The notion that the randomized ballot delivers confusion and discrimination against racialized residents at election time is a notion rife with problematic language, logic, and even more worrisome policy implications. For these reasons, writing as a South Asian, a law student, and a policy researcher focusing on the nexus of race and democracy, I am firmly opposed to Motion B.4.
The motion rests on faulty information to begin with. As stated by Insights West themselves, the firm conducting and analyzing survey data for the 2018 Municipal Election Review, the data concerning ethnic minority views on the randomized ballot rely on a terribly small sample size for any serious implications to be derived from it. In fact, on page 31, Insights West expresses this point. Notably, the report indicates using an n of 875 that “caucasians” were overwhelmingly in favour of the ballot structure, while South Asians — using an n of 82 — were thus in favour of the alphabetical structure.
Not only that, but in addition to 71% of the general population surveyed indicate that the randomized ballot was fairer than the alphabetical ballot, 73% of the small South Asian sample said the same (if we are to consider that a significant sample at all).
Given that these numbers stand out as the principal factor for critique of the randomized ballot, I would suggest council tread carefully before reversing a hard-fought policy change based on what cannot be called anything short of an extremely tenuous claim.
Confusion over how and why the ballot works
To claim that the randomized ballot trades one discriminatory system for another by producing advantages for the top of the ballot, and to claim that the confusion lowered turn-out, indicates confusion by the draftee(s) over how and why randomized ballots function.
Randomized ballots are meant to minimize the natural bias a voter has to favour candidates higher up on the ballot, especially in at-large elections with so many candidates to select. Voters will always hold this bias, and the best way to construct democratic systems is to take this into mind and create structures that prevent candidates from having an advantage due to their given name.
Does this still present a boost to candidates at the top of the ballot? Absolutely. But randomizing the ballot prevents political entrepreneurs from taking advantage. In the past, parties have purposely stacked the decks with candidates (whether or not they are considered competitive or serious candidates) with favourable (i.e., early in the alphabet) names to boost their chances of success. This was a reliable strategy — perhaps council will recall this by thinking of the names Jim and James Green.
Randomizing ballots trades one discriminatory system that can be and is taken advantage of, for one that cannot be. This is a massive improvement for civic elections that cannot be undone on the basis of faulty logic, insignificant data, and ignorance of the reason for why the policy change was introduced in the first place.
Appealing to ethnic group’s supposed “lack of understanding” of a democratic system that has only been in use for one cycle in such paternalistic fashion does a disservice to race and democracy in Vancouver.
Across the Municipal Election Review, the report correlates heritage and ancestry with the ability to understand the system, with little reference to what causes this. Unless that is addressed, presenting this kind of data this way threatens to institutionalize problematic assumptions about ethnicity and institutional literacy.
Racialized peoples have never been as welcomed, catered to, reached out to, or served as white Vancouverites by democratic institutions. It makes little sense to pour the blame on minority groups for falling behind whites on institutional literacy when the systems in place hardly serve them. Rather than seeing this data and blaming the victim, this should raise alarm bells in the city that something about the relationship between an essential civic institution and the citizens it is meant to serve needs to change without delay.
To close on this point, it would be right to echo the points made by Mark Lee of Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice, namely that it would be “much more meaningful to assess [the gaps in literacy] based on language proficiency than on ethnicity. [People of colour] are not somehow inherently less capable of figuring out ballots; it’s a language issue.”
What Council needs to know, and what Council needs to do
The randomized ballot works. What the motion presents should indicate not that the randomized ballot is failing people of colour in Vancouver, but that Vancouver is failing the people of colour who live, work, and struggle here. Unless this motion calls for reform rather than the repeal of evidence-based policy Motion B.4 is missing the forest for the trees.
The work I do directly addresses the kinds of solutions we need instead from a standpoint that centres racial and democratic justice from within our own communities, rather than relying on traditional activist movements to demand literacy from us at the last minute.
What council can do is take more seriously the structural causes of the gaps concerning race and democracy. There are many ways that council can productively solve the problems that the draftee(s) of this motion intend to solve, and I encourage them to take them seriously and approach them without delay:
- Form a citizen’s assembly from Vancouver residents to decide (via referendum) on a truly democratic and modern system that reflects accurately our votes and the demographic makeup of our population. Plurality systems, including our at-large framework, rank amongst the worst systems for racialized people to achieve descriptive and substantive representation – in fact they are arguably the worst way for diverse communities to have fair representation.
- Increase spending on voter engagement in nonwhite communities using culturally-appropriate language. This work must be done in and beyond election time – not merely at the last minute – to build trust with these communities, or else we risk further distancing ourselves from being able to serve residents who contribute so much to our city.
- Number the randomized candidates. This is a method successfully used in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere, which lets voters know ahead of time where to find candidates they have interest in.
This list of solutions represent only a sliver of what the hua foundation’s Race & Democracy portfolio intends to introduce as the file moves forward. There is more to come and they hope to work with the city on how to realize this.
To close: At the very least, I urge council not to move forward with motion “A” within B.4.