Whenever I travel, I try to incorporate some research into the trip. There is so much we can learn from other cities, and first-hand observation and interaction is the best way to learn. I find that it’s much easier to get people excited about new ideas if you can point to concrete examples of how an idea has worked in other cities.
My last research tour was in 2007. I was gathering information about member-funded bicycle advocacy groups. I met with staff from groups in Seattle, NYC, San Francisco, Portland, Chicago and others. I came back to Toronto feeling inspired and excited. Most of these groups had over 3,000 paid members and some had over 10 staff! Toronto had nothing like this, even though we are a larger metropolis than most of the cities I had visited. I compiled all the data, and prepared a proposal for a new group called the Toronto Cyclists Union. I was able to recruit dozens of volunteers to help implement the plan and the bike union was successfully launched in May 2008 and already has over 600 paid members and a full time Executive Director. It’s amazing what a little research can do.
And so, it is with much optimism that I embark on another research tour. This time I’m looking into municipal voting systems. Every city runs their local elections in a slightly different way, and I believe that the systems they each use have a substantial impact on the election results, on the overall effectiveness of the exercise, and on people’s personal experience as voters.
Toronto’s local elections are in great need of an injection of fairness, relevancy and effectiveness. By any measure, our city elections are failing us. Voter turnout is astonishingly low, turnover of Councillors is extremely rare, and our Council is surprisingly white and male for a city that allegedly prides itself on its ‘diversity’.
So the question is, what changes could we make to make our elections more effective? As I travel, I’ll be meeting with politicians, activists and academics and learning about voting alternatives in each city. I’ll be focusing on a few options:
a) Term Limits. Quite popular in the US, term limits force politicians to step aside after 2 or 3 terms in office in the hope of reducing political stagnation and ensuring that new faces are introduced on City Council. Some argue that term limits are unfair and undemocratic, others argue that it is essential to keeping an elected body vibrant.
b) Run-off Voting. Used in Canada by all political parties to choose leaders and candidates, run-off voting is a simple system that ensures that the winner of an election actually has the support of a majority of voters. Toronto does not currently use run-off voting, allowing incumbent Councillors to ‘win’ with less than 50% of the vote. Many American cities use run-off voting, and some have began to switch over to ‘Instant Run-off Voting’ which uses a ranked ballot, eliminating the need to bring people back to the polls for a second or third time.
c) At-Large seats. Toronto’s Councillors each represent an area called a ‘ward’. An ‘at-large’ Councillor would be elected by the whole city. Some City Councils in Ontario are made up completely of at-large councillors (ie: there are no wards). Many cities I’ll be visiting have hybrid Councils with both ward seats and at large seats. The argument in favour of at-large seats is that these Councillors can look at the ‘big picture’ rather than being constrained by local (and perhaps NIMBY) concerns.
d) Proportional Councils. While most of you have probably heard of the campaigns for Proportional Representation at the provincial and federal level, there is also a movement for proportionality at the local level as well. A group called the Toronto Democracy Initiative is advocating for a proportional system for Toronto, such as STV (Single Transferable Vote) or MMP (Mixed Member Proportional). I was in Cambridge a few days ago, and learned a little bit about their positive experience with STV. Proportional models use multi-member districts and strive to make sure that every vote counts, rather than simple majority rule.
e) Parties. Many cities have a formal party structure for their city elections. You can divide these cities into 2 categories: those that have independent municipal parties (Montreal, Vancouver) and those where national or state/provincial parties get involved with city politics directly (common in the U.S.). There is much debate in Toronto about municipal parties, with convincing arguments both in favour and against.
f) Boroughs. Some cities have locally elected Borough Councils that represent a single neighbourhood or area within the city. The idea is to make democracy more local and accessible. Toronto had a two-tier system prior to amalgamation. We currently have Community Councils, but they aren’t elected separately and don’t really have a lot of power.
I’ll also be keeping my eyes open for other interesting tools, mechanisms and gimmicks that could make our elections work better. For example, Montreal has municipal elections on a Sunday! Amazing. I love it.
The other purpose of my trip is to play some music with my friends in a band called the Hidden Cameras. We’re playing 32 shows across the US and Canada. At some shows, I take a moment in between songs (while Joel is tuning his guitar) and I ask the audience “Does anyone here know anything about municipal elections in this city?” If any hands go up, I say “Great. Can you talk to me after the show? Thanks!”. This has been a very successful way to meet local people who know the inside story about local elections. Much thanks to Joel, the band and Arts & Crafts for indirectly funding my research tour. haha.
Coincidentally, my trip seems to be taking place in the midst of city elections happening all over the place!! We played a show in Montreal the day before their (Sunday!) election. Then we were in Cambridge/Boston the day before their election. We were in NYC on election day, and I’ll be in Minneapolis two weeks after their first use of a ranked ballot in a city election. Last week also saw referendums in cities across the US on a variety of things like STV voting (Lowell), Instant Runoff Voting (St Paul) and extended terms (Springfield).
In an even stranger coincidence, our tour route looks like an elephant.
I created this Google Map for our trip, and Laura Barrett added some slight modifications. (note: check out Laura’s new band Sheezer! It’s an all-female Weezer cover band!)
I’ve also created a little chart (below) to summarise my findings, and illustrate how many options there are for Toronto to look at. Not hypothetical options, but tried, tested and true.
I’ll write some short blog posts during the next four weeks, about the cities I’ve visited. Just over the last few days, I’ve had the chance to inerview the Mayor of Cambridge (first lesbian African American mayor in the US) and democracy activists in Montreal & Boston. You can follow my research tour here, and I also encourage you to join the Better Ballots Facebook group, follow us on Twitter (@Betterballots), and check out our new nwebsite: betterballots.to. Better Ballots is a new project that aims to facilitate a non-partisan city-wide dialogue in Toronto to discuss options for voting reform to make our elections work for everyone. We’re launching the project in mid-December and we’ll be hosting public forums in the winter and spring.
Thanks for reading! Please post your comments below.
(typing this from a hotel lobby in Atlanta, GA as torrential rain pours down outside. Roy Orbison playing over the PA. “Every time I look into your lovely eyes…”)