Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Municipal Elections and Slates

Just in time for the municipal elections, some food for thought.

Currently, New Westminster municipal politics is pretty non-partisan, notwithstanding the fact that "Labour" apparently supports some council candidates.

There are moves afoot, however, to change this. "Voice" is clearly creating a "slate", and is using the word "slate" to describe those candidates supported by Labour. In so doing, Voice is creating an "us versus them" conversation, where none existed previously.

I think this is a really, really unfortunate development. As slates become established, democracy is seriously compromised. Why?

It has to do with the very crappy way we vote. All BC municipalities vote using a "plurality-at-large" or "block voting" system. You know how this works. There's a single pool of candidates (no "ridings", or, as they are known in local politics, "wards"), and every voter gets as many crosses to mark as there are seats on council. Those candidates collecting the most X's are elected. This sounds simple, but has unfortunate side effects, which are most clearly visible in some of our neighbouring municipalites: Burnaby and Vancouver.

Block voting regularly produces total landslides for slates with the highest level of support (note: "highest level" does not mean "majority". Majority means 50% or more.). This has been happening in Burnaby and Vancouver for years; a single slate totally dominates the Park Board, the Mayor's Office, the Council, and the School Board, and the number of seats they obtain on each body is far in excess of their share of the popular vote. As people start voting more for the "slate" and less for the person (which happens naturally as slates get more press and become more "normal"), this tendency gets worse and worse. The cynic in me has a hard time believing that Voice does not realize this.

In addition, it is very difficult under such a system for minorities to gain representation. Typically minority candidates, even if part of a slate, will get fewer votes than their non-minority running mates, and they will not be elected. This is a real problem in Vancouver, for instance, where, despite years of trying, and with a large constituency, no Indo-Canadian has ever made it to Council.

To quote Wikipedia, "the block vote causes a total distortion of democratic principles, so it was gradually ... eliminated". In Canada, only BC uses it in municipal elections. All other Canadian cities use a ward system.

Individual cities cannot change anything about the way they vote (which might include such options as moving to preferential balloting, electronic voting, or a ward system). Municipal elections are run according to Provincial legislation, and so far, the Province has ignored Vancouver's requests to allow it to establish wards. That city's toying with electronic ballots will also require Provincial approval, which so far has not been forthcoming.

Our voting system here in New West works for our current relatively non-partisan politics, but local politics will become significantly less representative as slates become established. For this reason, I have very serious reservations about voting for any politician who clearly identifies with a "slate".


  1. What would happen, in our Municipal system, if everyone was given a single vote for councillor. Instead of everyone voting for their 6 favourites, they only voted for one, and the top 6 got elected?

    I know who my single vote would go for... except he probably already has enough votes, so I might vote for someone else hoping to get them over the top... maybe this is better than voting for 6, and maybe this will prevent the "Slate" being an effective tactic?

  2. Slates can be made more "fair" (ie. representative) by using preferential/transferable voting. As a voter you rank the candidates, with your single vote going to your #1 choice...but if (s)he already had enough votes to win, your #2 choice would get your vote. The results end up being fairly closely proportional under this system: if Slate A has 40% of the popular vote, it gets pretty close to 40% of the seats. Strategic voting is not necessary, and no votes are discarded or wasted.

    For nonpartisan situations this type of system gives the same results as the current system we have, and I think people wouldn't notice the difference. Just the balloting would be different - "mark 1,2,3,... instead of X's".

    But New West can't implement this without the Province amending legislation.

    As for your suggestion of marking only a single "X", I'm pretty sure that would give strange and non-representative results - most people would vote for the most popular candidate, who would get too many of the votes, and then the "less popular" councillors would be elected by very, very few votes - and the counts being subject to wild fluctuations by a few voters. Voters would spend a lot of effort second-guessing the sytem. This is stupid. A good electoral system should reflect the "will" of the electorate, without us having to "game" it.