CHARLOTTETOWN – When voters in Charlottetown head to the polls on November 1st they will be casting a vote for not just for a mayor and council to represent them, but will declare their preference for election reform through a plebiscite. While the plebiscite is non-binding, the newly elected council will use the results of this vote to determine if and how the current electoral process should change.
Election reform offers little of the glitz and glamour of a heated political race. In a race where incumbant candidates were asked by the City to not publicly declare their preference on this plebescite so as to not influence the voting public, the importance of this historic vote has been further devalued. Without candidates taking positions, and in spite of public information campaign, the plebescite issue has received little attention by most media organizations and even less among the voting populace.
Consider the state of the electoral process in the provincial capital — the birthplace of Confederation. In 2006, incumbant councilors where challenged in 9 of the 10 wards. Jump forward 4 years, and only 7 of 10 wards have challengers this year, and only 1 of 10 wards has more than a single challenger to the incumbant. That means that roughly 30% of Charlottetown’s residents will not have an opportunity to exercise their right to vote for council representation. That is a travesty and has only contributed to the disconnection of voters from the plebiscite process.
When Charlottetown announced the plebiscite vote, my immediate thought was that people need to be represented by councilors who are close to home, who know them and their neighbourhood! In my mind, ward representation ensures that councilors experience the same levels of service, the same challenges and triumphs as the citizens they are representing. It seemed like the right system and definitely the most familiar.
Still, I was intrigued by the prospects of an open ward system, where councilors are elected ‘at-large’. It sounded like the perfect solution to deter candidates who focus only on their wards without concern for the city as a whole. Cities are organisms, with each ward — as arbitrary as those boundaries may be — dependant on every other ward to thrive and prosper. Surely transitioning to an ‘at-large’ voting system would push candidates to be accountable to the greater population of the city, demanding a ‘city-as-a-system’ style vision usually reserved for only the most progressive candidates.
I was wrong.
Voting for candidates ‘at-large’ presents a number of challenges, most of which do little to address the problem presented by the existing geo-centric system. When electing ‘at-large’, political parties become players in the municipal scene, openly recruiting and funding candidates, extending their polarizing stances into the municipal arena. ‘At-large’ systems produce chronic under-representation of political, social and economic minority groups as a result of the ties between income, education, and voter participation. Most tragically, ‘at-large’ systems exacerbate the use of strategic voting, derailing democracy and limiting access to representation as special interest groups over-power individual voters.
Still, there had to be an answerto the parochialism of ward voting. Ward systems pit wards against each other, fighting for limited fiscal resources without an understanding of the overall symbiosis required for a city to function. It becomes a battle of ‘us vs. them’, the very polarizing political stances that my ‘at-large’ fantasies had hoped to erase. When neither system can stand alone, the confluence of the two systems is the only answer.
A mixed ward system allows for both local representation, connecting citizens to a specific councilor, while providing opportunity for citizens city-wide to unite across common platforms and vote for a councilor who is representative of their position. Combining the two systems acts as a fail-safe, ensuring that neither system is able to distance voters and guaranteeing that each vote will be counted, if not within the individual ward, then in the determination of the ‘at-large’ candidates. This mixture of ‘first-past-the-post’ and ‘single transferrable vote’ is the best opportunity for democracy to shine.
No matter the result on November 1st, no system will be able to rescue democracy from an apathetic population. Whether voting in a ward, for councilors ‘at-large’, or a mixed system, the key is participation. If you don’t vote, you won’t be heard, regardless of which system prevails in Monday’s plebescite.