Former mayor Kennedy Stewart hints Vancouver electoral reform bid through court

May 15 2023, 4:59 pm

Could a reform of the City of Vancouver’s municipal electoral system be achieved through the court system?

Former Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart announced over the weekend he is working on pursuing an abolishment of Vancouver’s at-large electoral system of electing the 10 city councillors.

In his newsletter, he says his Forward Together Vancouver party is continuing to “gather the research we need to file our paper work. That’s all I’ll say at the moment.”

Although few details have been provided, Stewart cites American precedent, where US courts have struck down dozens of municipal at-large electoral systems “due to minority groups being systematically underrepresented.”

“In other words, at-large systems have been found by the courts to be systemically racist,” he wrote.

In both his platforms for the 2018 and 2022 civic election campaigns, Stewart included a promise for replacing the at-large electoral system with ridings called wards — a system that divides Vancouver into wards, where each neighbourhood elects their own city councillor. The vast majority of the previous makeup of City Council was opposed to such a move.

Municipal governments that oversee Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton, Mississauga, and Winnipeg all have a ward system of electing city councillors, with the mayor elected on an at-large basis. But each of these cities also has an exponentially larger geographical area than the City of Vancouver.

Prior to being elected, Mayor Ken Sim suggested a hybrid system would achieve a better balance of the benefits of both systems, with five city councillors elected through a ward system, and the remaining five city councillors selected through the existing at-large system.

Vancouver residents last formally considered adopting a ward system in 2004, when an electoral reform commission’s consultation and research work culminated with a referendum. In the vote, a majority of 54% of residents rejected the ward system.

In the October 2022 civic election, Sim unseated Stewart by coming far ahead with 85,732 votes over the incumbent’s 49,593. Each of Sim’s ABC city councillors also won in a landslide by a margin of between 20,562 and 30,714 votes over the first-highest non-ABC councillor. Similar results were also seen in both the Vancouver Park Board and Vancouver School Board, providing ABC with majorities in all three elected bodies.

The election results on a polling station basis showed Sim and ABC won significant support across the city outside of the downtown Vancouver peninsula, with Asian voters playing a major part in their victory.

Following his defeat, Stewart returned to Simon Fraser University as the new director of the Centre for Public Policy Research at the School of Public Policy.

Later this year, Stewart is expected to release his new book, Decrim: How We Decriminalized Drugs in British Columbia, sharing his role in achieving such a policy. His book announcement in January received some harsh reviews.

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