Municipal Election 2010

A Case for Municipal Electoral Reform

Ensuring that our political system is representative means periodically revisiting the method we use to choose representatives, especially after electoral results that undermine the legitimacy of the system.

By Chris Erl
Published August 26, 2010

Electoral reform is an essential component of modern democracy. Civilization has changed drastically since the days of the Athenian assembly and has moved too quickly for the Rousseauian dream of direct democracy to be tested effectively. Legislatures filled with elected representatives serve as lawmakers, who are empowered by the notion that they have been selected by the people they will govern.

Ensuring this is done effectively means periodically revisiting the method we use to choose representatives, especially after electoral results that undermine the legitimacy of the system.

Municipal councils in Ontario need this as much as federal authorities do. After amalgamation, municipal legislatures were condensed and altered, merging town-councils into larger municipal authorities and scaling back on the number of representatives assigned to each local 'ward' division.

After nearly ten years of the current system in Hamilton, flaws are beginning to appear.

Ward 12 (Ancaster)

Enter Hamilton's Ward 12 (Ancaster). This suburban ward is unique, in that it combines a large area of urban development as well as a considerable amount of rural farmland. The 2006 Municipal Election brought Lloyd Ferguson, the brother of the ward's retiring Councillor, into the race, along side local Liberal Party activist Aznive Mallett and former school board trustee John Rocchi.

Election night in Ancaster brought more than a few surprises. After carrying the rural portion of the ward by well over 60%, the race became heated in what was once Ancaster village. District One, on the far western end of Wilson Street, Ancaster's 'Main Street', Ferguson and Mallett shared the vote almost exactly, 359 to 357 votes respectively. Rocchi proved to be the spoiler there, denying either front runner over 50%.

The second District fell to Ferguson, but Mallett and Rocchi fought for second with Rocchi taking 178 votes to Mallett's 176.

Mallett won the Third and Sixth Districts, but Ferguson denied her a firm majority, while it was a race between Rocchi and Ferguson for the far eastern Eighth District which encompasses the Meadowlands Power Centre. Mallett was hardly a threat as Ferguson took 457 votes to Rocchi's 419 (Mallett won 276).

Ferguson won with 41.39%, with Mallett taking 30.66% and Rocchi taking 18.95%. Fourth place finisher David Hoods had 8.05% while Ryan Hale rounded out the group with 0.96% of the vote.

'06 Poll Breakdown for Hamilton Ward 12 Councillor
'06 Poll Breakdown for Hamilton Ward 12 Councillor

The picture painted is one of a community whose elected representative received high support in some portions of the ward while facing outright rejection in others, all while failing to receive a mandate to govern from a majority of those he has indeed governed for the past four years.

Ward 13 (Dundas)

While Ancaster proved divided on election night, it could not compare to the results of the councillor election in Ward 13 (Dundas).

Former councillor Russ Powers had endured a difficult few years. He had been elected in 2003, only to resign in 2004 and stand as Liberal candidate for Member of Parliament of Ancaster-Dundas-Flambrough-Westdale. He was elected and sat as a member of the government for two years until another election was called, this time resulting in the elevation of the opposition Conservatives both nationally, and in Dundas.

Powers was defeated by Conservative David Sweet in 2006, and quickly sought to reapply for his old job as city councillor.

In 2006, he faced two major opponents, namely environmentalist Julia Kollek and former Dundas town Councillor Keith Sharp.

On election night, no one candidate could place over 35% of the vote, with each dividing the ward community by community. Kollek took the far west of the ward and the neighbourhood closest to McMaster University, as well as a sliver of the town just north of Dundas' 'Main Street', King Street East.

Sharp claimed the neighbourhood just to the east of Kollek's and Powers took the remaining portions, including the far east of the ward, which encompasses the vast wooded area north of Cootes Paradise. Kollek and Powers actually tied in the Fourth District, each taking 242 votes to Sharp's 155.

The highest winning percentage gained by any candidate in any poll was Powers, who took just under 42% in the Ninth District, with each candidate maintaining a competitive presence across the ward.

Powers would win, 34.33% to Kollek's 30.95% and Sharp's 23.88%. Fourth place contender Peggy Chapman received 10.84%

'06 Poll Breakdown Hamilton Ward 13 Councillor
'06 Poll Breakdown Hamilton Ward 13 Councillor

These two examples are situations where the first-past-the-post voting system has failed local residents, by giving authority to those without a clear mandate from at least 50% of those who they have spoken for on Council for these past four years.

How can this imbalance be changed or, in the very least, minimized to ensure Hamiltonians are represented accurately on City Council?

Fixing the Imbalance

Certain candidates may hold very strong viewpoints and represent everything a particular voter may seek in an elected official, but may not stand a very good chance of winning a race. A system such as Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) may help.

This system allows for voters to rank their choices, based on who they would like to see win. Using the example of Dundas, a voter may like Ms. Chapman's platform the most out of all the candidates, agree with much of what Ms. Kollek has to offer, be indifferent to Mr. Beck and disagree with much of Mr. Powers' platform.

