Posted by: Alvin | November 24, 2008

Vancouver Electoral Reform

During the last civic election campaign, countless people I stopped to talk to on the street and at events around the city brought up the idea of electoral reform. Most were concerned with our ‘at-large’ voting system where all candidates are added to a giant list and voters are asked to vote for a number of individuals to represent them no matter where in the city the voter lives. Some were also concerned with other issues around our city’s electoral system.

Since the end of the campaign, and the coverage I received because of Charlie Smith’s blog post about racism in Vancouver politics, I’ve given the subject even more thought. I’ve believed for a long time now that Vancouver needs to move towards a ward system, where voters in different areas are given a small set of candidates to choose from. The winner of each ward would represent that area on council, or parks, or school board. However, as a friend of mine pointed out, simply moving to a first past the post ward system (essentially a riding system like we have provincially and federally – the same system that has been criticised for years now as undemocratic) wouldn’t be a huge step forward in terms of real democratic change (there’s that word again).

There’s also the matter of campaign financing, and on two levels. First, there are hardly any rules about the financing of internal party nomination campaigns, the kind that parties do to decide who will represent them. This is especially apparent in the mayoral nomination process. Both Gregor Robertson and Peter Ladner received huge sums of money – some from outside the city and country – to pursue their respective party’s nominations. The second issue is that of party financing as a whole. Vancouver has very few regulations, and money can come from anywhere and at any amount.

Finally, the third major issues brought up was the idea of party politics at the civic level. Many question the need for parties in Vancouver and say that they are counter-productive, leaving out talented individuals who don’t have the organizational support needed to win in Vancouver (let alone the money). I’m personally torn on this issue. On the one hand, I agree that as Vancouver’s electoral system is arranged now, independent candidates get little or no coverage and are at a massive financial deficit. That said, eliminating parties may not solve that problem. What you would end up with is what happens in other non-party cities like Montreal or Toronto, where the Mayoral candidates have to be extremely high profile and well backed and candidates for council end up being ‘affiliated’ with the Mayor (creating parties without the name). The resulting group ends up gathering a lot of media attention as events are structured around the group, and the result is that those candidates that are not personally connected to the mayoral candidate are left to fend for themselves.

In Vancouver, what a party system has meant is that financing is moved from candidates to organizations, allowing candidates who are not as well connected or financially gifted to still run for nomination and run along side their party’s mayoral candidate. Now, this doesn’t always happen, but it’s better that if there were no parties at all. The downside is that those not affiliated with parties end up like those non-affiliated council candidates in the non-party system, left to fend for themselves.

Having a party system allows for a little bit more voter education as voters are more likely to be exposed to a slate of candidates as opposed to pick through a long list of independents. Another problem with eliminating parties is that school board and parks board candidates who already get such little media attention would be left out in the cold even more if they were all independent. In my mind, this would just lead to even lower voter turn out for the School and Park slates.

I think comprehensive finance reform would be a better solution than simply eliminating parties outright. This reform would have to extend into how parties selected candidates as well. And here we get into a problem. The people who will make these decisions are right now children of the current system and are under a lot of pressure from their parties. Unifying rules about how parties operate, nominate, and fund-raise could be an almost impossible task.

I’ll be thinking about this more in the coming days and weeks, doing some more research and speaking to friends – both independents and party members – and hopefully I’ll be able piece together what I think Vancouver should move towards. One thing is certain though, it’ll need to be reform that is citizen driven and not party, council, or – god forbid – court driven.

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