A ward election system could increase voter turnout and improve representation in Lethbridge, according to political science professor and former councillor.
“It’s not an unusual system, but it is a way of creating a relationship between the voter and their representative,” Jeffery Coffman said. “The reason why ward systems increases voter turnout is because it has the greater potential of reducing the ballot size. So the voter has few candidates to wade through.”
A ward system would break the city into areas and have councillors represent their own ward. Coffman said this would make it easier for residents to have a strong relationship with candidates and representatives, both during the election process and after.
He introduced a motion to include a question on the 2021 ballot at a council meeting in July 2021. When the question came back, 55 per cent of those who voted were in favour of a ward system for electing councillors, starting in 2025. Of the 81,276 eligible voters in the election, 26,236 voted on the question.
“Elections are basically determined by those who show up and just because 34 per cent of the eligible voters turned out, it doesn’t disregard the outcome of the ballot,” Coffman said.
Coun. Belinda Crowson said whenever Lethbridge sees low voter turnout, it begins talking about a ward system again. She said it has been talked about from the start of Lethbridge’s history in 1906.
“William Henderson, who was running for our mayorship at that time promised it — he actually endorsed and said he would bring in a bylaw to divide the city up for municipal elections,” she said. But Henderson did not follow through after being elected mayor in 1908.
Instead, Crowson said, the city always finds a different solution to increase civic engagement — such as introducing a voting station in the north end when Henderson was mayor.
“The ward system has been brought up several times throughout our history — every time it’s been brought before council, council has turned it down,” Crowson said. “I think the conversation is about a lot more. People get very overwhelmed when there is a huge ballot. How do you do all that research? How do you take the time to get to know wall of these people?”
A discussion was tabled at the city’s last Governance Standing Policy Committee (SPC) and it is back on the agenda for the May 26 meeting. The committee was presented with a motion to recommend council create a commission to move forward with conceptual planning for a new system. The planning process would take about a year and the commission would bring a recommendation back to the committee before council sees it, according to Bonnie Hilford, city clerk.
“It would be public stakeholder consultation, so we’d want the public to be part of this commission and not council because council is too close to it with regards to the election,” Hilford said. “But this commision would report to council. This would offer public transparency in the process — it ensures that a neutral, resident led third party makes the recommendations to council.” Hilford added the commission could recommend something different from a ward system, or no change at all.
“This is not a predetermined answer from the commission. We have no idea what the commission might come back with,” said Crowson.
The commission would come with a $297,000 price tag — Crowson said she believes it is worth it to investigate possible changes and make a better functioning democracy.
“We know democracy works best when it actually represents all the diversity of our community from young to old, from every group that lives in our city and wards have been known to support that sort of government,” she said.
Members of the public are welcome at the May 26 SPC meeting and Crowson said she would like to see people come and provide input. The committee will vote whether to recommend council proceeds with creating a commission to investigate a new system.