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Municipal elections: Democracy in action leading to inaction


Not so long after I first moved to Kitchener, I decided that I should vote in the upcoming municipal election. That year the long-term mayor of Kitchener had resigned, and something 13 other people were running to take over the job. As a relative newcomer to the area, I had no idea who any of them were. It was daunting prospect trying to pick one out.

I watched the debates, I read articles in local newspaper. I finally settled on one candidate. I was handed my ballot, and was shocked to discover that it was this packet of paper with a bunch of other options I expected to select: city councillors, regional councillors, school board trustees, hydro commissioners!

I still don’t entirely recall what I did. Hopefully I just left the options other than Mayor blank, rather than pick names at random on them.

But that’s thing about municipal politics, isn’t it? They are, far and away, the most labour-intensive voting decisions Canadians have.

It’s no wonder to me most people don’t bother.

Barring acclamations, most Ontarians have three votes they can cast: for mayor, city councillor, and school board. Lucky us in Waterloo region, we have another level of government, so more votes: for regional chair and regional councillor (which, in my city’s case, grants me two votes).

If you’re counting, that’s six votes I have to figure out. Six. Whereas in every provincial and federal election, I just have one decision to make.

Furthermore, nobody in municipal politics runs as part of political parties. So there’s no shortcut to what the candidate is all about, just based on the fact that they chose to, for example, run for the Green party rather than Progressive Conservatives.

No. You have to research every single person individually.

And there’s not exactly one central point that you know you can go to and find that information. Sure it’s there—some cities like London have done a great job of creating election portals for people; our local CBC radio has KW ward profiles I’ve found useful; Rogers Cable runs debates for every race (except school board) and plays them multiples times (as long as you have cable!)—but you really have to want to find it.

It doesn’t surprise me that not everyone does. Or has the time to.

I don’t know how you solve this.

  • Electronic voting? As noted, I really don’t think the main deterrent is the need to walk down the street to fill in a paper ballot. Still, if the convenience slightly raises voter turnout, it’s worth it. But I do think it will be only slight.
    We’ll have an idea after this election, because some cities are trying it.
  • Ranked ballots? A conflict for me, because I’m very much in favor, in principle, of enhancing our democratic institutions. And at the municipal level, this seems the best option. But the truth is, that only makes it a bit harder, doesn’t it? That now you have to put in order all the candidates in all three or all five of your elections, not just mark an x beside your top one or two?
    However, as long as people are still allowed to just rank somebody number 1 and not bother with the rest, I think it should be fine. Frankly, if you are researching everyone anyway, it’s likely not that much harder putting them in order rather than just picking your top choice.
  • Political parties? No! Because although it would make things easier, partisanship has rendered our provincial and federal institutions incredibly unrepresentative and and undemocratic.
    Do you want your city council meetings to turn into Question Period, full of heckling and clapping, but signifying nothing? No, you do not!

That’s what it comes down to Municipal elections are real democracy, real representation. And if you care about that stuff in principle, you’ve got to put it in action and vote in the darn things.

Get out and vote

So though it’s been a slog, I’ve made my decisions on mayor and regional chair, and I’m narrowing it down on regional councilors and city councilor.

But if anyone has any idea where or how I can find out about the three people running for French Public School Board (Conseil scolaire Viamonde) trustee, that would be great! Because at this point, that may be where my democratic principles break down.

(Also, what do school board trustees do, exactly?)

3 thoughts on “Municipal elections: Democracy in action leading to inaction

  1. Cathy as usual you have described the situation beautifully. So often we want to find out re: candidates and seeking reliable information is mighty hard and time consuming

  2. “now you have to put in order all the candidates in all three or all five of your elections, not just mark an x beside your top one or two?”

    That depends on what form of preferential voting is brought forward, and from what I’ve heard, no one in Canada is opting for full preferential (which does require that you rank every candidate on the ballot). They all seem to be proposing optional preferential, which means you can rank as many or as few candidates as you want. In fact, you can even treat the ballot as a FPTP ballot and vote for only one candidate (which rather defeats the point of having a ranked ballot). Personally, I would mix the two — require that people rank a minimum of three, but not require that they rank everyone. That avoids people turning ranked ballots into FPTP ballots, but doesn’t force people into ranking obscure candidates (in Toronto, I think there are 50+ candidates for mayor alone, although you’d never know that by the news coverage. No one in their right mind could possibly rank that many candidates).

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