Electoral Reform Gets All Tied Up at Government Management Committee

May 14, 2013

In the end, Government Management Committee item 22.15, Proposed Electoral Reforms, limped forward without recommendation for wider city council consideration deadlocked in a 3-3 tie. alltiedupThose voting against reforming the way we go about casting our ballots municipally? Team Ford. Councillors Vincent Cristanti, Doug Ford and Giorgio Mammoliti, stood firmly in opposition to any change in the status quo, even going as far as putting up a motion to defer the item indefinitely. That salvo was fended off by the rest of the committee, consisting of Chair Paul Ainslie and councillors Mary Fragedakis and Pam McConnell.

At issue was a staff report that proposed four reforms of how we can and who can vote municipally. Any possible changes that might be enacted wouldn’t occur until the 2018 campaign at the mayoral level, 2022 council wide. Nothing too radical or too quickly. Plenty of time to ruminate and consider, and all for a good cause. The promotion of wider civic participation and engagement.

Much of the conversation and most of the deputations revolved around only one of the measures, to rank ballots or not. An alternate way to vote by ranking candidates in order of preference to ensure that the winning candidate gets at least 50%+1 of all votes cast. rankedballotIt’s a pitched battle that has been going on for some time now, not only pitting those in favour of keeping our current First Past the Post system against those proposing the basic 1-2-3 alternate ballot but reformers at odds with each other, arguing the merits of the ranked ballot versus pure proportional representation. That fight is for another post altogether.

But I will say that those speaking under the banner (if not official endorsement) of Fair Vote Canada – the side of proportional representation and against ranked ballots – did themselves no favours. It’s one thing to speak out against a proposal and another thing entirely to positively offer up something in its place. They told the committee members a ranked ballot was not truly proportional and wouldn’t affect the election results all that much. What they didn’t tell us was how their Single Transferable Vote would work at the municipal level.

None seemed really all that familiar with the structure and workings of the local government in fact, intent to graft on an approach to voting much more conducive to a situation with a party system in place and multi-member representation. Not to say that PR and STV couldn’t work in Toronto. singletransferablevoteWe just needed to be shown how.

We weren’t and in reality, the PR deputations seemed to scare off potential committee support from the likes of Councillor Ford to the idea of any sort of electoral reform whatsoever. Which, unfortunately, also threatened other equally important ideas in the item for ways to increase not only voter turnout but civic engagement overall. How our ballots were counted was only part of the solution put forward.

City staff proposed holding elections on one of the weekend days in order to free voters from having to sneak away from work to vote. Staff also suggested extending the right to vote over the internet for those with disabilities. Thirdly (and most importantly to my way of thinking) the report put forward the idea of allowing permanent residents living in Toronto the right to vote in municipal elections.

The chair of the Government Management Committee, Councillor Paul Ainslie, who has been indefatigable in his support of electoral reform, talked about how when he campaigns a solid majority of the residents in single-family dwellings are eligible to vote. The opposite is true when he knocks on doors in apartment buildings. outsidelookinginYou want better election day turnout and more civic engagement? There’s no better place to start than extending the municipal franchise to those living in Toronto, paying taxes and using the city’s services.

As someone native born to this country, and with my Canadianness dating back a whole two generations now, I don’t feel particularly possessive of my right to vote here. It’s one aspect of citizenship, the cornerstone of it even. But I believe the exclusivity to it decreases as we move down the levels of government, from federal to provincial to municipal.

What I find especially egregious in the anti-permanent resident vote at the local level is that it’s perfectly fine for citizens to vote municipally in Toronto even if they don’t live here as long as they own or rent a property in the city. velevetropeI get the reasoning. If you have some pecuniary interest in city business, you should have a say in how the city is run.

Why give that right to just citizens? All permanent residents have financial as well as social interests in Toronto. Giving them the right to vote acknowledges their contributions to this city, the sacrifices they make to live here and the benefits they receive for doing so. It’s like a democracy starter kit. A welcome mat to anyone wanting to put down stakes in Toronto.

