Vancouver’s at-large voting system creates a tougher race for minorities and leaves parts of the city without adequate political representation, says municipal councillor Raj Hundal.
Hundal was the only South Asian candidate elected in the 2008 municipal election and is not running this year.
He said that under the current system, in theory, every councillor, Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation commissioner, and school board trustee could be living on the same street somewhere in the city’s West End.
“To me, that’s not democratic,” said Hundal, now the provincial NDP candidate for Surrey-Tynehead.
On Nov. 19, voters will elect multiple representatives for the entire city, choosing 27 people from a list of 94 candidates.
Caroline Andrew, a professor at the University of Ottawa specializing in municipal politics, argues that at-large voting disadvantages minorities and groups of lower socioeconomic standing.
Historically, these groups tend to vote less so their interests are less represented in council, said Andrew.
She added that more affluent people also have more financial resources for a city-wide campaign. Furthermore, minorities often live in concentrated enclaves and have interests particular to their communities.
In her view, a ward system would limit the size of electoral districts and thus the amount of money needed to campaign, link a smaller group of voters directly to their representatives, and ensure local representation.
“If Canada had an at-large electoral system at the federal level, provinces like BC would reject it,” said Andrew, explaining that Ontario and Quebec would be the most represented and that the resulting government might neglect the interests of other provinces.
Even though at-large systems force all municipal officials to be accountable to the entire city, she questioned whether representatives are aware of the diverse interests in a community of which they are not residents.
Discouraged from participation
Past municipal candidates from Fraserview in South Vancouver have called the system discouraging for minorities.
“In my neighbourhood, I do a lot of volunteer work. People know me,” said Naresh Shukla, sliding his 2008 park board candidate’s business card across the sales counter of his shop in the Punjabi market.
“But when you’re elected from the whole of Vancouver, it’s very hard to get elected if you’re a minority.”
A business owner and local activist, he came last among the Non-Partisan Association candidates for the park board.
“If I run for park board, for councillor, I don’t have a chance. I’m wasting my time.”
Gabby Kalaw, NPA candidate for the park board and among the first Filipino candidates to run for local public office, said that city council fails to represent ethnic diversity because newcomers are often not familiar enough with the process to participate.
“It’s just a lack of knowledge and engagement. You can’t blame the government or the election system. [The lack of participation] happens not just with minorities but anyone who moves to a new place,” he said.
No perfect system
Supporters of the at-large system argue that wards cause competition and bickering between neighbourhoods within the city and might politicize certain groups, creating social cleavages where there were none before.
However, Andrews said that keeping what amounts to barriers to representation is not the solution.
Aaron Jasper, park board chairman standing for re-election, supports a mixed system and said that while a ward system would improve local representation, it would produce its own set of challenges.
According to Andrew, electoral systems reflect the representational priorities of voters and it is up to Vancouver residents to determine what those priorities are.
Hundal said that ultimately council must be responsive to broad interests.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about electing a Chinese candidate or a South Asian candidate, it’s about local democracy. We need to ensure that we have local representation.”
Fact file: Electoral reform
- Vancouver had a ward system until 1936, when a public referendum with a turnout of 19% changed the city’s electoral system to an at-large system with 68% per cent approval. Since then, Vancouver has elected candidates at-large.
- Over the ensuing decades, the City of Vancouver developed. Businesses and the population grew and demographics changed.
- In 2004, city council appointed judge Thomas Berger as commissioner in a public inquiry to consider the merits of moving from the present at-large system to a ward system or some combination of the two.
- After holding public forums and collecting survey data on the issue, as well as conducting academic research in the field and drawing on the experience of other Canadian cities, Berger’s report recommended that Vancouver move to wards while continuing to elect the mayor and park board commissioners city-wide.
- In a plebiscite with 22.6 per cent turnout of registered voters, 54 per cent voted against replacing the at-large system with wards in October 2004.
- All large cities across Canada, with the exception of Vancouver, Surrey, and the neighbouring municipalities, now use the ward system in local elections.