How Not to Elect a City Council: The Problems with Vancouver’s Multi-Member Electoral System

Vancouver’s municipal election was held last Saturday. The elections produced a rare outcome, a city council that had a Vision Vancouver majority, but a substantial number of opposition councillors. Vision Vancouver managed to elect 6 out of 10 councillors while their main rivals, the ironically named Non-Partisan Association (NPA), elected 3 councillors and the Green party elected one. This council is unique because of the small size of the majority that Vision won. Vancouver elections over the past two decades have tended to grant the winning party a large majority of between 7-10 seats on council. This is the result of Vancouver’s single district multi-member plurality electoral system. Multi-member plurality gives a party that can win a plurality of the vote an opportunity to win a large majority, if not all of, the seats on Vancouver’s city council. This system is not only problematic because of the degree to which it over-represents certain parties on council, but also because it creates councils with few members not in the dominant party who have a strong incentive to hold the mayor and dominant party councillors accountable.

The fundamental problem with the multi-member plurality system lies in the ability of a party winning a large plurality of the vote to win almost, if not every, seat on council. This system has no requirement that councillors win a majority of votes, candidates simply must win at least the 10th highest number of ballots cast. The presence of a large number of candidates on the ballot means that each candidate for council only needs to win about 30%-40% of the vote to be in the top 10 and elected to council. Unlike a single-member plurality system there are no districts (often know as wards in municipal elections) in Vancouver municipal elections, and each voter is allowed to vote for up to 10 candidates. This means that each candidate for council is essentially competing for the same votes. If a party can ensure can 30%-40% of the population to vote for most or all of its candidates for council there is a high likelihood that most if not all of its councillors will be elected. A single-member plurality system (and ward systems that elect two members from a number of different districts) is different from this because differences in public opinion across districts tend to ensure that at least some candidates from different parties or ideological backgrounds get elected to at least some council seats. Without multiple districts, multi-member plurality systems are even more winner-take based than single-member plurality systems or ward systems.

The degree to which a dominant party can expect to take all or most of the seats on council depends on the degree to which it can get its supporters to vote for each one of its council candidates. Vancouver voters do not always do this, significant numbers of voters will support council candidates from multiple parties. This past election excepted though, Vancouver elections have tended to produce councils with large majorities for a particular party. In 2011 Vision Vancouver took 7/10 seats while their largest rival, the NPA took just one despite their mayoral candidate winning 39% of the vote. In 1996 the NPA managed to win every council seat despite the fact the second place Coalition of Progressive Electors had a mayoral candidate and councillors close to or over a quarter of the vote. This has been the norm in Vancouver municipal elections. The largest party, usually the same party as the mayor, takes 7-10 seats on council while the second and third largest parties compete for 1-3 seats and very little ability to influence council decisions.

The first problem that stems from this is the sheer lack of representation for many Vancouverites. Vancouver has some significant political and social divides. The interests of East Vancouver, particularly the low income downtown east side are often very different from the interests of high income areas such as Kerrisdale or Shaughnessy. These divisions are often reflected in support for the municipal political parties. In 2011 polling districts in Southwest Vancouver tended to support the NPA’s Suzanne Anton while the North and East polling districts showed support for Vision’s Gregor Robertson. This past election produced a similar pattern that can be seen here. In 2011, the NPA, despite winning 41% of the mayoral vote was limited to just two seats on council. Regardless of which party dominates council, large numbers of Vancouverites are likely to lack representation on the city council. In the extreme, a quarter to a third of Vancouverites could have no one on council to speak for their interests. When municipal policies such as the development of public transit, the density zoning of various neighbourhoods, and the property taxes divide Vancouverites along partisan lines that is problematic. It is likely to lead to substantial numbers of frustrated citizens who right feel that city council is unresponsive to their interests.

The second problem that stems from Vancouver’s electoral system relates to accountability. Majoritarian systems are designed not only to create to clear majority governments but also substantial, single party, oppositions that have strong incentives to hold the majority to account. A system that allows the dominant party not only a majority, but a reasonable shot at winning close to every seat on council limits the degree to which opposing councillors can hold the dominant party to account. City council is not a parliament, and councillors do not form a formal opposition, but councillors still have an important role to play in debating major initiatives and policies. The fewer councillors that come from a different political ideology as the mayor and dominant party, the less the policies of the dominant party are going to be questioned and the weaker the overall debate on council. The weaker the second and third largest parties on council are, the less ability they have to raise motions and force the council to debate issues that may not be of interest to the dominant party (but which may be of importance to significant numbers of citizens). There can be some debate over whether it is better to have a council or legislative body with a majority or a minority party in power. It is, however, problematic when the majority on council gets so large that it limits the ability of non-dominant parties to question the ideas and policies of the party that dominates council.

There are two major alternatives to multi-member plurality elections for municipal elections. The first is the traditional ward system where 1 or 2 councillors are elected in smaller districts using a single member plurality or system or a multi-member plurality districts. Like the multi-member system applied to the whole city this system is likely to produce disproportionate results. The division of the city into districts, however, makes the results less disproportionate than a multi-member system applied to the city as a whole. The ability of different parties to do well in particular wards in the city ensures that the two largest parties are going to be represented on council. A left part like Vision can rely in wins in East Vancouver to ensure at least some of it candidates make it to council while a centre-right party such as the NPA can rely on Southwest Vancouver to ensure it has representation. The result is that most Vancouverites should be able to find someone on council that represents their interests (even if their party is underrepresented). There are also likely to be a substantial number of councillors that disagree, voting against the interests of the larger party and raising issues that the larger party does not want to discuss.

The other alternative system would be a pure proportional representation system. Under this system voters would vote for parties and council seats would be awarded to parties based on the percentage of seats they win. If 40% of voters voted for Vision in council elections, Vision would receive 40% of council seats. This ensures direct exact proportional representation, no voting block with at least 10% of voters (Vancouver has 10 council seats so 10% would be needed to win each seat) would be left without representation on council. This would ensure that council would be elected by Vancouver as a whole, and deals with concerns that ward systems lead to councillors who consider only the interests of their ward and not the city as a whole. It would however lead to councils without majorities, making for less efficient government. It also makes candidates reliant on membership in a party to get elected. It is almost impossible for an independent to be elected in a pure proportional representation system. Voters could be given significant control over the ranking of party lists through an open list system (which allows voters to determine the ranking of candidates on party lists) but a pure PR system would likely give parties more control over their members than a ward system would.

The city-wide multi-member plurality system that Vancouver uses to elect its council is highly problematic because of the way that it leads to under-representation of the interests of large numbers of citizens and because it creates councils where dominant parties do not have to respond to criticisms of their opponents. It provides for neither the direct representation of particular areas of Vancouver through wards that a ward system would, nor the accurate representation of city-wide interests that a PR system would. Both ward and PR systems have their drawbacks, but either would be preferable to Vancouver’s multi-member single district system.