Fortunately, all this will be debated again at council despite Team Ford’s best efforts to smother it at committee. Like the representatives of the proportional representation camp, councillors Cristanti, Ford and Mammoliti were content to emphasize the negative without making any sort of positive contribution. Councillor Mammoliti bemoaned how much harder voting is in the suburbs than it is downtown without offering up any motions to address that claim. He chose instead to try and stop any talk of reforms in its tracks. Councillor Ford was all for strengthening the office of the mayor – putting forth a motion to ask the City Manager what kind of legislative amendments were necessary to do so — while merely providing lip-service to giving more power to community councils.

Trying to bolster our democratic process and extend its reach to promote wider and deeper engagement shouldn’t be a partisan issue. nonpartisanOn a lot of fronts, it isn’t. The proportional representation-ranked ballot dust up is largely being fought between the left. City council’s champion of electoral reform is Councillor Paul Ainslie who usually sits centre-right. At Government Management Committee he was backed by two of the more left of centre councillors.

But we heard loud and clear yesterday from those wanting nothing to do with electoral reform. The self-described Looking-Out-For-The-Little-Guys guys. The hardest of the hardcore supporters of Mayor Ford. They came down firmly against change without really saying why. The mark of true reactionaries.

frustratingly submitted by Cityslikr

Our Election Issue

November 17, 2011


I have been given a mandate by the people.

Those are the words inevitably spoken by a politician just freshly elected (or re-elected) to office. The battle has been won. The prize awarded. Absolute rule.

That’s our first past the post voting system for you. Unless held in check by a minority situation in a parliamentary setup, those winning an election govern relatively unhindered by opposition for their entire term. This, regardless of how many voters actually voted for them. Look at Ottawa currently. The newly installed Conservative majority government has almost 54% of the seats in the House of Commons having only secured 39.6% of the popular vote. Absolute rule with fewer than 4 in 10 voters voting for them.

That’s a mandate.

And it’s not at all unusual. In fact, it’s commonplace. The unexception that proves the rule. The last time more than half of Canadians voted for a federal government was 1984 at exactly 50%. Before that, 1958. In Ontario, 1937! That’s right. For all those who remember the vaunted Big Blue Machine that ruled the roost in this province from 1943 until 1985, never once did it secure an absolute majority of voters. Not once.

The lack of true democratic representation is as equally skewed at the municipal level. Last October, Rob Ford was elected mayor of Toronto with just over 47% of the popular vote. Declaring a mandate, he single-handedly scrapped and established transit plan. Just like that. No vote. Just a so-called mandate from less than half the voters who cast ballots.

Even more disturbing, of our 44 councillors nearly half of them, 20 to be exact, were swept into office with less than 50% of the popular vote. Five of those tallied less than 40%. Four less than 30%. One under 20%.

Think about that for a second. A city councillor makes decisions on behalf of his constituents after 4 out of 5 didn’t vote for him. Again, think about that. Line up every voter in that ward and start throwing rocks at them. For every 5 rocks you throw, less than one will hit a voter who voted for their current councillor.

And that’s not all, folks.

Of those 20 councillors elected with less than 50% of the popular vote, 10 were incumbents. That means that even after having been in office, garnering the kind of publicity that brings –at the municipal level, name recognition counts a lot — they could not convince more than half of voters in their ward to vote for them. They didn’t need to. It doesn’t work that way.

Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, Team Ford’s self-proclaimed QB, he of the famous thumb, was returned to city hall by 43.8% of Ward 7 voters. He’s been a councillor since 1995 and was an MPP for five years before that. Before deciding to seek re-election, Councillor Mammoliti ran a very high profile campaign for mayor of the city. With all this, he still couldn’t convince more than half of the voters in his ward to vote for him. But there he now sits beside the mayor, casting votes along with him 100% of the time.

