Photo credit: 123 Vancouver
For a moment, I want you to think about your municipal government. How do decisions get made? Is it one of collaboration, or is it adversarial? Has it always been that way or has there been a recent change? Are election outcomes the way you think they should go, from an objective point of view?
Now, imagine it is election time in your city, town, county, or district. Imagine there is one main issue. And that issue is whether to privatize residential garbage collection. If 60% of voters are against privatization, you would hope that an election would yield about 60% anti-privatization candidates getting elected. But that isn’t how our current system works. Without Pro Rep, we could get a majority of pro-privatization candidates elected, against the will of voters, just like under first-past-the-post.
We all want Proportional Representation. That’s why you are here, reading this blog. But Fair Vote Canada normally talks about Pro Rep for federal and provincial elections, that seems like a no-brainer. You can easily measure proportionality when you look at votes for a party and seats for a party your respective legislatures. But what about when it’s not that obvious?
Is that a representative government?
It isn’t. We continue to see vote splitting occur, we see adversarial politics pop-up, and we see people with brilliant ideas being told not to run. Even though you tend to see more collaboration at the municipal level, you still have adversarial politics.
If you talk to candidates before an election, you can get a sense of where they stand on key issues. Issues such as taxation, infrastructure, transportation, arts & culture, law enforcement, garbage collection, etc. Based on the responses that each candidate provided, you could form an opinion on who you aligned with most.
So, even though each candidate has their own intentions, opinions and thought processes, they can still be similar in the way they vote. If their votes in council meetings align well with the breakdown on how the community views of the issues, then you have a proportional council.
Is it achievable?
Absolutely! I have been advocating for municipal Pro Rep since I ran for city council in Guelph, Ontario. For those unfamiliar, Guelph has a two councillor per ward voting system. There are two winners elected from 6 different wards (as well as a mayoral position). When I ran, I explained how our voting system isn’t fair and how we could improve our system to be more proportional! I thought it was an obvious change that needed to be made, and about 700 people thought the same and voted for me. Since then, I have advocated for a proportional voting system in Vancouver and all of BC’s municipalities.
But our biggest obstacle is getting provinces on board. Provinces legislate how elections are run in the municipalities in their province. In Newfoundland, it’s called the Municipal Elections Act, in BC it is the Local Government Act. Each province has a name for it, while sometimes there are separate documents for different cities, like Toronto and Vancouver, that have their own Charter. These are the documents that need to be updated to achieve a proportional voting system. Ontario is a prime example.
In 2016, the Ontario provincial government opened up the rules for voting in municipal elections in that province. Single Transferable Voting (STV) is one of the options available to municipalities. Municipalities that have multiple winners per district, like Guelph, are able to switch to STV. Other municipalities in Ontario could advocate for multiple winner contests in conjunction with changing how the ballots are counted.
In BC, advocates in Vancouver are asking for a switch to STV as well. The Independent Elections Task Force in that city recommended the city move to a proportional voting system. Other advocates in other municipalities outside of Vancouver are asking municipalities to consider Cumulative Voting, which is believed to align the current provincial laws regarding marking and counting ballots.
Most recently, a Citizen’s Assembly for Stronger Elections in St. John’s Newfoundland has recommended increasing proportionality in their elections. As mentioned above, advocates are working on this and ideas can be shared with citizens of St. John’s, Newfoundland. There is mounting support for municipal electoral reform across the country.
Why does it matter?
Municipal governments are the most grassroots level of all levels of government. They are the trend setters and other levels of government get certain cues from municipal governments. For example, it was municipalities that started putting a surcharge on plastic bags at grocery stores. The small town of Leaf Rapid, MB was the first community in North America to ban grocery bags outright, in March, 2007. Many cities followed suit. The federal government now plans to ban these plastic bags as early as 2021. This is just one of many examples of municipalities taking a lead and making changes for our federation.
We also want citizens to get comfortable with a voting system that isn’t First Past the Post. At the municipal level, we can try a new voting system, analyse the impacts and understand if citizens feel comfortable with it. It helps breed familiarity with proportionality and a new way of voting. By taking advantage of pro rep at municipal level, Fair Voters across the country can achieve success from the ground up.