The Calgary Herald on Friday October 11 2013 carried an article headlined ‘Calgary may need more aldermen’. Excuse me, headline writer – from this year our representatives are councillors. Do we really need more councillors or do we need a better system of representation?
Herald reporter Michael Wright points out that each ward representative has more constituents than in many other cities, so more councillors may be needed. Mayor Nenshi is reported to say that we may need to add staffing to each councillor’s ward office to better deal with constituents’ issues. But so few people have been voting (only 53% of electors in 2010, considered to be a high number compared to the usual 30% in municipal elections) – is there really that much interest in municipal political representation? Do people really care about their city?
What we need first is a way to get more people interested in voting. That could happen if people thought that their votes actually meant something, that their votes actually helped to elect a mayor or councillor rather than being lost or wasted. If a councillor can be elected with as little as 25% of the vote (Gael MacLeod, Ward 4, 2010), three quarters of the people who voted in that ward are going to feel that their vote was wasted. Twenty-five percent of 53% means very few people voted for MacLeod to be their Alderman in 2010 – is it a truly democratic election when only one eighth of the ward’s electorate selects its representative? We need a way to encourage people to vote and to make every vote count.
Calgary elects a mayor from the whole population and one councillor for each of 14 wards using the plurality / majority (First Past The Post or FPTP) voting system, mandated by provincial legislation. The candidate with the most votes is elected. At the last municipal election, the mayor was elected with 40% of the vote – which means that 60% of the people voted for someone else. The mayor’s nearest rival won 32% of the vote. Of the 14 aldermen, only five were elected with an absolute majority (more than 50% of the vote +1). In seven wards, the elected alderman won over his or her nearest rival by 10% or less of the vote.
We need a better system of voting, one that makes every vote count. A good proportional representation (PR) system would permit voters to choose from more choices or preferences on the ballot. Counting the votes would then be carried out so as to elect a mayor with a true majority and one or more councillors so that the ward or city-wide popular vote would be truly represented on Council. Just how that would be arranged is a subject for further discussion by skilled election designers; it has been done and tested in many other jurisdictions worldwide.
Does Calgary need more councillors? Wikipedia reports:
‘Typically, a municipal government (presumably in Canada only) is made up of one mayor . . . and a set number of councillors . . . There are usually 10-20 councillors in one council, however an exception to this is Montreal, with over 50 councillors. The councillors may represent districts called wards’.
Calgary, with 14 councillors, now has a 1:79,000 (approximately) councillor:constituent ratio. If there were 20 councillors, the ratio drops to about 1:55,000. It is hard to compare councillor workloads from city to city, since each is governed by different provincial legislation or city charter, and each city assumes differing degrees of responsibility. However, each constituent has much improved access to a councillor when there are more councillors.
I used to live in Glasgow, Scotland when the population was around one million. “Glasgow (Scotland) City Council comprises 79 elected Members, representing 21 multi-member wards of 3 or 4 members. Glasgow, with a population of around 600,000, is Scotland’s largest city and is the commercial capital of Scotland”. (Source: City of Glasgow web site). The representation ratio is therefore about 1:7,595.
If we assume Calgary needs more councillors, how might that be achieved? Conventionally, the city could be separated into 20 wards and one councillor elected from each ward. This might mean that each councillor’s main interest could be getting something fixed in his or her ward, and that might not necessarily be in the whole city’s best interest. Should all 14 or 20 councillors be elected by the whole population, city-wide? That could make election campaigns impossible to run except for very well financed candidates, already seen as an issue in Calgary. What are some possibilities?
In Glasgow in 2012, the municipal election was carried out thus:
“The voting system
Councillors will be elected by the Single Transferable Vote System of proportional representation. This means that instead of putting an X next to your preferred candidate you will be asked to number the candidates in order of choice using 1, 2, 3 and so on. You can choose how many candidates to number. You don’t have to number every candidate. As long as you number at least one, your vote will be counted. Votes will be counted the day after the election.” (City of Glasgow web site. The site details the counting method in a later paragraph and links to a detailed information sheet).
Would the outcome of a previous Calgary election have been different under proportional representation? Possibly. Who can tell how the very many voters who didn’t vote last time would have voted if they felt their votes were important and actually went out and did vote? Experience in other jurisdictions using proportional representation shows a greater willingness for the voters to vote. More women and people from minority groups stand for election and get elected. If more people do vote, it is democracy that wins more than any candidate.
Is proportional representation needed in Calgary? Undoubtedly, with a well designed system, it would lead to a fairer result, reflecting the opinion of the population as a whole. Fair Vote Calgary thinks it is time to find out and implement a change in 2017, making every vote count and resulting in a fairer election. It will take pressure by the electorate on their councillors and MLAs to make the legislative and procedural changes.