Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Making Municipal Elections Accessible

This autumn voters in four of Canada’s provinces (Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Prince Edward Island) will be casting their ballots for local government officials. Given that I am only familiar with the local Ontario context this piece truly only applies there, though I am sure there could be something to be gained from it elsewhere in this country.

Our current system for local elections does not really help voters make informed decisions. There are several simple reforms that might help voters make more informed decisions that I wish to throw out for consideration.

Back in Brampton there are 16 candidates running for city council where my parents call home. That does not include the candidates for regional councillor, mayor, or school trustee. Voters across Brampton are experiencing similar problems. With incumbents lashed with the issue of mismanagement and corruption along with a large number of retirements a higher than normal number of candidates have come forward to be considered. With a massive slate of candidate engaged citizens must compile whatever data they can scrounge together to figure out who to vote for.

Pollsters, politicians and pundits should not be surprised that citizens find it so hard to keep everything straight. I never thought of home as Ward 3. I lived in Peel Village, or southern Brampton. The wards’ numbers only ever come up at election time and if the boundaries have changed... well, good luck to any citizen trying to work it out. Federally and provincially the name of ridings corresponds to prominent geographic locations. Perhaps this is what should replace wards either formally or informally to help citizens connect to their representatives/candidates.

Assuming the citizen does figure out their slate of candidates they then have to go on a wild goose chase putting together enough information to make an informed decision. Media will sometimes compile the relevant information about candidates, but oftentimes that is incomplete as well. Local campaigns are often small, poorly funded and have limited resources for full websites, mailers, advertising or anything else like that. Therefore candidates with money or name recognition (even if for the wrong reasons) tend to be frontrunners. In The Campaign Manager by Catherine Shaw she referenced that the county or city put out public information on all of the candidates. This is put out at taxpayers’ expense so that everyone has some information. I think this is a simple and relatively cheap way to help the public make informed decisions.

I am a supporter of the ranked ballot initiative and I am very excited to see Premier Kathleen Wynne (OLP – Don Valley West) has promised to move forward on that legislation. Ranked-ballots might do a great deal to help citizens make better choices and encourage better campaigns at a local level but it won’t necessarily help voters make a more informed decision.

Though controversial, political parties on the local level may do a great deal to clarify this mess. Many large cities in Canada, Montreal, Vancouver, employ party systems. Toronto is notorious for having a fairly open informal party system at its city council. Political parties help organize candidates and campaigns and inform voters of what their general positions are. Municipal parties could even run multiple candidates for the same office. There’s no reason in a Liberal stronghold there couldn’t be two, or more, candidates, especially if ranked-ballots were being used. Organization and generating a volunteer base is one of the most difficult parts of running an independent campaign, couple with that the development of policy ideas and a case for municipal parties really grows. In addition, it might build some consensus before a city council ever meets over policies instead of having 11 or 7 or 45 different ideas being hashed out at once.

Voter turnout at the local level is never going to improve until citizens are helped in making clearer, more informed choices. Even useful ideas like ranked-ballots won’t help inform someone that John Tory is not running to be mayor of Mississauga. The way we consume media makes this a very difficult process, but municipalities provide critical services and are our most accessible level of government. Our election officials and governments need to help us make informed decisions less a tiny minority govern for the rest of us.  

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