Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts and her Surrey First councillors after a clean sweep in the 2011 civic election.
AFTER reading last week’s column on the ward system, a reader sent me a link to a well-researched article by The UBC Journal of Political Science’s Rebecca Dhindsa that she wrote in 2012. It’s a piece that should be compulsory reading for all our hypocritical politicians who only pay lip service to democracy.
The article titled “The At-Large Electoral System & Unequal Representation: An Analysis of Surrey Council” thoroughly exposes the ROT in Surrey’s civic politics – to which Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts and Surrey RCMP woke up ONLY AFTER the horrific beating death of 53-year-old Julie Paskall on December 29 at a parking lot just outside Surrey’s Newton Recreation Centre.
Dhindsa noted: Given the major disparities in terms of income, location, and ethnicity within the British Columbia municipality of Surrey, the current at-large electoral system fails to adequately represent or unite the city’s diverse communities. An analysis of Surrey’s six major communities, consisting of Cloverdale, Guildford, Fleetwood, Newton, Whalley, and South Surrey, confirms that the unique concerns of each of these communities are not currently being represented at the level of local government. As the electoral system does not guarantee that the eight councillors or mayor of Surrey reside within each of the city’s communities, the result has been a lack of representation from the lower-income and more culturally diverse communities. One way to counter this problem would be to re-introduce a ward system, abolished in 1957, to ensure that each of the six Surrey communities would have at least one person to represent their interests on the city council.”
After pointing out that Surrey and Vancouver were the ONLY large municipalities in the country to use the at-large electoral system – in which those elected have to get the most votes cast by the city as a whole (as opposed to a ward system which functions like the riding system of the provincial and federal elections) – Dhindsa notes: “Vancouver, incorporated as a municipality in 1886, used a ward system until the at-large system was first adopted in 1936. Incorporated as a municipality in 1879, Surrey had its first council in 1880 and used the at-large system until 1887 when the ward system was introduced.Originally comprising five wards, Surrey expanded to seven in 1948. The ward system continued in Surrey until 1957 when the municipality reverted to an at-large system.”
Concerns about dominant socioeconomic groups having a greater chance of being overrepresented in an at-large system, resulted in the 1979 Eckhardt Electoral
Commission and the 2004 Vancouver Electoral Reform Commission, or Berger Commission. Both recommended a ward system.
The Berger Commission pointed out that it was generally accepted that the majority of City Councillors had been from the West Side – an area with higher incomes and less unemployment than Vancouver’s East Side, Dhindsa notes.
She adds: “The major argument behind using an at-large system is that it better unites a city as each councillor is said to be representing the entire municipality rather than a specific ward. I will argue, however, this is outweighed by the negative repercussions incurred by disregarding the ideal of representative democracy.”
DHINDSA notes that there are two reasons behind an increase in the representation of social and economic minorities on councils when using a ward electoral system.
She says: “First, it lessens the effect of higher voter turnout in areas of greater socioeconomic status.”
She points out that the Berger Commission had noted that Vancouver councillors “have been largely chosen by (and to large extent from among) West Side residents” and that the “more affluent and well educated have a greater chance of informing themselves on civic issues and participating in political affairs.”
She adds: “Geographically concentrated cultural minorities and / or lower income groups would have a higher chance of being elected in a ward system as it “permits such groups to obtain representation of their special interests to an extent not possible if their votes are merged with the votes of the general community.””
Dhindsa says the second reason is that “the ward system places fewer burdens on potential candidates due to the fact that campaigning is contained within the ward. As councillors are intended to “represent the whole city” in an at-large system, it therefore requires candidates to run a city-wide campaign. This places a financial burden on those running for council, especially independent candidates, thus explaining the lack of independents and great influence of political parties and slates in both Surrey and Vancouver.”
DHINDSA’S research on the residency of Surrey councillors elected in 2000,
2010, and 2011, (she found a list of addresses of the 2000 council in the Surrey Archives and the postal codes of the 2010 and 2011 councillors in their electoral nomination forms on the City of Surrey website), led to her making two general points:
“First, in more recent years, each community’s population share has risen with the exception of Guildford and Whalley.
“Second, South Surrey is increasingly dominating council; in these three sample years, fifteen of the twenty-seven councillors were, or still are, residing in South Surrey. This is occurring at the expense of all other communities, in particular Whalley, where there not one councillor during these years was a resident of this community.”
UNDER “Implications of Unequal Surrey Representation,” Dhindsa notes: “Although the municipality may have an average employment income of $32,733 in 2006, in reality the numbers range from $47,981 in South Surrey to $28,219 in Whalley.”
She adds: “Only 6.7% of families in South Surrey qualified as low-income, significantly less than Surrey’s northern communities, where 19.3% of Whalley families and 22.3% of Guildford families held low-income status. Under the at-large electoral system, the municipality’s most prosperous community, South Surrey, holds the greatest number of resident councillors, and as a result arguably the greatest community voice. Meanwhile, Whalley, the community with the least amount of socioeconomic wealth, has been consistently underrepresented.”
Then she points out: “In the case of Surrey, these differences express themselves also in terms of visible minority background. For example, the election of Tom Gill to council in 2005 made him the first Indo-Canadian candidate to be elected to council in a municipality where 45.8% of the 2006 population was a visible minority, and of which, 59.6% were of South Asian descent.Even more telling, most of Gill’s votes came from the more ethnically diverse communities, such as Newton and Fleetwood, while he received lower numbers of votes in the less diverse community of South Surrey.”
LATINOS IN WASHINGTON STATE
IN 2012, I came across a very interesting article in the Seattle Times titled “Closing the gap between Latino population and political representation” written by Paul Apostolidis, a professor of political science at Whitman College.
Whitman College students carried out intensive studies of Latino political representation in local government in 10 counties in the state of Washington where Latinos make up the highest percentage of county population, and their findings “paint a devastating picture of racial and ethnic inequality.”
The students discovered that in 2009, Latinos made up hardly FOUR PER CENT of local offices in a region where they made up almost 33 PER CENT of the population!
The article presented the shocking underrepresentation and noted that gap was actually WIDENING.
The students wanted to know why only one out of seven Sunnyside City Council members was Latino, or just one out of five school board members in Toppenish and Wapato.
Apostolidis noted: “We found that Latino candidates were losing elections because of RACIAL BLOC voting in AT-LARGE SYSTEMS.” [Capitalization mine for emphasis.]
He also pointed out: “Reams of political-science research shows that at-large systems DEPRESS political representation and civic involvement FOR PEOPLE OF COLOUR.” [Capitalization mine for emphasis.]
He also noted that African Americans and Asian Americans (a category that includes South Asians in the U.S.) are also extremely underrepresented in local government.
And he so insightfully observed: “But sometimes, the injustices nearest at hand are hardest to see.”
Indeed, MORAL BLINDNESS is a disease of our politicians!
– RATTAN MALL