In this case, voters could place a "1" beside Ms. Chapman's name, a "2" beside Ms. Kollek's name, a "3" and a "4" beside Mr. Beck and Mr. Powers, or leave those spots blank.

If on the first count Ms. Chapman places last, her votes would be recounted, this time for their second preferences. The votes are then counted until one candidate has a 50% majority, meaning the elected representative for that area has a mandate from at least half of their constituents.

Another option would be At-Large Councillors, in which the city maintains the existing system, but adds four or five city-wide seats that would give residents a greater choice of representative and, therefore, a greater probability of having a candidate they support win and speak for them on council.

Regardless of the options, it is clear change is needed. If local democracy in Ontario is to regain any relevance in the lives of the individuals it legislates on behalf of, it will have to start by ensuring representatives are chosen efficiently, effectively, and equally.

Citizens need to feel their vote is being respected on election day, and that those who are making the laws that will govern them have a legitimate claim to power. 2006 proved tumultuous for Hamilton, and if 2010 sees similar results, electoral reform may become an inevitability.

This piece was originally posted on Chris's personal website.

Chris Erl, a born and raised Hamiltonian, has wanted to change the world ever since becoming the Westwood Elementary School Chief Returning Officer in Grade 5. After receiving both a B.A. (Honours) and M.A. from McMaster, Chris decided to purse his passion and study urban planning.

In addition to serving on the City of Hamilton’s LGBTQ Advisory Committee, Chris is also a registered candidate for Public School Board trustee in Wards 1 & 2.

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By another capitalist (anonymous) | Posted August 26, 2010 at 13:18:56

One of the most thoughtful, intelligent posts I've read anywhere.

Long overdue. I've discussed this and many other reform topics with many people and everyone agrees it's time to change things.

I think it's too late for this election, obviously, but not for 2014.

One other topic. Term limits. Something worth talking about?

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By birdie (registered) | Posted August 26, 2010 at 13:26:20

"Term limits. Something worth talking about?" If you have accountability you don't need term limits.

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By another capitalist (anonymous) | Posted August 26, 2010 at 13:41:55

Term limits. Something worth talking about?" If you have accountability you don't need term limits.

Unfortunately, we don't have that from the general populace. And yes, that is our fault.

It also brings fresh new people, with different perspectives and ideas.

Also, this "kingdom" building that is now going on will done.

My two cents.

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By kevin (registered) | Posted August 26, 2010 at 13:42:59

Good for you, Chris. Great article. Your insights and engagement at such a tender age are truly impressive. Maybe, you'll be mayor one day.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted August 26, 2010 at 13:46:05

While I'm a big supporter of alternative voting methods, I tend to think that the ward system itself is the problem. Considering the hyper-low-profile of ward elections (the coming one being an exception thanks to the stadium controversy) I tend to think that ward councillors wield way, way too much power compared vs. the Mayor.

While it may seem less democratic to consolidate the power of the city into the Mayor's office, the fact is that the public is not informed about the actions of the rest of council, and thus can't make informed decisions at the polling station for their ward representatives. Without even political-parties to give them a quick vague idea of each candidate's platform at the polling station, most citizens are voting blind.

Here's the thing: the mayor has as much power as once councillor, plus he officiates the meetings. That's it. However, we have 15 councillors and 1 mayor, which means your vote for your ward representative is 15 times more powerful than the vote you cast for the mayor's office... and yet which vote is getting the more informed decision?

We talk about accountability, but we simply aren't well-informed enough to keep the various councillors accountable.

However, the municipal governance process is run by the Province, so it ain't gonna change.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2010-08-26 12:48:05

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted August 26, 2010 at 14:20:25

Fantastic article Chris!

Instant runoff voting would be a huge improvement to our democracy. At the very least it would end the practice of strategic voting, and voting for who you hate the least. Personally I think voting should be mandatory (with exceptions for special cases of course) with all ballots having a "none of the above" option.

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By Mark-Alan Whittle (anonymous) | Posted August 26, 2010 at 14:42:00

Just make muncicipal voting mandatory, like paying property taxes. Use negative billing to get the point across. Do your civic duty and vote, pay your taxes, get a pass. Problem fixed.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted August 26, 2010 at 14:53:21

Just make muncicipal voting mandatory, like paying property taxes. Use negative billing to get the point across. Do your civic duty and vote, pay your taxes, get a pass. Problem fixed.

Exactly, and for the provincial and federal levels it could be attached to your tax return for that year. Don't vote, get some of your refund docked or if you owe, you now owe some more.

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By Larry Gordon (anonymous) | Posted August 26, 2010 at 15:32:18

Good article Chris. You should also look at fair voting alternatives (i.e., proportional rep models) which are designed to ensure that all groups of voters are fairly represented. With instant run-off voting, you still leave a lot of voters without representation.

If you're interested, I could connect you with some of the people in the Toronto Chapter of Fair Vote Canada, who are working on that same issue in Toronto (unfortunately, we don't have a Hamilton chapter right now). Let me know if you're interested.

