As a recent call, I first approached this year’s LSUC bencher election with a kind of trepidation that I remember from student politics. But while the stakes have grown and the candidates improved, the voting system itself feels like a step in the wrong direction. Under this system, each voter may vote for up to 40 candidates from a pool of 95. While a few seats are filled based on the votes cast in each region, most benchers are chosen by voters across the province as a whole. This process burdens voters, hinders meaningful choices, and makes campaigning more expensive. It should be changed.
My first complaint is a selfish one. It’s effectively impossible for me, like most voters, to make 40 reasoned choices from a field of 95. The Bencher Election Voting Guide extends to 105 pages, while Law Times coverage fills many more browser tabs. To take even a quick look at each candidate’s materials (often including a website, email solicitation, and brochure) requires a time commitment that few lawyers can be expected to undertake. Two minutes per candidate, times 95 candidates, times 46,000 eligible voters, is over 145,000 hours. By way of comparison, this is more than a quarter of the total time that Ontario lawyers contributed to pro bono work in 2009. (Jamie Baxter and Albert Yoon, The Geography of Civil Legal Services in Ontario, November 2011, at p. 71).
With such a large field, voters (those who aren’t discouraged entirely!) necessarily turn to other, cruder metrics for making decisions. Name recognition. Endorsements. Association with big firms or government. While each of these might be a legitimate factor to consider, they shouldn’t be dispositive. Convocation has been criticized as being too cozy, and the current election system doesn’t help by encouraging voting shortcuts.
Requiring each candidate to aim her campaign at the whole province also makes the process more expensive. One candidate cites a total campaign cost of $58,871, a large part of which is per-voter costs such as postage. As some benchers have observed, “the cost of sending campaign materials by mail is prohibitive and has a disproportionate impact on candidates who cannot afford it” (Equity and Aboriginal Issues Committee, Report to Convocation, January 25, 2007, at p. 5). Allowing bencher candidates to target smaller constituencies could help reduce some costs.
I don’t doubt that the current system serves important purposes. It supports a province-wide conversation about the future of the Society and the legal professions. It helps candidates who have appeal across the province, giving a voice to categories of lawyers that are too dispersed to win local elections. There should be a serious discussion about how these purposes can be protected. One option might be to follow the English model and reserve some seats for non-geographic, identity-based constituencies (such as immigration lawyers or recent calls).
But whatever the original goals of the current system, it seems clear to me that it’s flawed. I hope that whichever candidates succeed on April 30th, Convocation turns its mind to improving the system for 2019.
— Alan Cliff is a lawyer in Ottawa.