Democratically Improving Democracy in Vancouver

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Participation Monday, November 10, 2014 View Count = 1845

Democratically Improving Democracy in Vancouver


Today's guest post is from Spencer McKay, a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia and a member of Fair Vote Canada's Vancouver Chapter.

Municipal elections in Manitoba, Ontario and PEI have recently passed and voters in British Columbia will take to the polls on Nov. 15. The issue of electoral reform in Vancouver has received little attention in recent years but it looks as though the time is right for a citizens’ assembly on electoral reform.

Groups like RaBIT and Ottawa123 advocate for electoral reform in Toronto and Ottawa, and Canadians continue to notice disproportionately strong majorities and “wasted votes” in provincial and federal elections. The situation in Vancouver is, astoundingly, even more at odds with the democratic principles of political equality, and dissatisfied citizens should have a chance to fix the system.

Vancouver has a plurality-at-large system where the ballot allows every voter in the city to choose a candidate for every available seat. This year, voters can cast their ballots for ten of the forty-nine candidates – each representing parties, not wards – and the ten candidates with the most votes overall will win seats on council. If the most popular party was to run ten candidates and each of them received more votes than any other candidates, they would win every seat on council without majority support and with no opposition on council to hold the majority accountable. This isn't a hypothetical problem: every city councillor in neighbouring Burnaby is a member of the same party.

This unrepresentative and unwieldy system has previously led Vancouver to contemplate electoral reform. In 2004, the Vancouver Electoral Reform Commission, headed by retired Supreme Court judge Thomas Berger, held a series of public forums and recommended modifying the first-past-the-post electoral system to use wards. The same year, the British Columbia Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform recommended that provincial elections use the single transferable vote, a method of proportional representation. In the referenda that followed, both suggestions were rejected.

Electoral reform might actually succeed if Vancouver were to convene a citizens' assembly, a group of ordinary citizens brought together to study a problem and recommend a solution. In the past decade, citizens' assemblies in both Ontario and British Columbia overwhelmingly voted to recommend systems of proportional representation. While their recommendations were not adopted, it is hard to fault the assemblies since scholars have recognized citizens’ assemblies as healthy, democratic processes that produce good recommendations which failed largely due to a lack of public awareness.[1]

The most common suggestion of citizens’ assemblies, proportional representation, is a good one. The principle of proportional representation is that parties should receive a percentage of seats equal to the percentage of votes they receive. Proportional representation would ensure that the diversity of voices and perspectives present in Vancouver are reflected in its government. Ten years and three civic elections have passed since the last referendum and each time the composition of city council has systematically distorted the voices of voters. Five of the six parties running more than one candidate in Vancouver's current campaign have voiced support for adopting proportional representation in local elections; there is widespread disapproval of a system that egregiously corrupts democratic values.

The Vancouver Electoral Reform Commission of 2004 consulted with citizens but remained a top-down process. The vested interests and ideological considerations of politicians may prevent city council or the provincial government from agreeing upon a new electoral system. A citizens' assembly could overcome these obstacles and serve as an exciting example of democratic action in its own right by allowing assembly members to propose a system that would be fair, just, and acceptable to their fellow citizens. The City of Vancouver already has experience in this area as there is currently a citizens' assembly process taking place in the Grandview-Woodland neighborhood to generate recommendations for a community plan. A new city council will likely recognize the need for change and use lessons from past assemblies to ensure that a citizens’ assembly on electoral reform leads to healthy public debate about how Vancouverites vote.

It is certainly possible that a citizens’ assembly in Vancouver would not prescribe municipal proportional representation, but they would likely decide on something that is more democratic than the current arrangement. And, regardless of what they do prescribe, at least the people would have a say. In short, citizens shouldn't just elect their representatives, they should choose how they elect representatives—and the citizens’ assembly is a way we can make that happen right now.[2]

[1]    See When Citizens Decide (edited by Patrick Fournier et al.), Designing Deliberative Democracy, (edited by Mark Warren and Hilary Pearse), and “Supplementary democracy? Democratic deficits and citizens' assemblies” in Imperfect Democracies (edited by Patti Tamara Lenard and Richard Simeon).

[2]    See Dennis Thompson's “Who should govern who governs? The role of citizens in reforming the electoral system” in Designing Deliberative Democracy: The British Columbia Citizens' Assembly, edited by Mark E. Warren and Hilary Pearse. 

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