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Is the municipal electoral system in need of reform?

October 17, 2017 — 

As voters in Alberta and Quebec head to the polls, and with municipal elections in much of the rest of the country just one year away, it is a good time to look at the way we vote. Is it in need of reform? University of Manitoba adjunct professor of city planning Aaron A. Moore demystifies the municipal electoral system in his new paper released by the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance.

Moore looks at the pros and cons of various reforms so that proponents for change, supporters of the status quo, and those simply wishing to expand their knowledge of democratic institutions may be better informed about the potential for reform and its consequences .

“Despite often simplistic discussions surrounding changes to electoral systems, no single change will address all the problems in the existing system,” says Moore. “Although change can improve voter turnout and alter electoral outcomes for the better, change can also introduce new and unintended problems.”

Among others, Moore comments on the following questions about possible reforms:

  • How big should city council be? Larger councils can lead to better representation of certain marginalized communities and encourage greater voter turnout and engagement at election time. However, larger councils tend to spend more per capita, and may make it more difficult for voters to make informed decisions and hold their city councillors accountable for their actions.
  • Should councillors be elected at-large or by ward? Ward elections may lead to better representation of ethnic minority communities when they are geographically concentrated. On the other hand, councillors elected by ward tend to focus more on individual community needs, whereas councillors elected at-large are more likely to focus on citywide issues.
  • Should votes be tallied using first-past-the-post or ranked ballots? Ranked ballots can reduce strategic voting and should make it harder for incumbents to win when a majority opposes them. On the other hand, a ranked ballot can be confusing and lead to voter fatigue.
  • Should there be political parties at the local level? When local parties are in place, the needs of constituents may take second place to the needs of the party. However, municipal political parties may lead to better representation of women in local government, simplify voting, and make it easier for voters to hold elected officials to account.

Read the paper

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