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.
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
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.
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.
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
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?
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.