Painful Truth: The other ways to do democracy

It’s election season, and fittingly, this thrice-yearly municipal contest falls in November – a month of increasing darkness, destructive storms, and general unrelieved gloom. Really, the only sensible response to is to go home, make hot chocolate, and hide under blankets until it all goes away. Or to rant about how democracy ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Why do we run our democracy the way we do? Why do we run pretty much every democracy in pretty much the same way?

Go around the world, from the faux-elections of Russia and Cuba to the genuine representative democracies, and it’s the same structure: voters trundle out to polling places, peruse a list of possible candidates and pick the least worst option.

Democracy simply means “rule by the people.”

Winston Churchill famously once said that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others that had been tried. So why aren’t we trying new variations on democracy?

As you head to the polls to pick a mayor and councillors, here are a couple of other ways we could run our civic political system.

• Wards. Ah, yes, the ever popular ward system. Used in a number of communities, including Toronto. Of course, most Lower Mainland communities don’t have millions of people – there’s not a single city that tops one million, in fact – so why go to wards?

Because our communities are spread out and have distinct neighbourhoods, which are often poorly served by having “at large” representation. Do you think the folks in Shaughnessy have much in common with those in the Downtown Eastside? How about folks in Langley’s fast-growing Willoughby versus rural Glen Valley? Surrey’s Cloverdale or Whalley?

In many cities, whole neighbourhoods have literally no representation – neither the mayor nor anyone on council lives there. Not coincidentally, these tend to be the poorest areas.

• Sortition. This is the selection of public officials by random chance. So your mayor and council would be picked from the list of voters. Does that sound insane? Utopian? Impractical? Exactly like the system of democracy used in ancient Athens?

Well, we do use sortition already. It’s called the jury system.

So in Canada today, we trust to the wisdom of 12 average citizens to decide on the fate of accused killers, but to decide on rezoning bylaws, you have to plaster your face on signs all over town and spend thousands of dollars on advertising. That’s not crazy at all, nope.

If we do go this way, we could change mayor and council frequently. Every three months, say. Which would mean a lot of people would get a chance to become active participants in civic government, and our government would look a lot more like a real cross-section of our communities.

If you’ve ever watched a politician talk and thought you might be smarter, give sortition a chance!

• Trial by combat. When there’s a controversial issue, there are always fears that special interests are listened to, that leaders have already made up their minds, and so forth.

So why not settle it the way ancient Germanic tribes did – with axes! Random chance and the will of Thor shall decide!

Okay, maybe not axes, but if a council splits and can’t reach agreement, why not have an MMA fight to settle things? “In this corner, Yes on Bylaw 93-B; in this corner, No. Gentlemen, begin!” Two pins out of three wins.

Mad? Yes. But we can sell Pay Per View rights to development permit hearings.

Fighting! For once, it would reduce the cost of civic government!

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