How about John Parker, councillor for Ward 26, in no way a Rob Ford stronghold in last year’s election. Another former MPP and one term incumbent failed to muster even 1 out of 3 votes last fall. Yet, now he’s deputy speaker at council and bona fide member of Team Ford. How could that be considered fair and equal representation?

Now, this is not a partisan issue. The skewed electoral situation breaks almost evenly on both sides of the electoral spectrum although, I should point out that of the Team Ford members who have voted with the mayor more than 2/3s of the time, eleven of those councillors came to office with less than 50% of the popular vote. It suggests to me that the views, opinions and attitudes of the citizens of Toronto are not truly reflected in the direction of how the city’s headed right now.

So it’s little wonder so many of us are ultimately disengaged with the political process. Of all the numbers being bandied about here, the one that is truly the most dispiriting is this one: 53.2%. Barely half of eligible voters even bothered to vote last year and that was a significant jump from previous elections that had dipped under 40%.

We have tuned out and this very well may be one of the reasons. Our votes simply don’t add up. Too many of us cast ballots that ultimately are meaningless. A majority of voters never end up voting for those who govern us. So, of course there’s a disconnect. Why bother voting when chances are very likely that it won’t end up mattering because the other candidate will end up winning.

Not only that but our first past the post electoral system (Is that from a horse racing term? Odd because in horseracing, those betting on the second and third place finishers are rewarded too. Win, place and show.) warps campaigns into also suppressing voter turnout. Negative, nasty races are the norm as cutting your opponents down to size works to your benefit. Less votes for them can work out for you. Assholish behaviour prevails but democracy is dirtied and diminished.

There is a better way to do this.

And I have been anointed by the powers that be here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke to tell you how. Over the next few months, I will be posting pieces on how we can change this. Don’t let anyone tell you we’ve been throw this before and it’s all too complicated. It isn’t. Do not give in to the ease of our status quo bias. There is a better way.

Lesson # 1: RaBIT, Better Ballots, Fair Vote. Check them out, brush up a little. We’ll talk.

Better, fairer, more representative elections are possible. They are coming. Stay tuned.

goadingly submitted by Urban Sophisticat

The Strategic Voting Dilemma

April 17, 2011

I despise strategic voting. It sticks in the craw of my heart. No good can ultimately come of it.

Or can it?

Strategic voting is the unnatural outcome of an ill-fitting electoral system that no longer functions properly. Negative campaigning and voter apathy are its bastard spawn. It promotes a race to the dirty, dank abasement basement, urging politicians to campaign on a platform built purely on I’m Not As Bad As The Other Guy planks. All desperation and no inspiration.

But there are moments when the alternative, of just letting the chips fall where they may and voting with your heart threatens a much, much less palatable result. Suck it up time, you might call it. Leave what’s left of your principles at the polling station door and do what needs to be done. There is a greater good to be served than your good conscience.

Now may be one of those times.

It would seem at this juncture of the federal election campaign there are only two passionate blocs of committed voters: rabidly ideological conservatives who somehow still believe Stephen Harper has earned the right to lead a majority government and those who can’t think of a worse outcome. The latter group will do anything within their democratic means to stop it from happening including strategically casting their ballot behind whatever candidate is in the best position to defeat their Conservative rival. For their part, Conservatives and their flock see nothing but evil behind such machinations.

Project Democracy is a group set up to battle against a Conservative majority government. You can go to the site, find your riding and see if it’s been determined to be a strategic voting hot spot. That is, one where the Conservative candidate is in the running and an ABC vote could well defeat them.

