(photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
Advance voting is underway across British Columbia for municipal elections that culminate Oct. 20.
There are many dedicated, informed people with excellent ideas running for office in Vancouver and in communities across British Columbia. This is especially fortunate, since this year saw what may be the greatest number of incumbents in recent memory opt not to seek reelection. Of the 10 members of Vancouver city council, for example, only three are running for reelection. (One is running for mayor.) Mayor Gregor Robertson is also leaving the scene.
A similar change is evident across Metro Vancouver, where an inordinate number of incumbent mayors and councilors have chosen not to continue serving. Part of this may be coincidence and part may be that new funding rules put in place by the province have made the task of running more challenging, in some ways. Whatever the reasons, Vancouver and many other communities face a major realignment in our local politics.
Especially at a time like this, it is a little disappointing that there are not more individuals from the Jewish community who have chosen to offer themselves for office. It has been encouraging, on the other hand, to see the number of people from the community who are volunteering on campaigns and taking a very active role in engaging with candidates. The candidates forum for several mayoral hopefuls, sponsored by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and the social service agency SUCCESS, was well attended. Another event, organized by CIJA and the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee, allowed people to speak one-on-one with those who would like to be mayor of Vancouver.
There are, of course, not a lot of “Jewish issues” in local elections, though candidates for mayor addressed a number of things that are of concern to the Jewish community at a recent candidates forum. (For story, click here.) Ensuring that our municipalities remain welcoming, safe places for members of every ethnocultural community is a top priority. Part of that comes from people in positions of leadership leading by example. We have seen, in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, the licence that can be given to people with ill will when leaders choose to engage in incendiary language. It has been reassuring that there have, to date, been no serious incidents in local campaigns of overtly divisive language or strategies.
While the atmosphere has not been terribly divisive, division is the key word for traditional political parties in Vancouver.
Vision Vancouver, which has dominated the city for the last decade, has collapsed, not even managing to put up a candidate for mayor. The Non-Partisan Association (NPA) is a house divided, with at least two new parties emerging from disaffected former members.
The likelihood of independent candidates being elected to Vancouver city council and boards – as well as to the mayor’s chair – has probably never been greater. It could be an interesting mix for the next four years, with a constructive amalgam of different ideas coming together to synthesize into good policy – or it could be four years of chaos.
On the topic of chaos … a word about Vancouver’s at-large voting system. It is difficult enough to make an informed choice for the one position of mayor with 21 people contesting the race. It is an entirely different ballgame to try to make sense of the 137 candidates running for the 26 positions on city council, school board and park board. There is simply no way to expect reasonable, ordinary people to inform themselves adequately about this number of candidates.
Vancouverites have been floating the possibility of a ward system for decades but still face this daunting and compendious ballot every election. A ward system would not be without it faults – it could have the effect, for example, of elected officials representing their narrow constituencies against the broader interests of the city at large – but it would certainly permit average voters to become more familiar with the candidates who would represent them.
For now, though, this is the system we are in. And finding our way through it and voting with the best information we can access is the least we can do as citizens of a democracy. Despite the fact that local government is the one that has the most direct impact on our everyday lives, it is also the one that tends to attract the lowest voter turnout.
The last election saw a turnout of about 43%, which is comparatively good for a local election. (The one before that saw less than 35% turnout.) Some observers have suggested that the circus-like circumstances this year could help voter turnout, with so many new groups and independent candidates trying to get their supporters to the polls. Still, with 21 candidates for mayor – at least a half-dozen of them serious contenders – the possibility of someone taking the position with, say, 25% of the vote, is a real possibility. If turnout were to rise to a comparatively healthy level of, say, 50%, that would still mean the mayor has a mandate from a mere 12.5% of voters.
But, consider this from your perspective as a voter: the power of your one ballot to influence the outcome may be higher than ever.