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Should non-residents get to vote in Victoria's election?

Property owners and business owners can vote municipally. Council candidates tell us whether they think that's a good or bad idea

By Kate Korte
August 14, 2022
City Hall
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Should non-residents get to vote in Victoria's election?

Property owners and business owners can vote municipally. Council candidates tell us whether they think that's a good or bad idea

By Kate Korte
Aug 14, 2022
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
City Hall
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Should non-residents get to vote in Victoria's election?

Property owners and business owners can vote municipally. Council candidates tell us whether they think that's a good or bad idea

By Kate Korte
August 14, 2022
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Should non-residents get to vote in Victoria's election?
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

In October, Greater Victoria residents will head to the polls alongside people who don’t live in their municipality but own property there. 

This class of voters, known as non-resident electors, has been a mainstay in BC’s municipal election laws for decades and applies in all municipalities under the Local Government Act. 

Non-resident property electors typically include people who own a second home or a commercial space in Victoria. The property must be registered in their name, because corporations can’t vote. They must be BC residents and Canadian citizens.

There were only 245 registered non-resident property electors in the 2018 Victoria election. Although that may seem insignificant with a total electorate of over 68,000 people, it is more than the margin that determined Mayor Lisa Helps’s first mayoral race in 2014 (she won by 89 votes). In the school board race the same year, there were just 33 votes separating the last school board trustee elected from the next candidate. 

Some council candidates and academics say it’s time to get rid of this part of electoral law. They take issue with the non-resident property owner class because it affords one person multiple votes based solely off property ownership in a city already grappling with a housing crisis. If elected, these council candidates would have to push the province to see it changed. 

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But business associations, including the Downtown Victoria Business Association, have already been pushing the province to keep and, in fact, extend the non-resident property elector class. They want to see all business owners given the right to vote because they pay property taxes.  

Jeff Bray, CEO of that association, says with corporations not allowed to vote, many non-resident business owners can’t actually make use of that law because they are often leasing the property or own it under a corporation. That, he says, is unfair because of their contributions to local coffers.

“They pay a significant amount of municipal property tax and get absolutely no say in electing who is deciding how that’s spent,” Bray says. “The strong feeling from businesses is that they are frustrated that they pay a significant portion of the tax base and they do not get a vote.”

Businesses pay 15% of the taxes in the City of Victoria, according to Bray.

He acknowledges that including business owners in the electorate would be logistically complicated, and changing the law is a provincial responsibility. Whether through advocacy, consultation, or voting, Bray hopes that businesses will soon have more opportunities to lend their voice to council. 

Property owners can vote more than once if they vote in multiple elections. For instance, someone living in Kelowna but owning a home in Victoria could vote as a resident elector in Kelowna and a non-resident property owner in Victoria. If they owned another home in Oak Bay, they could vote a third time in that election as well. 

If someone owns multiple properties in Victoria, they can still only vote once as a non-registered property owner. People sharing ownership of a property also can’t both vote—one of them can vote as the non-resident property owner for that property. 

Justin Liefso, an assistant professor in UVic’s political science department, says the non-resident property elector class is particularly worrying in Victoria, where high housing prices severely limit the number of people who can buy property. He says the ability for property owners to vote twice affords property owners more democratic leverage in a city already dealing with a housing crisis. Liefso recognized that property owners pay a large amount of municipal taxes but said that it remains problematic to allow people with property to have multiple votes—and that it creates an incentive to work against increasing affordability. 

“It is not in the financial interest of those with property, and particularly for investors who own multiple properties, for the price of housing to decrease or even stabilize,” Liefso said. “For me, this category essentially legitimizes and institutionalizes a propertied class of voters, offering a democratic right based on wealth.” 

Kim Speers is a Public Administration professor at UVic. She is aware of business associations like DVBA lobbying for all business owners to be able to vote but says that there needs to be more of a discussion around the ripple effects of such a policy. 

“Corporations and the private sector in general already exert an immense amount of influence in our society in many ways,” Speers said. 

Speers says any discussion of non-property electors requires balancing the principles of  “taxation without representation” and “one person, one vote.”

Property owners have always had the right to vote in BC. The first election in 1871 required voters to be over the age of 21, live in BC, and own property. BC allowed men that did not own property to vote five years later, in 1876. Some women were included in 1917. In 1949, British Columbia finally allowed Indigenous peoples and Japanese-Canadians to vote. People in prison were not allowed to vote in provincial elections until 2003. In municipal elections, people in custody for a crime remain ineligible to vote.

