Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs
When you move to Vancouver from elsewhere in Canada and first vote in a civic election, the number of choices for council seems mind-boggling. In fact, the entire system feels downright foreign. With no wards, who do you go to with a neighbourhood problem? And how on earth do you winnow 10 councillors from list of 50 names?
Unless some candidates drop out, there will be more than 50 council candidates on the voter list come the October civic election. Just reading to the end is daunting, which explains why candidates with last names beginning with letters high up in the alphabet statistically stand a better chance. And with only three incumbents running for council, it requires a considerable amount of homework to bone up on each contender unless you are content to vote on party lines. And that's not to mention the dozens more vying for seats on park board and school board.
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This is partly why several parties and independent mayoral candidates are once again calling for electoral reform. Is it time to ditch Vancouver’s at-large system, where each candidate is elected to represent the entire city? Some candidates and parties are building electoral reform into their campaign platforms. But I don’t get the sense Vancouver voters care very much one way or another. And while talking about different voting methods doesn’t hurt, it certainly won’t get anyone elected.
The push for electoral reform is supported primarily by parties on the left, which makes sense since our current system has historically favoured wealthier West Side ridings where voter turnout is higher. In recent years, the balance shifted; the centre-left vote in East Vancouver was key to Vision Vancouver’s success.
Now, independent mayoral candidate Shauna Sylvester is promoting a bifurcated system to elect five councillors by ward and the remaining five at large. Kennedy Stewart, another independent mayoral candidate, favours a proportional-representation system – details still to come. Some of the parties including left-leaning OneCity and Coalition of Progressive Electors also believe a proportional-representation system of some kind is the way to go. The right-leaning Non-Partisan Association was surprised by the question and didn’t answer by deadline. Two new parties, Yes Vancouver and ProVancouver, favour the status quo.
B.C. is an outlier among most Canadian provinces where cities tend to have ward systems. Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg and Halifax voters typically choose from manageable lists of between two and 10 council candidates to represent their specific area. This summer, when Premier Doug Ford slashed the number of wards in Toronto from 47 to 25, residents were outraged, fearing neighbourhood concerns would be lost in the din of complaints fielded by councillors representing larger wards.
It might make perfect sense for Vancouver to switch, but the issue isn’t likely to catch fire among voters. In July, when pollster Mario Conseco asked about electoral reform only 36 per cent of respondents agreed to supporting a ward system for civic elections. Another 18 per cent disagreed and 46 per cent were unsure. Mr. Conseco points out that voters are already being asked whether they want to change the provincial system and those who do must choose between three somewhat complicated electoral reform scenarios. “I think people are going to be tapped out.”
Even though past electoral reform plebiscites have failed, the issue continues to percolate, notes Patrick Smith, a Simon Fraser University political science professor. Still, with serious issues facing the city, such as housing affordability, transit and the opioid crisis, he agrees now may not be the right time to propose a change. Over the past decade, civic politics have become more complex and the lines between left and right have blurred somewhat, Mr. Smith says.
On some of the most important issues, such as the opioid crisis, councils have reached consensus on how best to approach the problem. So long as roads are paved, garbage is collected and housing concerns are addressed there will be no huge impetus for change. What once looked strange to me, coming from Alberta, seems normal now and electoral reform at the civic level doesn’t really cross my mind. I expect most people in Vancouver feel the same way.