British Columbia

Vancouver's lengthy ballot sparks ward system discussion — again

The ward system, where candidates represent a specific geographic area of the city, is often debated in B.C. because of how long the ballots are in big cities. Proponents argue it improves representative democracy and voter turnout.

There are more than 70 city council candidates in Vancouver, over 50 in Surrey

A number of people's legs at a polling station. One person is holding a voter's guide.
Vancouver voters must choose from more than 70 council candidates to fill 10 spots at city hall in the 2022 municipal election. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

British Columbians are headed to the polls this month — and if you're voting in Vancouver or Surrey, you might want to consider bringing notes to the ballot box so you don't get lost in the long list of candidates.

There are more than 70 city council candidates in Vancouver and over 50 in Surrey. Unlike other major Canadian metropolitan areas, they are elected using an at-large system instead of a ward system, where candidates represent a specific geographic area of the city.

It's a system often debated in B.C. because of how long the ballots are in big cities and how it's different from the rest of the country — but there are reasons why the at-large system has remained.

"It would simplify the choice, but people may not be terribly happy with the choice once all is said and done," says Stewart Prest, a political scientist at Quest University.

"It really moves the focus — from candidates putting together arguments for what the city needs, to what [their] particular corner of this city needs."

What is a ward system?

In a ward system, residents vote for their area representative, much like in provincial and federal elections, and those representatives vote on all council motions. Mayors are still elected at-large. 

Proponents of the ward system argue it improves representative democracy and voter turnout, which lags far behind federal and provincial elections.

"It really does represent the local folk at a fundamental level," said former Vancouver city councillor Kerry Jang.

The idea of switching has been kicked around in both cities over the last two decades. A plebiscite was held in Vancouver in 2004 and residents voted 54 per cent against a ward system. In 2020, Surrey councillors asked city staff to study the idea, but nothing more has come of that so far.

There is academic research to suggest ward systems can suppress housing development, and the issue of affordable housing is at the forefront of election campaigns in both cities.

A peer-reviewed paper published in The Review of Economics and Statistics in May looked at housing construction in the U.S. and found when municipalities moved from at-large to ward systems, local housing production dropped by an average of 20 per cent. 

"The effect on multi-family [housing] is larger in high-home ownership towns," wrote author Evan Mast.

Winds of change?

There are signs that a ward system transition could still be coming, at least in Vancouver. 

Mayoral candidates Kennedy Stewart and Colleen Hardwick both said that wards were worth exploring.

"Neighbourhoods and residents of the city are being ignored and they need to rise up and take back their voice again," said Hardwick during a campaign debate.

According to a Research Co. poll conducted in June, 58 per cent of Vancouver residents favoured moving to a ward system (400 likely voters were surveyed, with a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points).


Across the Fraser River, Narima Dela Cruz is running as an independent Surrey council candidate. She says not only would the city's diverse neighbourhood interests be better served under a ward system, but it would also give grassroots candidates a better shot at a seat.

"Right now, with the current first-past-the-post system, we have to [campaign] all over the city and this is nearly impossible," said Dela Cruz, who has made switching electoral systems part of her campaign platform.

Future planning

If change were to come to Metro Vancouver and perhaps elsewhere in B.C., what would change for the average voter?

"It clearly would narrow the ballot," said Gerald Baier, political science professor at the University of British Columbia, adding it would administratively mean dividing cities into geographic areas. 

Baier, speaking on B.C. Today, says administratively the change would mean dividing cities into wards. 

Jang says now is the time and voters are already familiar with the process of voting for local representation, as they do in provincial and federal elections.

"It's not a new system, it just makes sense," said Jang.

He also says wards could lead to increased success when city councils negotiate with Victoria or Ottawa for funding to tackle housing and transit issues.

"[It] would change the interaction with the senior levels of government fundamentally because then it would be a unified voice."


Bridgette Watson writes and produces for news and current affairs at CBC British Columbia. You can reach her at or @Beewatz on Twitter.

With files from B.C. Today and Akshay Kulkarni