Jean Swanson: Voter turnout in Vancouver should be higher than 11 percent

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      As a candidate in the Vancouver city council by-election this month, I lived and breathed the election for two-and-a-half months.

      Let’s be realistic, not everyone can afford to do that. We have caring responsibilities, jobs, and lives to lead.  

      But still, voting can be important if there are people who run and try to make changes that would make your life better.

      For example, politicians brought us medicare, they bring us community centres and swimming pools. They bring us public schools and buses to ride.  

      Politicians could bring us more affordable housing, end the opioid crisis, and end homelessness. And politicians could tackle global warming effectively.

      So a lot of folks are feeling that the 11 percent turnout in Vancouver’s October by-election was pretty dismal. But let’s look more closely at what happened.

      The city, which usually sends out voter cards and tells people where to vote just before the election, didn’t this time.

      The city didn’t put mobile polls in long-term care facilities like they usually do.

      The city didn’t have a poll at the Carnegie Centre, in the heart of the poorest neighbourhood in the city, like it usually does, forcing people to walk blocks to the nearest polling station.

      The city only put one voting machine in polls; there needed to be more to reduce voting lineups. Some people left because they couldn’t wait.

      What could we do next time to actually increase voter turnout and improve civic democracy while we’re at it?

      We need to get developer and corporate money out of elections. Candidates should rely on individual supporters to fund their campaigns. And there should be limits on how much one person can donate to a campaign. The point is to make it so no candidate depends on any single person or interest for their election.

      Second, we need a ward system. With a ward system candidates wouldn’t have to spend so much money getting their message out because they would be appealing to a smaller number of people. People who have roots in community work would gain an advantage. And every neighbourhood would be sure to have at least one person on council sticking up for them, which isn’t the case today.

      Third, we have 60,000 permanent residents living, working, playing, and paying taxes in Vancouver. They should be able to vote in city elections.

      Then there is the issue of voter registration. Back in the 1980s the city hired people to go door to door to register people to vote. This raised awareness of the election for everyone, and it got more tenants, who move more often than owners, on the list. We should bring back door-to-door voter enumeration.

      And there is the fact that nonresident property owners get to vote twice, once in the place they live and once where they own property. This entitlement should be scrapped so only residents can vote in city elections. Residents pay taxes and benefit from city services. Nonresident owners only pay taxes and that shapes their view of what politicians should be doing with their money.

      We have a "sort-of" democracy, but it’s badly deficient. The rules of our democracy determine whether or not all have a chance to participate. We need to use the democracy we do have to change some of those rules so everyone really does have a good chance to become aware of elections and vote in them. Maybe we could even have free transit on voting day, like we have on New Year’s Eve.

      Whatever it takes, we must do better. The next municipal elections are only one year away. We should be aiming for at least a 50 or 60 percent voter turnout. I believe we can do it. 

      Jean Swanson is a long-time antipoverty activist, author, and former candidate for Vancouver city council.

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