The City of Vancouver had a ward system in place until 1936.
There has been much discussion over the years to revert Vancouver’s at-large electoral system back to wards. There were even multiple plebiscites on the subject. The closest vote took place in 1982, when 57% of electors voted in favour of a ward system. The plebiscite did not succeed, as the threshold for the measure to pass was 60%. In 1988 the Electoral Boundaries Commission recommended that the City of Vancouver be divided into 10 wards (as illustrated above). Since 1988, a number of cities in Western Canada have switch from an at-large electoral system to a ward system; these cities include Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and Saskatoon.
The full history of Vancouver’s Elected Representatives is documented in a book by Wayne Madden (a PDF is available on the City of Vancouver Archives website). The results of all the elections from 1886 to 2002 are thoroughly documented. The first City Council in 1886 was made up of Mayor MacLean and 10 Aldermen. Two Aldermen (“Councillors”) were elected from each of the 5 Wards. The number of Wards was expanded to 6, 8, and later 12 (in 1928, with one Alderman per Ward). The ward system was abolished after 1936; the vote in favour of an at-large system may have been partly due to a public response a corruption scandal and a financial crisis in the middle of the Great Depression.
A Ward System and other Reforms
Would a ward system be effective in Vancouver today? Or would many of the same issues that occur in First-Past-The-Post electoral systems used in provincial and federal elections be replicated on a City scale?
The ward system would greatly simplify elections. Rather than choosing from 149 names on a ballot (as in 2014), a voter would have a ballot that is much easier to comprehend. Listed on a ballot would the names of Mayoral Candidates, and only candidates running in the Ward (for Council, School Board and Park Board respectively). Proponents of wards argue that Councillors are far more receptive to the voices of their constituents than the at-large system. Voters are also better able to cope with researching a much smaller selection of candidates.
One of the challenges of the current system is the impact of big money on Vancouver elections. In 2014, a total of 23 out of 27 elected representatives ran under the banners of local political parties that spend in excess of $2 million during the campaign.
Meaningful campaign finance reform would be required to level the playing field, even in a ward system. The political machinery in place for the at-large system could be readily adapted for a ward system (local political parties could campaign around a mayoral campaign and link the party’s ward councillor candidates to the mayor). We could even end up with a system with only two well-financed parties in power in Vancouver City Hall, as independent candidates and smaller parties would not be able to compete financially in an unfair election.
Majority governments could continue to be elected with a minority of voters, as is the case in the current at-large system.
Ward System and Independent Candidates
One way to even the playing field is to get local political parties out of the picture. The Province of Ontario bans political parties from participating in civic elections. The City of Toronto has 44 Wards; each of the candidates running for City Council is an independent. If B.C.’s version of local political parties, the “elector organizations” were banned, then candidates would not be able run under an established brand. Coupled with meaningful financial reform, term limits and shorter election cycles, a ward system could be a vast improvement over the at-large system in place at the City of Vancouver.
Another alternative to the at-large system is proportional representation (for further details please see: Proportional Representation an alternative to Vancouver’s at-large civic system). Changes to the Vancouver Charter by the BC Legislature would be required for a Proportional Representation system to be put in place.
Ontario is currently studying the use of Proportional Representation systems for Municipal Elections. There’s a good summary of ranked ballot systems on the Ontario Municipal Affairs and Housing webpage.
Report of the City of Vancouver Electoral Boundaries Commission 1988 (VPL Call No. 352.071V22wr)
Vancouver’s Elected Representatives (Wayne Madden, 2003, no copyright)