Vancouver mayor betrays residents by not replacing discriminatory voting system

Kennedy Stewart hasn't acted on promise to change system that disenfranchises racialized residents
Photo: Mayor Kennedy Stewart in Vancouver City Council chambers in December 2018. Photo by Kent Lins.
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After spending his entire academic and political career opposing discriminatory voting systems, Vancouver’s new mayor has largely fallen silent on the issue since assuming power. Rather than spearheading electoral reform that would provide a fair opportunity for racialized residents to be elected to city council, Kennedy Stewart is instead providing excuses for inaction — some perhaps reasonable, some indisputably not.

Every municipality in British Columbia, including Vancouver, uses an election system known as plurality-at-large (or block voting). Rather than voting for one candidate to represent the local area, this system involves electing multiple politicians who all govern the same, larger area. For example, a community would elect several councillors, each representing the entire municipality, rather than voting in local councillors to represent wards.

Plurality-at-large is quite common across Canada but is typically reserved for use in less populated communities. Most large cities instead employ first-past-the-post voting, the same system used in provincial and federal elections. The country’s glaring exception is British Columbia, where even the highest-populated cities use plurality-at-large for their municipal elections.

A lengthy ballot from Vancouver's 2018 municipal election.
@WesMussio/Twitter

This is a problem. Plurality at large is a majoritarian voting system, meaning that the majority of voters often get all of the representation, to the detriment of the minority. Applying a racial equity lens, this electoral system ensures that the largest racial group is overrepresented compared to its actual proportion of the population, while most or all other racialized groups are underrepresented or not represented at all.

What does this mean in practice? In short, Vancouver elections have discriminatory outcomes. Typically, residents of Chinese descent have been reasonably well represented on City Council in recent decades. But white voters are usually overrepresented, while other racialized groups find it virtually impossible to get elected.

Residents of South Asian descent comprise the city’s third-largest racial group, yet it’s been almost 50 years since such a person was elected to council. Vancouverites of Filipinx descent make up the city’s fourth-largest group, yet they have never been elected to any municipal office in the city’s history. (Compare that to Winnipeg, the most racist Canadian city in 2015 according to Maclean’s magazine, which currently has women city councillors of South Asian and Filipino descent, as well as a self-identified Métis mayor.)

When Vancouver’s political parties run a slate of candidates, those with racialized or non-anglicized surnames usually finish with the lowest number of votes of the slate. It’s common for a popular political party to sweep into power with all or most of their white candidates elected and their racialized candidates shut out. Time and time again, Vancouverites with South Asian surnames fail to get elected because of how the election system is engineered.

Plurality-at-large voting is dwindling in the United States, where several Supreme Court rulings (such as Rogers v. Lodge in 1982 and Thornburg v. Gingles in 1986) confirmed that the system creates discriminatory outcomes. The U.S. Department of Justice occasionally launches lawsuits against municipalities that use plurality-at-large voting; one recent example was Eastpointe, Michigan, which eventually agreed to switch to a form of proportional representation for its municipal election, held last month.

Enter Kennedy Stewart

Vancouver’s latest mayor, Kennedy Stewart, has spent most of his professional life as a vocal opponent of plurality-at-large voting — but perhaps no longer. Before entering politics, Stewart obtained a PhD in political science and began a career in academia. One of his primary research interests was increasing accountability in municipal government. He frequently argued that Vancouver’s plurality-at-large system should be replaced with a more democratic alternative.

Kennedy wrote in his 1995 master’s thesis that “Vancouver’s at-large system, which favours candidates appealing to the most cohesive voting group, discriminates the most against voters of low socio-economic status.” He also recommended that “Vancouver should be changed from an at-large to a ward system.”

As an associate professor at Simon Fraser University, Kennedy was critical in 2009 when the Vision Vancouver–dominated city council broke its promise to reform the city’s electoral system.

“This is so common with politicians,” he complained to the Georgia Straight. “They’re seeking to change the system when they’re not in power, and as soon as they come to office they decide that everything is fine. It’s extremely disappointing.”

In 2018, Stewart announced he would seek to become mayor of the City of Vancouver. Democratic reform was one his election platform’s four major sections. A subsection was titled “Make every vote count.”

“Our elections also need to be fair and democratic,” he stated in his platform. “For too long we have operated under an at-large system that lacks community representation and disenfranchises racialized people. I promise that this past municipal election will be the last under the at-large system.”