One of the founders of Project Democracy is Alice Klein, NOW magazine editor. In a Toronto Star article published last Wednesday, Ms. Klein described herself as “a passionate post-partisan progressive”. However, I might think of her more as a passionate post-partisan strategic voter. Last October just four days before our municipal election, she endorsed George Smitherman based largely on voting strategically to defeat Rob Ford. While all her dire predictions of the adverse results of a Ford victory are bearing fruit, I just think progressives like Ms. Klein have grown comfortable with simply strategic voting and not demanding that so-called progressive candidates and parties actually court progressive voters. It encourages the likes of George Smitherman, Dalton McGuinty and Michael Ignatieff to ignore left-of-center voters while campaigning essentially on a platform of We’re Not As Bad As ____________ [Fill in the blank with the conservative candidate of your choice.]

If we’re going to be forced to vote strategically, how be we vote strategically to stop any party from forming a false majority government instead? Unless someone can secure more than 50% of the ballots cast, no one deserves to win a majority of seats. That parties can zero in on 40% with the expectation of majority status should be regarded as the biggest affront to our democracy. We need fewer passionate post-partisan progressives and more passionate partisan democratic absolutists.

Any place where more than two parties (or candidates for the same office) contest an election that still utilizes a first-past-the-post electoral system should be the target of our strategic votes. It encourages ruinous partisanship and quells positive participation. Pluralistic societies deserve better than pluralistic outcomes of their elections where, ironically, only the candidate/party with the most votes/seats gets all the power regardless of how many voters voted for/against them.

We should be comfortable with minority governments, coalitions or whatever other name anti-democratic forces use to try and smear it with. It is the best reflection of where we are as a society currently. The square peg being pounded into the round hole these days is the first-past-the-post system that ensures nothing else other than a majority of the voters wind up having voted against the government that now represents them with near impunity until the next election. Majority governments, whatever political stripe they may be, should be seen as the aberration, the surprise outcome of unusual circumstances where 50% + 1 of the voters have come together and voted along party lines. The regression to the mean, the default position, should always be a minority government.If we voters get comfortable with that, come to see that circumstance as natural, then the parties and candidates will adjust accordingly. Rather than scheming, scratching and elbowing their way to a phoney position of absolute power, they will instead endeavour to collaborate and put together a government that actually reflects the will of the majority of people. A situation that has only occurred 3 times at the federal level. And we wonder why we’ve become disenchanted and disengaged?

So yes, strategic vote away but do it for the right reason. Not to stop one particular party from earning a false majority government. To stop any party from gaining a false majority government. Starting there, we may set the process in motion of forging an electoral system that genuinely reveals our intentions when we drop our ballot into the box.

submitted by Urban Sophisticat

Squeezing Discourse At The Debate Level

April 1, 2011

I won’t lie. When I came across a Tweet that read: Pg 41. RT @kady: Btw, given the May kerfuffle, an interesting paper on electoral debate reform (warning: PDF): http://bit.ly/fF1s7A #elxn41 from @garryoakgirl I understood it as ‘an interesting paper on electoral reform’. What with being the resident expert on electoral reform and all that. Imagine my disappointment when I went to all the trouble of downloading it, and sat to read it with red pen and highlighter in hand only to discover it was in fact a 60-odd page report written by Michelle Rogers at Queen’s University’s Centre For The Study of Democracy on ‘electoral debate reform’.

Oh man, what a waste of paper and toner! Debates are debates, right? I’m all about the electoral reform, the complete package. Full on proportional representation, etc., etc.

Yeah well, I defy anyone to take a look at Ms. Rogers’ report and not have their blood boiling by page 23. One might draw a line, if one were so inclined and had a writing utensil and straight edge, between our lack of truly representational government and our lack of democratic leaders debates. It might be a bit of a stretch but I don’t think it unreasonable to suggest that stifling wider debate on the campaign trail leads to a narrower discussion of issues after the election. If we don’t hear all the voices out there asking for our votes, how can we make an informed decision when casting our ballots? And if we don’t make an informed decision when casting our ballots, how can we get truly representative government?

And how do I make a seamless transition from the above paragraph to my overview of the report? Let’s pretend I just did.