The last time there was any significant discussion of non-resident property electors at the provincial level was in 1993. The government’s original plan for election reform was to scrap the non-resident property elector class entirely, but after consultation decided to only amend the specific rules around who qualifies. For example, the reforms ensured that only one person could vote per property.

In 2003 and 2004, Vancouver’s Electoral Reform Commission recommended that the city repeal the sections of the Vancouver Charter on non-resident property electors, and request that the provincial government do the same BC-wide. These changes were not instituted. 

Since then, there have been no significant movements to try to change this part of election law.

Victoria’s candidates respond

Capital Daily reached out to everyone that has announced their intention to run for Victoria council at the time of writing. So far, council candidates include Dave Thompson, Matt Dell, Jeremy Caradonna, Jordan Quitzau, Krista Loughton, Susan Kim, Janice Williams, Stephen Hammond, Marg Gardiner, and Gary Beyer. All council candidates who were contacted responded.

Mayoral candidates include Stephen Andrew and Marianne Alto. Andrew did not respond to requests for comment.

None of the candidates said they would be specifically targeting non-resident property electors in their campaign strategy. Some pointed out that the 245 non-resident property electors make up a small fraction of the electorate, while Hammond emphasized that one vote could win this race. 

“If an election is very close, these votes might make a difference, but then so does every vote,” Hammond said. “If someone wins by one vote, was it because of a non-resident property elector, or any new voter? Who knows who put a candidate over the top?”

Candidates were divided on whether this class makes elections more or less democratic.

Alto said more people participating in local elections is a good thing, regardless of whether they are residents or property owners who live elsewhere. 

“My goal is to build a city for everyone, and that means building a city that works for all those who have a stake in the city—whether they are property owners, renters, people who have just arrived in the city, and more,” Alto said. 

Quitzau, the former CEO of the People’s Party of Canada’s local riding association, said it’s more democratic because property owners pay taxes. 

“[Business owners] pay their business taxes to the city and have little to no say on projects and initiatives, paid for by their taxes.” Quitzau said. “I think more needs to be done by the city council to consult with and listen to small business owners and managers.”

Caradonna, Thompson, Loughton, and Kim said it is less democratic. Thompson and Caradonna agreed that people should only get one vote. Loughton and Kim added that council still needs to consider the perspectives of people who aren’t included in the electorate such as workers, permanent residents, refugees, and non-resident business owners. 

“In a way, this is kind of a historical electoral holdover,” Kim said. “I don’t think it’s democratic to exclude residents of Victoria who don’t get to vote either, [such as permanent residents]. It’s not that they are more or less invested in their community than property owners and we need to keep that in mind.” 

In New Brunswick, permanent residents who are not citizens may be able to vote in municipal elections starting in 2026, with a bill currently under debate in that province.

Kim also pointed out that people serving a criminal sentence can’t vote in municipal elections but can vote in provincial and federal elections. 

“[People who are serving sentences] are going to be back in society and members of our community and are just as invested in what that community can give back to them,” Kim said “To revoke that is quite ethically troubling to me.”

Dell said the class of non-resident electors is small and has no discernable impact, an analysis shared by Gardiner, who called it “negligible.” 

Williams said the conversation around who gets a voice in municipal elections is complicated since Victoria is so connected to other municipalities in the Capital Regional District—many people who have dealings in Victoria live in adjoining municipalities.

Gardiner, who has championed a ward system in her early campaign, said such a system would give business owners “a stronger voice on their own properties” than the ability to vote alone. A ward system would mean councillors would be elected directly by the people in neighbourhoods to represent those specific areas, rather than the city as a whole. 

Kim, Loughton, and Williams said they are more concerned with increasing voter turnout than removing the non-resident electors. Tackling voter turnout, Kim said, requires looking at the barriers to engaging in municipal politics for people of diverse identities. Turnout was 43% in the 2018 election—a 10-year high. 

“The biggest challenge to our local democracy right now is increasing voter turnout. I want more people to vote,” Loughton said. “We need to increase voter turnout, encourage more youth to get engaged, and reduce barriers for marginalized communities to participate in elections. That is what will create a strong democracy.”

Correction on Aug. 29 at 12:40pm: This story did not include Gary Beyer, who had announced his candidacy prior to the story running, but whose candidacy Capital Daily was not at the time aware of.

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