In September 2018, one month prior to being elected Vancouver’s mayor, Stewart told the Georgia Straight that if the provincial government refused to rubber-stamp Vancouver City Council switching from plurality-at-large to a less discriminatory voting system, the City would launch a legal challenge, perhaps inspired by several successful lawsuits in the U.S. Stewart was elected mayor in October 2018 to a council that was criticized for lacking in diversity.

The public backlash included racialized residents creating the #CouncilSoWhite hashtag on social media to express their displeasure at their lack of representation, which was covered extensively by local news media.

Two days after the election, Mayor Stewart was still speaking about replacing the city’s plurality-at-large voting system. Even when the provincial referendum on switching to proportional representation failed in early December 2018, his plan for get rid of Vancouver’s problematic voting system was firm.

“At political scientist conferences in my old life as a professor, I would hold it up as the least proportional system – one of the most biased systems that you can have,” Mayor Stewart told the CBC.

But sometime over the 2018 Christmas holiday, Mayor Stewart changed tracks. While he still acknowledged the importance of replacing the city’s voting system, he was now offering excuses for inaction.

“What I also have to balance is that the public has told me loud and clear—and all of us—that housing is the top priority,” Stewart told the Georgia Straight in January 2019. “You know, as always, democratic reform is never super-high up on people’s agenda. So it’s balancing when folks are ready to have that discussion. And I don’t think it’s right now.”

To suggest this on the heels of an election that produced one of the least diverse councils in Vancouver’s modern history is a slap in the face to the city’s racialized residents.

In February 2019, the provincial referendum result became a new justification for stalled reform, despite the fact Stewart had pledged to implement at the municipal level whichever system won.

“We’ve had some side conversations about it,” he told CKWX News 1130. “One of the thoughts was that because we just had a referendum provincially, [we] wanted to let all that cool down a little bit before so people could take a fresh look at what we’re going to do here at the city.”

Eight months later, Mayor Stewart suggested to the news media that replacing Vancouver’s discriminatory voting system was something he personally wanted to do, but that fulfilling such an election promise wasn’t what the public wanted, and thus it would be wrong for him to proceed.

“I would love that to happen,” he said to the Vancouver Courier in late October 2019. “I’m still a big advocate for neighbourhood representation. But, pretty clearly, citizens are telling me to focus on housing, opioids and transit. I have to respond to what citizens want, and I don’t think I’ve had one person contact me about electoral reform. I feel like I would be kind of foisting my agenda on the city, if I did that.”

Mayor Stewart also spoke with the CBC that same week.

“I have to recognize too that my job is to do what the citizens want,” he stated, adding, “They’re not clamouring for electoral reform.… I guess that’s a bit populist, in a sense, is that I’m doing what people want me to do, rather than what I would rather do.… It’s still something I really care about. But I would be leery to foist it on a public that’s much more concerned about other issues.”

The boondoggle

Mayor Stewart has offered a series of excuses this year for inaction on his promise to replace the city’s discriminatory voting system. It’s worth analyzing which are justifiable, and which are codswallop.

One excuse for inaction is that housing (and later, also opioids and transit) is his priority, not electoral reform. If so, why did he include voting reform in his election platform and campaign specifically to replace the city’s racist system? Second, why would it be problematic for Mayor Stewart to advance several priorities simultaneously? Would devoting himself to housing, opioids and transit prevent him from also furthering electoral reform? If his concern is city staff capacity, why not hire an outside consultant — ideally someone from academia — to advance the file by writing an initial report?

He’s joined truly unflattering company: a litany of fellow politicians who promised bold change but subsequently became timid once ensconced in the trappings of power.

Another excuse is that the public purportedly hasn’t expressed an interest in electoral reform. This is dubious for a barrage of reasons:

  • First, was Mayor Stewart completely oblivious to the public backlash against the voting system’s discriminatory effects through the #CouncilSoWhite hashtag that was widely covered by the news media?

  • Second, the public supposedly isn’t interested in electoral reform, why did Stewart campaign on it during the election? Was he completely disconnected from public sentiment despite campaigning for four months prior to releasing his election platform?

  • Third, has the mayor genuinely heard from the public since the election that they’re not interested in replacing the city’s discriminatory voting system, or is he only assuming?

  • As the mayor knows, residents who live on the socioeconomic margins are least likely to be attuned to political minutiae and provide politicians with their opinions. Expecting to receive feedback on a topic even though the city council has not asked for feedback seems like a red herring.