In televised debates, there are 3 interests to be served. The party/candidate whose main concern is being represented fairly and delivering an appealing, compelling persona that will increase voters’ positive perception of them and the likelihood of securing their vote. There’s the media who want good television, must see TV. And finally, the public.

All three coming together in the hopes of heightened public awareness and engagement in the political process.

And yet… and yet, the numbers in terms of voter turnout suggest that’s not happening. Was it something we said? Apathy and cynicism rather then engagement reigns.

Perhaps it’s because in the triumvirate of interests that constitute televised debates, the public is pretty well an afterthought. The logistics of electoral debates – the whens, wheres, the whos, the how manys — are ironed out far from the voters’ view, behind closed doors between what is called the Broadcast Consortium and representatives of the parties. The parties, of course, said Broadcast Consortium deems worthy of inclusion. Two of the three stakeholders, to use the parlance of our times, in the debates process decide on everything while the third gets to watch the result on TV. Maybe we’ll let you ask a question or two, heavily vetted naturally.

How does that arrangement foster democracy and participation? As we witnessed last year during Toronto’s mayoral campaign, television networks arbitrarily and summarily determined who were to be considered viable or serious candidates with little reasoning beyond, well, we’ve heard of them before or somebody who’s somebody has heard of them before. From the very beginning. There was no winnowing down along the way. No clicking the refresh button to incorporate any changes on the campaign landscape. Probably because the only changes that happened happened within the bubble of contenders the media created from the outset. It was all self-fulfilling because it’s designed to be self-fulfilling.

Other countries have independent, non-partisan bodies in place to deal with political debates. A cross section of the public that isn’t made up entirely of network executives and backroom politicos. The intention is to designate a group to make decisions based on what’s best for all parties involved, politicians, media and voters, not just the most powerful of the three.

Such a body was suggested way back in the 90s in a report done for the Lortie Commission. Yet it and a number of other recommendations never made it to the final cut which ostensibly upheld the status quo. Established parties and network executives know best. Nothing to see here, carry on about your business, ladies and gentlemen. A surprise result, I know, for a government commission.

And here we are, nearly 20 years later and the debate still continues to be framed by very narrow special interests. Elizabeth May’s exclusion from the leadership debate this week was not the first time for the Green Party, nor was it in 2008. Way back in 1988 after the election that year, the party took the CBC et al to court because it had been turned away from the leaders’ debate at that time. It lost and that seems to be the measure we’re still using to keep them from the table.

But much has changed since then. The Green Party suggested a method that could be used to determine eligibility which seems fair and reasonable. A 3 of 4 qualifying scheme, like determining CanCon. To be included in a televised leaders debate a party must possess 3 of either i) having an elected MP; ii) be running candidates in all ridings; iii) be federally funded; iv) have at least 5% support in national opinion polls. Now, I’d reduce it even further and say that inclusion would be predicted on having 2 of these 3: an elected MP or running candidates in all ridings or be federally funded since funding is based on achieving a certain percentage of the popular vote.

This idea we tightly hold onto of the Green Party being fringe simply comes from the result of our antiquated and hopelessly undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system. Where true proportional representation is in force, the Greens are often times a serious factor in the government make-up. The latest evidence of that occurred last weekend in Germany where, in state elections, Baden-Württemberg Green Party leader, Winfried Kretschmann, became the first ever Green Premier.

The continued marginalization of the Greens in our country from participating fully in the political discourse by small vested interests intent on maintaining the status quo is a growing blot on our democracy. Adherence to old ways of doing things simply because that’s the way we’ve always done them regardless of the obvious deleterious effects seems nothing short of determinedly pathological. Our way of doing politics as it stands presently is itself becoming fringe.

There is a better way. We know it. We can show it and see it at work around us. Yet we insist on continuing along a path that can only lead to continued cynicism, apathy and disillusion.

greenly submitted by Urban Sophisticat

When The Writ Comes Down

March 25, 2011

Dear Federal Politicians,

We here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke don’t tend to write about you too often. Partly it’s because you seem so far away and distant from us but mostly because your behaviour has been nothing short of reprehensible for the past five years or so. Like watching a version of Gossip Girl set in an exclusive boys school.

