Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Problems with BC's Local Elections

In BC the way we elected the councilors for our local governments is called plurality at large.   It is in my opinion the worst method for electing representatives that reflect the will of the public because its nature is to dramatically favour one set of people over another.

In the system you are allowed to vote for up X number of candidates, X being the number of council positions.   The top X candidates then get elected.   It works sort of OK in a small town like Lillooet where almost everyone knows each other but even there the results can be screwy because of how the general public feels they should vote.

For larger municipalities like Saanich, Burnaby and Surrey people can vote up to eight people.    There are a couple of major ways this voting system becomes unfair for the people running and does not reflect the will of the public especially in the larger municipalities

When you can cast up to eight votes most people feel they really do need to vote all eight.  The politically astute will choose to plump their ballot to help their preferred candidate but most of the public thinks this is either unfair or they are not fully exercising their democratic responsibility.

The fact that most people do feel they need vote a full ballot leads to the first problem with the system.  Most of the voters do not know eight candidates they really like.  The voter is then stuck with how to fill out the rest of their ballot and they rely on anything they know at all.   This means voters very often go for any names they recognize on the ballot and in most cases this means the current incumbents.  

A candidate running for council that campaigns hard is effectively campaigning for the incumbents as well.   Based on the average number of ballots cast by the public, for every two voters a new candidate gets to vote the incumbents will each get one vote as well.  Because of this it is very, very hard to defeat incumbents in this electoral system.  There is one change on the ballot that make a huge difference and break this easy hold on office incumbents

The one factor that will change how the election turns out is if there are strong competing municipal political parties.  Once the party name is on the ballot each voter is given a clear indication of who is who and a lot of people vote for all the candidates of one slate or the other.   What happens from there is that either one party is utterly dominant, such as the Burnaby Citizens Association, or the council composition dramatically changes from election to election, which is what Vancouver often sees.

While the municipal political party direction creates very dramatic changes with lopsided councils it does make it easier for incumbents to be defeated.   Incumbents have to first get their party nomination and then the party has to win the election.   Without the party on the ballot it becomes really, really hard to defeat incumbents.  But with the party names on the ballot the election becomes a winner takes all affair.

Here are examples illustrating the problem

Victoria has never really moved into having strong municipal political parties.  In this table you can see how safe the incumbents have been over the last six elections:
Year   Incumbents 
    running defeated
2011   8       3
2008   5       0
2005   6       0 
2002   6       1
1999   6       1
1996   6       0
total 37       5

86.5% of the incumbents were re-elected.  This sort of record is not something you would see in provincial or federal elections

In Burnaby the BCA has been very dominant, in fact in the last two elections the mayor, all eight councilors and all seven school board trustees elected were from the BCA.
Year     BCA elected 
     council  school board
2011   8/8         7/7
2008   8/8         7/7
2005   6/6         5/7
2002   7/8         6/7
1999   5/8

To get elected in Burnaby you have to be part of the BCA.

We need to change the municipal voting system so that it much more accurately reflects the public will.  It harms the quality of local government if the elections results are so skewed in the favour of one group over another.
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