CityHallWatch introduction: The article below was researched by Grant Fraser and represents his many hours of analysis and review of all votes cast by the current Vancouver City Council (i.e., since Nov 2011). His work focuses on the independence of individual Council members when they vote, and concludes that Vision Vancouver’s elected officials vote as one bloc (with absolute power, having eight of eleven votes on Council, despite having received only a small proportion of eligible voters’ votes). Fraser’s work was first published September 8, 2012, on Vancouver Media Coop, which also carries a fascinating discussion of our city’s electoral system in the comments section. It is interesting to compare and contrast Fraser’s approach with work by Joseph Jones in his Vancouver Council Votes blog analyzing the previous Council’s voting behaviour (2008 to 2011). Jones selected Council voting records on the hottest issues for neighbourhoods, and his work showed that Vision Vancouver consistently voted as a bloc against the predominant wishes of neighbourhoods. A key issue for CityHallWatch is the structural conflict of interest in Vancouver’s civic government system. This city has Canada’s most expensive civic elections, with the political contributions to both of the dominant parties coming primarily from developers. We believe that regulators should never be funded by those they are supposed to regulate. But in Vancouver, after being elected with developer-funded campaigns, the dominant party proceeds to vote as one bloc — typically favoring its developer funders. Fraser’s analysis takes a new approach, but as suggested by the title of his article, perhaps we really are witnessing, close-up, the failings of our democracy at the local level. And now, the article….followed by epilogue by CityHallWatch.
The Failings of a Democracy, by Grant Fraser
(Originally published September 8, 2012, on Vancouver Media Coop, copied below with his permission.)
The question I keep asking myself is “Are we getting what we bargained for when we voted at our latest civic election?” What do we expect? And how do we measure what we actually received? We start with the principle that we are living in a representative democracy. So what do the voting habits of eleven people indicate? Are their votes representative of the people who elected them? I don’t think so. Although I don’t think that what follows could be called surprising, I think it is somewhat illuminating and definitely thought provoking.
Our City Council, not to mention the various sub-committees which include Metro Vancouver (all six Board members being Vision), is dominated by Vision Vancouver with a majority of eight including Mayor Robertson. While 144,823 people or 34.57% of registered voters cast ballots of which only 84.60% were counted as valid for a total of 1,347,671 votes, just 490,884 or a mere 36.42% of the votes, less than 11% of registered voters, voted for Vision. That doesn’t seem representative. And how much do Vision Council votes count for? 91% !!! Only 9% of successful voting at City Hall so far this term can be attributed to Councillors Affleck, Ball and Carr, and only if they happen to be voting with the Vision majority at the time.
It’s almost like their voice is irrelevant. Is that what people want from their democracy, to be electing people with virtually no say in forming policy? Doesn’t this mean that those who support the elected minority also have no voice at City Hall? While apathy is no solution, it’s hard to convince those who are repeatedly ignored to help validate a distorted democratic process, which judging by the voter turnout, they don’t. Obviously we need to do something to stop this Vision Vancouver juggernaut from ramming their agenda down our throats.
Not so fast. Vision Vancouver is not the problem. Those that were elected, including all eight Vision candidates, won a legitimate contest to determine who would be in charge for the next three years. It was what many consider to be a fair election. There was just one problem. The sleight of hand by which these people were elected is in itself an exercise in democratic deception. It may seem trivial but in fact, different voting methods produce different results and different governance structures. I’m sure most people have a passing awareness of the change at the national level since a majority government finally took office last year.
Block voting or at large (our current system) is one of the worst. That is why many people including COPE have been lobbying for change to a ward system but sadly that is not much better. I won’t be going into other systems here but I hope to demonstrate how terrible our current system is. Basically the problem is that unless there is significant difference in the voting habits of the elected representatives of any one party, then anybody that would vote for a member of that party can be reasonably expected to vote for every member of that party and the vote degenerates into which party leader is elected Mayor. Subsequently, to be safe in the next election, members of the same party may choose to “go along” with their party vote more often than they might do so if given free rein to voice their honest opinion. Or possibly every member of that party agrees on everything in the universe all the time. Possible, but unlikely.
Let’s then look at the voting record of the City Council, paying particular attention to how often any two members vote the same way. We can also look at how often they disagree as it is often the habit of those in the minority to be opposed just for the appearance of being an alternative voice although they would support a given issue if they were in power. As it turns out, there are three distinct categories. Any two Vision people are in agreement over 94% of the time and most them are in 100% agreement. (In fact, the only instance of a rogue Vision substantive vote was made by Andrea Reimer, the other discrepancies being three consecutive votes which amount to a mockery of Council) The two NPA Councillors are only in agreement 92% while at the same time opposing the Vision vote between 73% – 84% of the time. Councillor Carr somehow manages to hold up fairly evenly between 36% – 42% agreement with all Councillors except Councillor Ball at 47%.
These numbers are taken from the 98 votes as of July 31/12 that have not been unanimous. Those votes of unanimity (653) have been omitted because it is assumed that they are not contentious and are frequently mere formalities. In fact the vast majority (397) are simply votes on how to run their meetings. The overall rate of agreement on the 98 votes in question is 65% so we have to wonder why there are so many Councillors so distant at over 90% agreement rate.
