Switching to a ward system may increase the risk for weak candidates
The debate surrounding a ward versus at-large system has been interesting and progressive this election cycle, reflecting the merits and weaknesses of each option.
The fact that it’s even on the ballot this year says something innately commendable about our community: we have a high degree of political engagement in our citizenry on that issue, which is great.
In the past eight elections, all have had 14 or more candidates on the ballot; six of the eight have had 15 or more; four of eight have seen 18-plus; and three of them have had 20-plus candidates running.
Therein, however, lies a dilemma: at some point, too many choices may actually work against the best exercise of our democratic process.
This year, voters have to wade through the websites, tweets, posts, pamphlets and speeches of 30 council hopefuls. Not only is this a daunting challenge for even the most committed elector, it may in fact contribute to greater voter apathy and fatigue, since it takes time to become informed.
With so many options, some voters either abstain from voting altogether, feeling woefully uninformed, or merely vote for familiar incumbents, skewing the inherent bias favouring incumbents further in their favour.
If you’re out there feeling a little overwhelmed by the options, you’re not alone.
Advocate assistant city editor Mary Ann Barr recently opined that this factor alone warrants support for a ward system: “While it’s great to have so many people willing to take the plunge, it’s simply unmanageable for voters to get a good feel with so many candidates. Break them into five or six wards (some with perhaps more than one seat) for example, and everything changes. … Would you prefer to attend a candidate forum where there are five or six candidates, or 30?”
Case in point: unable to attend the Golden Circle forum, I watched the whole of it online, and frankly found it a little tedious for the first time in nearly two decades of attending such events. Not that it was uninteresting or unenjoyable, I just found it tested my limits as an engaged voter.
Also challenging is the fact that each candidate can only be given a few opportunities to speak — each for only one minute at a time. What is there of substance anyone can say in just one minute? Very little in most cases, oft-times reducing a candidate’s persona and platform to clichéd sound-bites.
So I spent the past few weeks seriously considering the merits of a ward system, from every angle possible. While I share Barr’s frustration over voter fatigue, I finally concluded in my own mind to stick with the at-large format for now.
The greatest strength of our current system is that it tends to elect the best, most-qualified eight people from the entire city to our council. In a ward system, several of the current slate of candidates would be pitted against each other for one or two positions in a given ward. A handful of well-qualified (even incumbent) hopefuls could easily be shut out.
Conversely, a ward system increases the risk of weak or less-qualified candidates finding their way onto council for want of solid opposition in a particular area. To my knowledge, for example, there is currently only one incumbent councillor who resides north of the river, which might become an issue if in fact a ward system were implemented without further growth and expansion of the city.
Proponents counter that candidates don’t need to reside in a ward to run for it, thus addressing the risk of losing qualified candidates. This, however, raises potential conflict of interest concerns when issues arise that might pit a councillor elected to Ward A but residing in Ward B against her own personal or neighbourhood interests. Candidates might be tempted to “cherry pick” wards where a better chance of victory is perceived.
Given our current population of just under 100,000, we’re still small enough that an at-large system accommodates our needs for the time being. Vancouver (nearly 600,000) still elects councillors at-large (though honestly it escapes me why). Sudbury, Ont., is currently debating whether to abandon their adopted ward system to return to at-large status, due to highly publicized council infighting.
At the end of the day, there are pitfalls either way. Trust your gut on this one.
Vesna Higham is a local lawyer, former Red Deer city councillor and a freelance columnist.