“At-Large” voting systems

We British Columbians use an “at large” system to elect city councillors even in our biggest cities. It’s a requirement of our Local Government Act that we do so. The exact wording is “every council member must be elected from the municipality at large.”

This has traditionally been interpreted to mean the “plurality at large” voting system (AKA, block voting) where each voter gets as many votes as there are seats to be filled, and every representative is elected to represent the community “at large” as opposed to a small geographic riding. In fact, that’s all that “at large” means. This is similar to how a “member at large” in an organization represents all the people and all the issues, rather than having a specific sub-group or a specific sub-issue that they’re intended to represent.

Block voting is unfair and distorts democracy. Here’s a quote from the Globe and Mail that sums up some of the complaints of plurality at-large voting in Vancouver:

However, at-large voting systems are often seen as discriminatory. Concentrated pockets of ethnic voters have more power to elect a representative from their own community in a ward system than they do when the whole city gets a say in the selection of every councillor. Vancouver’s at-large system has been critiqued for consistently keeping South Asian candidates out of office. There’s also no requirement for geographic diversity in an at-large system, and it’s possible to elect city councillors who all live in the same area and have weaker ties and responsibilities to the rest of the city.

I disaree that “at-large voting systems” are the problem though, I think the specific at-large voting system we use in BC is the culprit. Block voting is far from the only electoral system where people are elected “at large”. Others include:

– Limited Vote (the same system as “plurality at large”, except you get fewer votes than the number of people to be elected)

Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) (the “Limited Vote”, except you get only one vote no matter how many people are to be elected)

– Cumulative voting (where you get as many votes as people to be elected, but you can vote for candidates multiple times so long as you don’t cast more votes than allowed, which allows people to one focus a lot of support behind a small number of candidates that they strongly believe in)

– some implementations of STV (such as the Australian senate) where the vote isn’t broken down into multi-member ridings spread across the jurisdiction, and instead everyone is elected to represent the entire province/state/country (or what have you).

I believe that any of the above would produce results that better represent the will of the voters than what we have now. And that’s the truest test of an electoral system’s legitimacy, in my opinion. I’ll briefly discus each of them.

THE LIMITED VOTE

The Limited Vote is used to elect some city councils in the U.S., such as Hartford Connecticut. In the Hartford example there are 8 councillors to be elected, and each voter gets to vote for five candidates. This is as opposed to a city council election in BC where if there were 8 councillors to be elected, each voter would get 8 votes. With the number of votes being reduced to 5, you get a slightly more proportional result, but only slightly. Looking at elections in the U.S., the winners are usually five people from one group vs. three from another group. Interestingly, the Limited Vote has come into use in the U.S. predominantly due to people suing governments that the first-past-the-post system is failing to represent them (so-called “Voters Rights” cases). Those court cases have generally ended with the courts agreeing that switching to the Limited Vote satisfies the need for additional representation. I disagree, at least when the voter is voting for more than half the seats (as in the Hartford example).

Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV)

I’ve written a lot about SNTV, but that was all about implementing it for a provincial election or using it as part of a hybrid system. SNTV provincially would have ridings, but if we were to use it for a municipal council election it would be best done “at large” across the whole of a municipality.

SNTV, the Limited Vote, and Plurality At-Large could be thought of as all the same system, just with the voter being given different numbers of votes. With Plurality At-Large you get as many votes as there are to be elected, with SNTV you get a single vote, and with the Limited Vote you get a number of votes in-between those extremes. Unlike the other two, SNTV produces a highly proportional result. It has a reputation as being only “semi-proportional”, but that ignores the fact that STV or MMP are also typically only semi-proportional. Semi-proportional isn’t necessarily bad at all, so long as it brings with it a sufficient advantage (such as simplicity, greater accountability, superior regional representation, etc.). The difference between SNTV and STV is the lack of the ranked ballot in SNTV and, since the ranked ballot doesn’t add a great deal of proportionality in most cases, SNTV and STV are pretty close in how accurately they represent the will of the voters.

CUMLATIVE VOTING

This is an interesting one. You get as many votes as there are people to be elected, but you can stack multiple votes on a single candidate. Let’s say there are six people to be elected, so you get 6 votes, but there are only two candidates you like. Under our current Plurality At-Large system, you either have to vote for four people you don’t like, or you have to waste four of your votes by only voting for the two you do like (a process called “plumping”). In that same six vote example with two candidates you like, you could do 3 votes for each, or four votes for one and 2 for another, or any other combination that adds up to 6. This creates a highly proportional result.

In a future post, I’ll discuss which of these at-large systems could be easily implemented BC within the existing provincial legislation, to replace BC’s use of Plurality At-Large.

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