But it seems that unless we are prepared to leave the country for the next month and half (which, if this kind of spring weather keeps up, wouldn’t be a bad idea) there’s no ignoring you.  So think of this little missive as some friendly advice.  A How To manual offering tips and coaching on How To best woo us and secure our votes.

It’s relatively simple, really. How about running on a healthy, vibrant, strong city platform? As has been regularly pointed out, some 80% of Canadians live in urban centres. Now, to be fair, I think those numbers are a little misleading because if I understand correctly that’s based on the definition of ‘urban’ as non-agricultural centres. Any old shithole with more than 10, 000 people and, let’s face it, only hillbillies live in places with 10, 000 people.

So I’ve done some quick number crunching in order to provide you with a more realistic picture.

According to the 2006 census (of the long form type, I imagine), just over 16 million Canadians live in cities and city regions of more than half a million people. That’s roughly half of the country’s population. Throw in another 2.65 million who dwell in places with more than 250 thousand people, and another 2.84 million from cities of a 100k+, and that’s roughly 21.5 million Canadians living in cities with populations of more than 100, 000.

That’d be about 2/3s of us. A healthy majority to tap into if you’re looking at it from a strategic standpoint. It would also challenge the regional blocks that have taken hold of our system, pitting west against east, Quebec against the rest of us and maybe even the urban-suburban divide that is so ably exploited right now. No city can be strong if only a part of it is strong.

So Toronto might realize that it has much more in common with Calgary than it does with Backwarddumptown, Ontario. And Calgary would see that, language aside, Montrealers share a similar view of the world since they live, first, in a big city and only second in a different province. Vancouver, well, it doesn’t care right now because they are dreaming of a Stanley Cup but I don’t think they would take exception to my theory on this.

We’re a big hunk of voters, is what I’m saying, us city folk. Lining up a bunch of us under your banner would go a long way to helping form a government, you federal politicians. Maybe even a majority, you know what I’m saying? What percentage of the 66% of us would you need to secure that? I’m asking because I don’t know. You’re the experts. I shouldn’t have to do all the work for you.

Except, of course, it doesn’t work like that. Because we are still subject to an antiquated first-past-the-post, disproportionally representational electoral system that has not been significantly altered since Confederation, nearly 150 years ago when almost all of us were still fucking farmers! How is that possible? We bitch and moan about how turned off politics we are, how little our votes count, the degree of disregard our elected officials hold us in, the apathy, the cynicism and yet we continue to allow ourselves to be undemocratically represented. Of course we’re apathetic. For most of us, our votes don’t count and the act of voting is an empty exercise. Of course our politicians cynically disregard the majority of us. They don’t need a majority of us to be able to form a government even a so-called majority government.

This system of ours that we so proudly hail as a model of democracy the oppressed of the world should fight to emulate doesn’t really hold up in the modern light as something  truly democratic. It enables politicians to ignore sizeable portions of the population by simply pandering heavily to small regional hot spots.  For the past 5 years we’ve had a government in Ottawa that has maintained power without a single representative in the country’s 3 largest metropolitan centres. So is it at all surprising that we continue to languish without a national transit strategy or national housing strategy, where both these are needed most in the places with no voice in the government?

OK, so maybe what we should be looking for, those 60+% of us who never actually elected our governments in Ottawa, is a party dedicated to the cause of electoral reform.  Let’s all read up and get familiar with the work being done at Fair Vote Canada. Learn about true proportional representation, the benefits and the ways in which we can go about achieving it. Without it, nothing much is really going to change and we all just might end up agreeing with the Conservatives that this was an unnecessary process. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

It’s time we stopped that from happening.

urbanly submitted by Urban Sophisticat