Proportionality, Plurality and the Mathematics of Chaos
In 1995, Mike Harcourt’s government commissioned a study from SFU’s Institute for Governance Studies, headed by future NDP MP Kennedy Stewart. Stewart’s report recommended that, in municipalities throughout the province, the “at-large,” “block vote” or multi-member plurality voting system that I described in the first post in this series be replaced by the voting system we use in federal and provincial elections, first-past-the-post. For a reason that still eludes me, we call this system “the ward system” when we apply it to cities, even though it is one of many possible ward systems. Why not just call it what we call it at the other two political levels? Who knows?
In any case, Stewart recommended this system as a clear improvement on the current system for a number of reasons, one of which might surprise some people in the voting reform movement: it was a minor step towards proportional representation. Contrary to some popular beliefs, proportional representation is not one particular voting system; it is a principle. The more proportionally representative a system is, the fewer wasted votes it contains and the more the share of the vote received by a party corresponds to the share of the seats it wins.
One of the reasons that first-past-the-post is more proportional than, for instance, multi-member plurality voting or instant runoff voting (IRV/AV) is that it generates more chaos and randomness, more “noise” from a statistical perspective. That’s because, in order to make one’s vote count, a voter has to guess roughly how every candidate running in their area is doing and cast a vote based on that guess. While multi-member plurality voting or “block vote” doesn’t generate as much randomness and chaos, it does, by virtue of being a plurality voting system, generate some, because it requires guessing.
Instant runoff voting (IRV) is a system in which voters in a single district rank candidates in order of preference and see their vote transfer to their next-favourite candidate if their favourite didn’t get enough votes. We can’t do that in a plurality system, in which voters mark Xs instead of numbers on their ballots. Sometimes voters guess wrong about who is in first or second place and accidentally pick people with no hope of getting elected. It is often these bad guesses that account for the representation of minority viewpoints in plurality voting systems, that make them unintentionally produce slightly more proportional results overall, when compared against majoritarian systems that use ranked ballots. (That’s not to say that all systems that use ranked ballots fail to produce proportional results; STV is one of the most proportional systems out there.)
So let me be clear from the outset: making your vote count in Vancouver or Surrey tomorrow involves guessing how other people will vote and casting a ballot based on those guesses. At least some of the guesses you make will be wrong and some of your votes will be wasted. That’s a shame but there we are.
But I’m Against Strategic Voting!
All people who vote seek to affect the world around them by voting. Because the voting systems we have often waste our votes and have us end up with none of the candidates we like winning, some people have started suggesting that we can do a better job of affecting the world around us by casting votes based on their symbolic value, casting votes that “send a message” even though they elect nobody. Sometimes—and this election is one of those times—I give people such advice. But let us be honest about two things:
- Just as you don’t control how a victorious candidate you pick will act once you have elected them, you don’t control how the people to whom you wanted to send a message will interpret your vote. Often the people from whom you withhold expected votes will get mad at you and say “to hell with those guys! I’m not even going to try to make them happy anymore!”
- You are still voting strategically. It’s just that your strategy is to try and change public discourse based on the pile of wasted votes to which you have chosen to contribute.
To this, some people respond with “but I’m voting with my heart!” In federal elections, this will then be followed by a claim like “every Green vote makes the world greener.” In that case, you’re still a strategic voter; you’re just voting based on a flawed theory of cause and effect, magic or junk science.
So, let’s go forward with the idea that we’re all voting strategically and we’re just trying to come up with a good voting strategy. So let’s start easy.
School and Parks Boards
The Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation has faced a lot of criticism in the past three years by community centre groups and the Vancouver Aquarium. I happen to agree with a small amount of that criticism but disagree with most. But what impresses me most about the board in Vancouver has been its courage and self-confidence in standing up to our tenants. That’s right. We own the community centres and the land on which they and the Aquarium sit. This is public land that we run by electing commissioners to the Board to make decisions on our behalf.
To a greater extent than any previous board, our current Parks Board has chosen to make this a reality for Vancouverites, by placing and enforcing new conditions on the Aquarium’s lease. Now, I happen not to agree with those conditions. “Let the whales fuck,” is my view. But what I do agree with is the board’s willingness to set policy and defend that policy in court.
Similarly, I strongly support the board’s termination of centre-specific community centre membership and the introduction of a single card for all community centre programs and activities across the city. “Membership has its privileges” has no place as an ethic in our public facilities and I am glad to see the breakup of the system of balkanized private clubs where centres in wealthy neighbourhoods can offer the most services at the lowest cost, while centres in poorer areas struggle to provide the basics. The process of nationalization that our Parks Board has begun is dragging our community facilities at least into the twentieth century and making our shared ownership a reality. The governance of our community facilities should be determined in an election in which all of us can vote, not in closed meetings of private, fee-paying clubs.
Vancouver Parks Board: Endorsing Five Vision Candidates and Two Opposition Candidates
For the reasons above, I strongly endorse Vision incumbent Trevor Loke, the only sitting Vision commissioner seeking re-election. I also support Coree Tull, with whom I worked on the Nathan Cullen campaign and who I know will make an excellent commissioner, committed to carrying on this work. But, given Vision’s continued rightward drift at the Council level, it is going to be important to insure that its opposition is a progressive one, not a conservative one at the Parks Board. Although her party opposed nationalization of the centres, I nevertheless endorse Anita Romaniuk, the sanest, most level head left in COPE, one of only three candidate with previous government experience, and the party’s only realistic shot at a Parks Board seat. I also endorse, Stuart MacKinnon who acquitted himself admirably as the Green Party’s Parks commissioner two terms ago. To round out those four strong candidate, I recommend votes for former COPE Parks candidate, now on the Vision ticket, Brent Granby, along with his running mates Naveen Girn and Sammie Jo Rambaua.
Vancouver School Board: Endorsing the Teachers’ Association Picks
Educators, opinion leaders and parents associations have been just shy of unanimous in supporting the School Board candidates listed on the front page of this morning’s Metro. The incumbent Vision board and the candidates for the Public Education Project, Jane Bouey and Gwen Giesbrecht, both of who were on the 2011 COPE slate with Anita and Brent. Of the excellent team Patti Bacchus has assembled, I want to particularly encourage a vote for Cherie Payne, not just because of her sterling record on the board but as part of a much-needed group of emerging leaders in Vancouver’s black community. A vote for Cherie isn’t just a vote for a strong team with good values; it is a vote for strong, black female leadership in this city. It is also important for Allan Wong, first elected with COPE a decade and a half ago, to be able to continue with his strong equity agenda that he honed in the city’s oldest progressive party.
More than on any other board, I advise against a COPE vote here. Not only are such votes a waste, they send the wrong message to a party that has treated its school trustees and schools activists so shabbily since 2013.
Surrey School Board: Surrey Progressives and Nicole Joliet
Nicole Joliet cannot win but she is, in all likelihood, the most progressive candidate running for anything in Surrey or Vancouver. For that reason alone, she merits a symbolic vote. But it is also important to show solidarity with a trans candidate in a city whose school board politics have, historically, been organized around homophobic book bannings and the repression of gay-straight alliances. As the step-parent of a queer kid myself, it is really important to me that we send a message not just to politicians and voters in Surrey but to the city’s large and vibrant queer youth population that they have our support.
It is unfortunate, then, that the Charlene Dobie and the Surrey Progressives are running a full slate. It means that, to vote for Nicole, you will have to drop one Surrey Progressive. Just don’t make that one Charlene, the party’s leader and best shot at keeping a progressive presence.
And I have run out of time! Vancouver and Surrey Council endorsements later tonight.