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Comment: Fight gerrymandering in local elections

A commentary by outgoing Victoria councillor Geoff Young.
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Retiring Victoria Coun. Geoff Young argues the province should put more safeguards in place to ensure municipal elections are free of gerrymandering and non-serious candidates. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The word “gerrymander” is more than 200 years old, and the practice it describes, people in power arranging electoral ­districts to increase their chances of ­re-election, is even older.

B.C. municipalities have no wards to tinker with, but city councils do have ways of putting a finger on the scales to favour themselves.

Successful politicians know what areas and types of people are likely to give them support, and try to get those people out to the ­polling place.

Victoria council’s decision to have advance polls at the University of Victoria (outside the city, that is) and at Our Place, the heart of an area where many Victorians are now reluctant to walk, raises the suspicion that these polling places are intended to harvest votes for candidates who may be particularly attractive to students or to those who feel safe visiting Our Place.

Others may point out that the higher concentration of voting places in the southern half of the city is intended to ­encourage ­voting by higher-income ­homeowners who may favour different candidates. I have sympathy for the city employees who must juggle these competing voices in putting forward a suggested list of polling places to the council.

A subtler way of favouring all the incumbents is to encourage a flood of candidates from which the incumbents will stand out simply by name recognition.

Worse, the crowd of candidates, some running under comical assumed names, in costume, or, in several municipalities, many doing no campaigning beyond the free publicity provided by the municipality and the media, some simply earnest people with no concept of the mechanics of ­campaigning, creates a circus atmosphere that discourages ­qualified candidates who will work at being elected.

It is not only Jack Knox who pokes fun at governments chosen this way.

I am ashamed to remember how years ago as a young university faculty member I found it faintly comical that one of my colleagues was mayor of a suburban municipality in addition to his “real” job as a professor of economics.

Municipal governments ­certainly will never deal with the life-and-death issues of the higher levels of government, but local government decisions do affect quality of life, and this mockery is harmful.

A cash deposit, refunded to candidates whose qualifications and campaign win a significant share of votes, is the simple method federal and provincial governments use to prevent this anti-democratic nonsense.

I do not normally advocate for more provincial interference in local issues, but since the municipal councillors themselves have such a vested interest in the election process, it is an area for the province to set some rules.

>>> To comment on this article, write a letter to the editor: letters@timescolonist.com

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