How Canadians vote for municipal councillors (and why it matters)

Many British Columbians would be surprised to learn that most Canadians vote for city councillors under first-past-the-post (FPTP). And, presumably, many Canadians in the rest of the country would be surprised to learn that those of us in BC don’t use FPTP to elect city councillors. Let’s look at that, and at why it matters.

The “ward system” breaks a municipality down into ridings called wards and, while it’s possible to have multi-member wards, a single person is usually elected in each ward making it a first-past-the-post election.

British Columbians elect people using the “plurality at-large” voting system. At large is a term that simply means that the elected officials represent the entire area, rather than a small riding. Plurality refers to the fact that a majority of the vote isn’t required to be elected. This system is more commonly known as “block voting” since it tends to elect large groups of like-minded people despite that political viewpoint not necessarily having majority support within the municipality.

How block voting works is each voter get as many votes as there are people to be elected, and it’s understandable why most voters would vote for a group of people who all have similar platforms. So unless the voter chooses to select candidates of different political stripes, this system rarely produces results much better than first-past-the-post does. Yes there are examples of city councils elected under block voting that have a diversity of voices, but we also get minority governments from time to time under FPTP. Just because the system occasionally works out as we might hope, doesn’t change the fact that these are the exceptions that prove the rule and that the system is working against diversity and accurate representation of the voters’ wishes.

There are exceptions, and even examples of hybrid systems, but generally in Canada bigger cities tend to use the ward system and smaller cities tend to use block voting. BC is the big exception, making Vancouver far and away the biggest city in Canada to elect municipal councils at large.

BC has a long history with not having the ward system, despite there being a push for it from time to time. From what I understand, advocates of the ward system in Vancouver argued that having all city councillors elected city-wide created a melting-pot effect where politics became dominated by the richer western half of Vancouver, and poorer and more diverse areas in Vancouver’s eastern half weren’t very successful in electing people to represent their interests. For years they pushed for the option to break the city down into ridings, which might have entrenched western domination on the city’s politics but at least would have guaranteed an opposition presence. (I must stress that I don’t live in Vancouver and don’t pretend to understand everything about its civic politics, but this is my understanding generated by talking to those who do vote there, a discussion with an elected official from Vancouver, editorials on the topic, and news reports. But please point out in the comments if I got anything wrong.)

Recently, the previous provincial government finally allowed for municipalities to switch to the ward system if they wished. To the best of my knowledge none of them have yet, nor was I able to find any evidence that any of them plan to. So they buckled to calls to give municipalities this option, just in time for no one to take them up on it. And I can see why. Breaking a municipality down into ridings is potentially more costly, is politically more sensitive because some voters or interest groups may dispute the riding boundaries, and there’s like an “it ain’t broke so don’t fix it” mentality amongst politicians and city staffers dealing with generations of precedence. (Vancouver voters, for example, appears to have decided to elect people “at large” in a 1935 referendum, and it’s been that way ever since.)

Another reason BC voters were probably more familiar with, and more comfortable with, at large voting is that BC was still using it for many ridings in provincial elections as recently as the 1985 provincial election, something that was distinctly not true in other provinces where (by then, at least) all ridings were first-past-the-post.

I would agree that the “at large” part isn’t broken, but I believe the “plurality” part is. Let’s say there’s a city council election where 2/3rds of votes cast go to candidates supportive of the status quo, and about 1/3rd of votes go to (for lack of a better word) “opposition” candidates. Under an electoral system that accurately translated the will of the voters, four people in support of the status quo and two new voices on council might be elected. Instead, block voting would almost certainly end up in six like-minded people being elected. Block voting distorts the will of the voters into something else.

So what can be done? Well, when it comes to BC, there are several options and they’ll be discussed in a future post.

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