provincial government’s position on municipal voting-system choice, I received a prepared statement from the ministry reiterating that the government will only act upon the task force’s recommendations. Interestingly, I noticed that the statement referred to recently-enacted reforms as being “the biggest changes to local elections legislation in 20 years”—and one gets the feeling that it might be another 20 years before the B.C. Liberals show any interest in giving municipalities greater choice in their voting system.
What would the B.C. NDP do if they form government in 2017? I recently spoke with Gary Holman, the NDP’s shadow minister for democratic reform, who emphasized that the party has not yet formed a position on electoral-system choice for municipalities. However, Holman was willing to share some of his personal, preliminary thoughts on the matter.
“If we support giving the people of B.C. the chance to vote again on the provincial electoral system, we should afford that opportunity certainly to Vancouver, which has its own charter,” said Holman. “Our willingness to put it on the table provincially means that we open the door to discussing these changes at the local level.”
Holman did note that “the devil is in the details”, and expressed some “concerns about variation, such as if Vancouver takes STV [single-transferable vote] and Surrey takes MMP [mixed-member proportional].” (STV and MMP are the two most popular forms of PR.)
Holman also felt that a referendum should be utilized prior to Vancouver switching to PR, noting that it would be “problematic” for a “false-majority” council (one that has received less than 50 percent of the popular vote) to unilaterally implement such a change.
While the B.C. NDP might become supportive of giving municipalities more choice regarding their voting system, it won’t be until at least 2017 that the NDP could form a provincial government—meaning that PR will continue to remain an elusive prospect in Vancouver for at least several more years.
But what about other, lesser-known electoral systems that only offer partial PR? Could these be used by Vancouver in the interim without violating the city’s charter?
Stuart Parker, a prominent supporter of voting-system reform, informed me that he has consulted with several lawyers, all of whom are of the opinion that Vancouver could adopt three electoral systems that offer a certain degree of PR. These include cumulative vote (CV), limited vote (LV), and single non-transferable vote (SNTV).
“From a legal perspective, I would say there is a 100 per cent chance that LV and SNTV would survive a legal challenge by the province,” wrote Parker in an email. “That's because Canada has historically used LV and SNTV in plurality elections, in addition to [Vancouver Charter] section 138 clearly permitting these in a plain-language reading.
“I would rate the chances of CV surviving at about 95 per cent, given that the legal opinion permitting it under plurality elections comes from the U.S. and not Canada's past. Still, it is clearly permitted in a plain-language reading of the [charter]."
Fair Voting B.C. president Antony Hodgson agrees.
“I believe that CV, LV and SNTV would all pass legal muster, in the sense of them all being compliant with the relevant Charter provisions,” wrote Hodgson in an email.
CV, LV, and SNTV are considered to be “semi-proportional” voting systems. They address many of the problems inherent in at-large and ward voting.
So should the City of Vancouver launch a city-wide referendum about adopting a semi-proportional voting system?
Although Vancouver councillor Reimer and B.C. NDP shadow minister Holman both feel that electoral-system change should involve a referendum, not all electoral-reform proponents share that opinion. Parker argued that a change should be made immediately, and referenced how U.S. courts have struck down the at-large voting system in hundreds of American municipalities due to its tendency to produce discriminatory results.
“The best process to achieve [electoral-system] reform is for city council to enact it, based on principle, guided by expert advice,” argued Parker. “Equal, effective representation is a human-rights issue disproportionately affecting identifiable groups such as people of South Asian descent…. There is no excuse for delay.”
Fair Voting B.C.’s Hodgson shared Parker’s viewpoint, and wrote in an email that “a courageous council would be fully within their rights to pass a motion to implement one of these [semi-PR voting systems].”
If Vancouverites are interested in supporting an eventual change to a full PR voting system, Councillor Reimer suggests that people should “write to their MLA, the Premier, and Minister Oakes; request meetings with their MLA; and make others they know in the community aware that this is an issue that needs provincial approval.”
Fair Voting B.C. president Hodgson also suggests contacting the province.
“Given Victoria's silence on this matter, I do think that it would be useful to step up efforts,” wrote Hodgson. “I strongly encourage people to visit the 'Our City—Our Charter' website (ourcity-ourcharter.ca) to express their support for Vancouver's repeated demands for [electoral-system] change.”
Regarding what people can do to encourage Vancouver to adopt a semi-proportional voting system in the interim, Parker is currently planning a campaign with the Movement for Voter Equality (MoVE) that will launch in November 2015—soon after the conclusion of the next federal election.
“We are gathering names, lining up expert legal and mathematical advice, and networking with other voting reform and racial justice groups with whom we hope to cooperate,” wrote Parker. “People are encouraged to contact MoVE about helping out with this prep work—but, with a federal election next year, not wanting to pull energy away from Fair Vote Canada’s major campaign, we are disinclined to do anything to detract from their efforts at mobilizing every electoral reformer in the country around getting a pro-PR parliamentary majority.
“When we launch next November, we will be launching with an already-drafted bylaw reviewed by lawyers, mathematicians and political scientists that we will ask the city to pass.”