Daphne Bramham: Ridiculously long polls lead to voter paralysis

Opinion: Vancouver and Surrey are the two largest cities in Canada without a ward system. This means ridiculously long ballots and voter paralysis

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Before the 2018 municipal election, my neighbor Dave spent hours going through candidate lists for Vancouver City Council, as well as school and parks boards, researching party platforms and creating a spreadsheet.

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He ranked the candidates and parties that came closest to his own views. He downloaded a sample ballot from the city’s website and took it with him to the voting booth. With so many names on a ballot listed in random order, it was the only way Dave knew to ensure his hard work wasn’t wasted.

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But this year, Dave is on vacation in Europe. He didn’t have time to sift through the platforms of all the established and upstart parties, let alone sift through the profiles of 137 candidates and the platforms of all 10 parties. Vancouver has 15 candidates for mayor, 59 for council, 31 for school board and 32 for park board.

Even though he called the ballot “ridiculous” because of all the candidates, there’s no doubt that Dave will vote. But due to lack of time to research, he decided to vote for a slate rather than pick and choose candidates.

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Several other avid mayoral watchers I’ve spoken to who don’t support any one-party plans are voting for only a few candidates rather than diluting their choices by voting for all of the candidates.

But for far too many people, choosing from a scrambled list of names on a long ballot with multiple parties is paralyzing. In 2018, when there were even more candidates, the voter turnout in Vancouver fell to less than 40%.

In Surrey, the turnout was even worse. Less than a third of eligible voters cast their ballots in a race that featured 48 candidates, including eight for mayor. This year there are six parties and 84 candidates – eight candidates for mayor, 56 for the council and 20 for the school board.

While voters are overwhelmed with choices, they are overwhelmed with information. This is partly due to an unintended consequence of campaign finance reform.

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In Vancouver, the spending limit for council candidates is $120,491; in Surrey, it’s $113,418. This makes it even harder for individual candidates to rise above the pack unless they pool their money as a party. It seems as absurd a way to choose a government as throwing darts at a board and no way for big cities to be governed. That’s why most of the time they are not.

Vancouver and Surrey are the two largest cities in Canada without a ward system where voters choose only councilors to represent their ward or riding, much like in federal and provincial elections. But mayors are elected “in general”.

Vancouver mayoral candidates (left to right) Colleen Hardwick, Mark Marissen, Ken Sim and Kennedy Stewart
Vancouver mayoral candidates (left to right) Colleen Hardwick, Mark Marissen, Ken Sim and Kennedy Stewart Photo by PNG files

Nearly two decades ago, Vancouver voters rejected a ward system in a plebiscite by a slim 54% margin. The current board rejected it. Two current mayoral candidates – incumbent Kennedy Stewart and Coun. Colleen Hardwick – both voted in favor of a ward system and noted that wards may be the only thing they agree on.

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Surrey abandoned the ward system in 1957, resulting in the split from White Rock. In 2020, the council asked staff for a report on resurrecting a ward system, which has yet to be debated.

Yet even a neighborhood system feels like little more than DIY in a metropolitan area that suffers from major and complex issues of housing affordability, inadequate infrastructure, the effects of climate change, and growing concerns about crime. These are regional issues that transcend myriad municipal boundaries, far beyond the capacity of 21 municipalities and the limited powers of Metro Vancouver.

There is an air of whimsy in some of the promises made by mayoral candidates, in particular. The two outgoing mayors of Surrey and Vancouver promise SkyTrain extensions. Yet neither the money nor the power to do so. Despite announcing ‘plans to accelerate the SkyTrain ‘Vancouver Loop’ extension, Stewart’s press release at least further acknowledged that what he was really promising was to ‘fight hard’ for the money. of Ottawa and Victoria, and the agreement of the TransLink Board, to build it.

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But all chatter about a regional government here was mostly silenced after the forced amalgamation of the Ontario government of Greater Toronto. Due to the distribution of seats, the priorities of suburban communities often end up trumping those of the inner city.

Now Ontario is attempting another rebalancing by giving the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa broad veto power over certain regulations. The legislation also gives the mayor – rather than the council – responsibility for preparing and tabling the city’s budget, appointing a chief executive, and hiring and firing department heads, except for the auditor general. , police or fire chiefs.

It was met with mixed reviews. The outgoing mayor of Toronto, John Tory, is in favor of it. Ottawa’s outgoing mayor, Jim Watson, criticized him, as did one of the three candidates vying to replace him on October 24, who called him “undemocratic.”

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It would be foolish to go with Ontario down either path at this point, given the controversy and concern it has generated.

But there are other models that might at least be worth considering, because a lot has changed in the five decades since the adoption of the Vancouver Charter and the 55 years since the district was established. Greater Vancouver Region (now known as Metro Vancouver) by the Government of British Columbia. .

David Eby, who hopes to be the next prime minister, has already indicated that he is ready to restrict the powers of municipalities if it means building more affordable housing. The need for concerted and coordinated efforts to combat climate change is no less pressing.

Of course, none of this helps solve the more immediate problem of who to choose in this crowded electoral universe.

No one said democracy is easy. But it shouldn’t be that hard either.

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Joan J. Holland