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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, 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. 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.
Consider why we regularly have a majority local government and what effect that has on the voting patterns of Council. Simple, our at large system enables majority outcomes and we can infer the effect, although not necessarily the cause, by routine examination of all Council votes not receiving unanimous support. That stipulation applies to only 98 out of 751 Council votes as of July 31/12. The unanimous votes are predominantly mere formality and not included in this analysis.
Let’s then look at the voting record of City Council. The simplest approach is to calculate the percentage rate of agreement between any pair of Councillors. Each Councillor’s rate can then be averaged and compared to an expected average. Increased levels of variation from an expected average should indicate a greater chance that the voting patterns are more than coincidence. As it turns out, there are three distinct categories. Any two Vision people are in agreement over 94% of the time and most of them are in 100% agreement. (In fact, the only instance of a rogue Vision substantive vote was made by Councillor 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%.
The overall rate of agreement on the 98 votes in question is about 65% so we have to wonder why there are so many Councillors so distant at over 90% agreement rate. The degree to which excessively high disagreement rates are produced is equally alarming and is given equal weight in determining the distortion level inherent in the system. But can we be certain of the cause?
Two answers seem plausible, genuine agreement which naturally draws them to their ideological party of choice or a consequence of the voting system that elected them. It’s also reasonable to expect it to be 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 the at large system of 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 enhances voting records 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.
An attachment has been included to offer those interested an opportunity to look at the agreement rates. There is also some basic information regarding won/lost voting records and the disproportionate value of each Councillor’s vote. The final page gives a rough outline of some of the math involved in measuring the independent voice of each Councillor. It is only intended to show that numbers weren’t pulled out of thin air but unfortunately it’s a bit difficult to follow.
The Councillor’s "grades" from top to bottom are:
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 also be able to demonstrate less partisan politics. Alternatively they may be 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 in the election and her successful votes in Council account for 4.84%. 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% 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.
I hope this article helps to highlight the deficiencies of the at large voting system. Our current voting system is one of the worst. That is why many people including COPE supporters have been lobbying for change to a ward system but sadly that is not much better. 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. The vote degenerates into which party leader is elected Mayor. Subsequently, to be safe in the next election, Councillors may choose to "go along" with their party vote more often than 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.
I will check back in a few months with updated voting patterns and another report card. Perhaps some of our Councillors will endeavour to break ranks from their current alliances. Possible, but also unlikely.