Larry Gordon
Exec. Dir., Fair Vote Canada
larry.gordon@fairvote.ca

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 26, 2010 at 17:57:38

Just make muncicipal voting mandatory, like paying property taxes. Use negative billing to get the point across. Do your civic duty and vote, pay your taxes, get a pass. Problem fixed.

Nope.

All that does it get everyone to vote.

Which means, according to what I see here, there and everywhere on a daily basis, that you've got more people voting with 'unqualified opinions'.

Would that make you happy? Getting more people out, but still having votes cast that are uninformed? (I am in no way suggesting that lower voter turnout is 'better'. I am saying that you've accomplished nothing if you haven't increased the general capabilities of voters to make discriminating decisions...and actually be able to DISCUSS issues with some degree of alacrity. Which should not be some 'pie-in-the-sky' dream.)

What's that Sy Syms motto? 'An educated consumer is our best customer.'

As I've been maintaining on my blog...as a direct result of a stellar exchange courtesy of Editor Ryan some time ago now...is the need to create a 'relationship of engagement' on the part of the voting populace with our elected officials. Call it 'two-way accountability' if you will...but as I expressed in the series I recently published, it has to be the result of a broad change in perception of our roles in society, not a goal unto itself.

Comment edited by mystoneycreek on 2010-08-26 16:58:26

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 26, 2010 at 19:32:15

The real question is whether a candidate and their platform can truly act as an effective proxy for the will of voters.

We let billions of dollar fly around the world daily electronically. But we still vote mostly with paper. And when we do use technological aids, it's done with notoriously insecure machines run by radical conservatives like Diebold (who do you think makes Hamilton's vote scanners?).

Even if it isn't binding, we need a system for polling on issues, not personalities. It needs the ability for massive secure polling, not just polling 50 or 200 people then multiplying those results. And it needs the ability for comment and input, not just a single binary yes/no.

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By Hamilton_hopeful (anonymous) | Posted August 26, 2010 at 22:09:24

Interesting article; another thought on that topic.
Eliminate the Ward system and elect councillors at large.
This could help eliminate the fiefdom mentality of the current councillor(s) and instead focus their attention and dedication to the greater good of the city.
Citizen concerns could be addressed by calling a central phone number (currently in place) or having city staff members located throughout the city....

Ask not what your councillor has done for you or your city but what your councillor has done for him/herself...

but more important... ask yourself what have you done for your city?

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By donnajeanmcnabb (registered) | Posted August 28, 2010 at 09:37:10

I'm sure that many people will get out and vote this time, and cast their ballot based strictly on the smoke and mirrors show put on by Bob Young and his ads: ads which say the same thing (essentially nothing) over and over again.

Too bad we couldn't advertise the real need to know issues to create informed voters who would be aware of the truth behind the hyperbole. I'm not sure how you get knowledgeable, informed citizenry who can make wise voting decisions. This, I fear, is the crux of the problem which no change to the voting system can cure. Or am I just being pessimistic?

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By Aaron C (anonymous) | Posted August 28, 2010 at 19:27:56

Speaking to the ward system:

Geographically speaking, it's not like it makes a TON of difference, for most city decisions, which ward you live in.

The idea of proportional representation on the federal level has already been tossed around, and realistically speaking the difference between living in BC or in Newfoundland is a hell of a lot larger then the difference between living in Ancaster and stoney creek. Really all that's happening is regions of the city are being pitted against each other.

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By C. Erl (registered) - website | Posted August 29, 2010 at 13:12:23

First, thanks to everyone for the comments. You're all much too kind and I fear all the compliments will merely embolden me to continue writing!

@Larry Gordon - I completely agree with the sentiment that IRV and STV do leave many voters without representation. My proposal of Instant Runoff Voting was merely to improve upon the non-partisan, ward based system we have in place today.

If Hamilton were to adopt a party system, I would certainly favour Proportional Representation, particularly the Open Party List variant. Using OPL-PR, we would have accountability, proportionality, and local representation. Sadly, the complexity of said system might be a hard sell.

@Hamilton_hopeful - The at-large system might go well if coupled with a ward-based system, but scrapping one for the other might just be proverbially robbing Peter to pay Paul. San Francisco is a good example of this, having elected their municipal representatives at-large for many years before determining that system was unworkable and shifting to a ward system. Their ward system allowed concentrated campaigning efforts, and allowed for the election of the first black female, the first single mother, the first Chinese-American and the first openly gay city councillor in San Fran's history.

All that said, I would really like to see a discussion about this system occur during the 2010 campaign, and in the years that follow. Simply adding wards will not correct the democratic imbalance that we face, if those ward's councillors are chosen the same way that gave us 2006's results.

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By frank (registered) | Posted August 30, 2010 at 08:47:34

Another potential problem with tying voting to property taxes is that some people who are eligible to vote don't pay property taxes, it's not quite the same as a tax return...

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By simonge (registered) | Posted September 18, 2010 at 12:30:29

Electoral reform at all 3 levels of government is the most important thing we could accomplish in Canada right now. It's been 20 years since we had a federal government who received at least 50% of the popular vote. Dundas is not alone.

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