Two answers seem plausible, it is either the result of block voting or there is genuine agreement amongst these people drawing them to their party of choice which closely identifies with their personal ideology or perhaps a combination of the two. It must be remembered of course that the resultant block voting is not necessarily indicative of wilful desire to abuse the power of the majority status, indeed minority votes tend to exhibit similar agreement rates. Rather this is indicative of the distortion of representation that we receive as a result of the method of voting chosen for the election.
While it must be pointed out that my attempt here is to show and as much as possible measure the flaws inherent in block voting, it is equally possible to ascertain the merits of an independent voice in an elected body. Using a formula and grading system devised for this purpose which rewards those Councillors closest to the expected agreement rate (somewhere between 50% and the overall rate of 65%), the “performance” of our Mayor and Councillors thus far can be seen below. It must be stressed that this is not an evaluation or opinion of the quality of their voting record. It is instead a measure of their independence from the other Council members and as such their effectiveness at overcoming a poor voting system. For those interested, an explanation of how these “grades” were arrived at can be found in the spreadsheet that accompanies this article.
From top to bottom:
Adriane Carr B
George Affleck D
Elizabeth Ball D-
Andrea Reimer F
Raymond Louie F
Tim Stevenson F
Tony Tang F
Kerry Jang F
Heather Deal F
Geoff Meggs F
Gregor Robertson F
I mentioned earlier that Vision Vancouver is not the problem but I feel they need to accept the lion’s share of blame for their part in retaining an obviously flawed system, as does the NPA. After all if one Councillor can overcome a shoddy electoral system, then others should be able to demonstrate less partisan politics unless they are willing to concede that it is the very nature of the system that causes the partisanship and inevitable disproportionate representation. And while it is true that the provincial government sets the rules for civic elections, our leaders should not use that as an excuse.
It should be noted that there is also a strong correlation between the above list and the difference for each Council member between their election percentage vote and their successful Council vote percentage. For instance Councillor Carr received 4.04% of the vote and her successful votes in Council account for 4.84% while the Vision Vancouver members are at the higher distorted end with Councillor Tang leading the way at nearly 3 times his November vote percentage.
That actually illustrates another issue which this analysis brings into view. A look at the election results show just how close that tenth Councillor spot was, only 90 votes or less than .01% [note correction to .01%] between Adriane Carr (48,648) and Ellen Woodsworth (48,558) with Bill Yuen (48,407) only another 151 votes behind that. In fact 7 NPA and 2 COPE candidates were extremely close to getting in, all within that magical 9,400 vote difference. Right now you’re thinking, “What does he mean close? Am I missing something?” Well you probably are. What isn’t obvious is that Raymond Louie received the most votes (63,273) while Tony Tang (53,874) received the fewest for a Vision candidate. This means that at least 9,399 people voted to be represented by Raymond Louie but did not feel comfortable with the way Tony Tang might vote if elected to City Council. Yet of the 69 Council votes where both of them have been in attendance, not once have they voted differently. I suppose only time will tell if those people who perhaps could have been the difference for any one of nine candidates, feel that they got what they expected when they voted for only one half of an electorally indistinguishable pair.
Download data: Voting Analysis by Grant Fraser Note: Excel format contains multiple sheets! Analysis reproduced here with kind permission of Grant Fraser. This is a guest column and as such views expressed do not necessarily correspond with the views of CityHallWatch.
CityHallWatch epilogue: In the future, further analysis could be taken to see if there is any correlation between Council votes and political campaign contributors. For example, if a voting analysis were to be scoped and confined to Public Hearings and items with proponents who stand to benefit from a council decision (such as CD-1 rezonings and HRAs in excess of $5 million). Such an analysis could be used to see if there are any patterns to voting. Is there predictability to caucus-level voting by the dominant civic party depending on who funded its election campaign? Is there a ‘Wizard of Oz’ standing behind the curtain and pressing the right buttons to influence votes by remote control? Or is there no correlation at all between voting records and political campaign contributions? This is a question that requires further research.
Many citizens and civic groups have felt that the dominant civic party has already decided how to vote even before hearing public input in Council or a Public Hearing. Despite overwhelming public opposition, rezoning applications and controversial motions and rezoning applications have been adopted by block vote, with only cosmetic changes. How is it that those councillors who vote as a block happen to come to the same conclusion? Are they being instructed on how to vote? How are positions decided behind the scenes, when, and in consultation with whom? Are last-minute issues handled by e-mail among a privileged few? Do designated councillors set the lead by their words or some code during meetings? Are senior and more powerful councillors bullying the newer, junior councillors, telling them how they shall vote?
At the “Why Don’t More Good People Enter Politics?” conference organized by UBC Political Science in November 2011, just after the most recent Vancouver civic election, participants heard about the results of a study by Samara (www.samaracanada.com, a foundation seeking a better democracy in Canada). The study, based on exit interviews of Members of Parliament (see “MP Exit Interviews“), found that one of the biggest hindrances of democracy at the federal level was the pressure on elected officials to vote as their party required them to vote, rather than voting on individual values and conscience. Do we have the same problem at the Vancouver civic level? Perhaps yes.
As noted above, the voting record of the previous council (2008-2011) on major issues is available on the website VancouverCouncilVotes. Different methodology. Some similar conclusions.