  • Since when do major election promises require subsequent popularity gauges in order to advance?

  • And sixth, given that the mayor has devoted his life to studying voting systems, he knows full well that electoral reform is a wonky subject that is never popular with the public. People like the outcomes of better elections, but are not generally interested in the mundane process of getting there.

Mayor Stewart has also suggested he should let the provincial referendum result “cool down” before proceeding with municipal electoral reform. Finally, an excuse with a hint of credence. People might indeed be fed up with electoral reform proposals by now. But the hole in this excuse is that Vancouver doesn’t use any of the voting systems rejected in last year’s referendum. Stewart’s promise was to implement whichever system won the provincial plebiscite as the city’s new electoral system. A cooling-off period might still be advisable, but given that electoral reform is usually a long process involving public consultation, an information campaign and ultimately a referendum, he is almost certainly punting his promise to a hypothetical second term in office. Isn’t four years of cooling off a tad excessive? And what if Stewart fails in his bid for re-election?

But one final excuse is particularly insidious and reprehensible: that electoral reform is Mayor Stewart’s personal interest, and his alone, as if it is some sort of geeky hobby only he enjoys. To suggest this on the heels of an election that produced one of the least diverse councils in Vancouver’s modern history is a slap in the face to the city’s racialized residents.

In reality, the effort to remove plurality-at-large voting is part of a broader campaign for racial justice, by seeking to repeal a discriminatory electoral system that was purposely engineered to exclude racialized Vancouverites from public office for decades.

For Kennedy Stewart, as a white politician, to have campaigned on racial justice, only to instead deliver a Trudeau-style policy bait-and-switch thus far, illustrates how little he values racialized residents now that he’s sitting comfortably in an art deco office on Cambie Street. The #CouncilSoWhite outcry from the public should have strengthened his resolve to fix an undemocratic voting system. Instead, it’s apparently never been a lower priority for him.

In fairness, I appreciate that getting Vancouver’s city councillors to support a motion on electoral reform may require behind-the-scenes political jockeying that the public is not privy to. After all, Vancouver has a “weak mayor” system in which Stewart is just one vote on council. But that’s not the message he is publicly conveying. His message is simply “not now.” If the NPA or Green councillors are the actual barrier, his diplomatic disposition hasn’t allowed him to publicly admit as much, and thus he is taking all of the blame on his chin.

Perhaps Mayor Stewart’s main concern is whether the public lacks the appetite for another referendum on electoral reform. If so, and if a cooling-off period is desired, why not clarify a timeline for when the process will begin? Without such transparency, why would he expect the public to happily re-elect him to a second term after stringing them along with undelivered promises?

I should note there is no legal requirement to have electoral reform approved by referendum. In fact, an argument could be made that holding a referendum on what is essentially a human rights issue — racial equity — is morally repugnant. We should remember that Switzerland held a referendum in 1959 on whether women should be granted the right to vote, which ultimately ended in men opting not to extend this right to women. Or closer to home, the B.C. Liberals held a referendum in 2002 on whether to revoke numerous Indigenous treaty rights, which concluded with more than 80 per cent of British Columbians voting to reduce such rights in treaty negotiations. Both of these historical votes make us cringe when we look back at them with hindsight; today, the concept of holding a referendum on whether to repeal an electoral system proven to be racially unjust should provoke similar revulsion.

If democracy should empower every voter, and if we know that plurality-at-large discriminates based on race, why shouldn’t Vancouver change its electoral system with a simple council vote? The notion of putting racial equity to a public referendum in the only province with a human rights commission is bizarre. Why should racialized Vancouverites have to receive approval from benevolent white people to wield a reasonable voice in their democracy? Or, put differently, why should white Vancouverites hold a veto over the human rights of racialized residents?

At best, Kennedy Stewart was naïve to campaign on a promise he couldn’t deliver in his first term of office, if at all. At worst, he’s joined truly unflattering company: a litany of fellow politicians who promised bold change but subsequently became timid once ensconced in the trappings of power, only spending political currency on reforms most likely to contribute to re-election. If it’s the latter, he’s torched his life-long fight for electoral reform in favour of political expediency.

But Vancouver’s case is especially troubling. Even worse than the Trudeaus, the McGuintys and the MacLauchlans who weaselled out of promises or displayed indifference rather than leadership is one who campaigned as a white saviour to the marginalized, only to ostensibly discard racialized voters once they were no longer politically useful.

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