The Association of Municipalities Ontario recently published some remarkable figures about this month’s municipal elections. About one fifth of the positions up for grabs, from mayor to councillor to reeve, have been filled without a fight. One position, one candidate. The “winners” were acclaimed, which sounds as if they were carried to office by a cheering crowd, but really means that no one bothered to run against them.
Election by acclamation is on the rise. AMO reports that there were 390 acclamations in 2014, 477 in 2018 and 548 this year. No fewer than 139 heads of council (mayors or reeves) have been chosen by acclamation. In some smaller communities, the whole council has been acclaimed. The total number of candidates running for office is down, too, from 6,658 in 2018 to 6,306 this time around.
Voter turnout for municipal elections has always been pretty low, often falling in the 40-something percentage range or less. Now we face a double problem: Not only are voters checking out, potential candidates are, too. Fewer contenders, fewer races, an apathetic electorate – it’s hardly the formula for robust local democracy. And local democracy matters.
The former mayor of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi, likes to joke that if the federal government vanished, it would probably take us a week or two to notice. If the provincial government disappeared, we might notice a little faster, because it’s in charge of the schools and the hospitals. If the municipal government disappeared, he said on a panel this week, “well, you’d have no roads, no transit, no parks, no green space, no clean water, no 911, no police, no emergency response, no fire department – and you’d notice pretty quickly because you’d be dead.”
The panel, organized by the Canadian Urban Institute, was one of quite a few worried conversations that have been going on lately about what seems to be a national problem. Its title was provocative and telling: Why Would Anyone Run for Municipal Office?
Elected officials at the local level often work long hours for low pay. Like many politicians these days, they face online trolling, name-calling and worse. And in the end people seem to care so little about what they do that they won’t take 30 minutes every four years to fill out a ballot.
No wonder fewer candidates are stepping up. Even in a big city with big issues, like Toronto, some of the most engaged and engaging figures are in fact stepping down. Joe Cressy, a left-leaning councillor often talked about as a future mayor, just left politics to take a university job. Mike Layton and Ana Bailao also decided not to run again. Meanwhile, entrenched incumbents hang on and on, coasting to re-election each time on little more than the fact that they have recognizable names. Promising newcomers can’t get any traction. Many give up and go on to something else.
It’s a shame, because municipal politics is cool. Without formal political parties, local politicians are a lot freer than their federal and provincial cousins – freer to say what they want, vote as they want and make deals with whom they want. Divisions between left and right don’t mean that much when it comes to how to pick up the litter and fill the potholes on time.
A city councillor deals with issues as small as a fight over whether to put speed humps on a local street and as big as how to build homes for the homeless and better mass transit for the masses. These should be attractive jobs, with throngs of candidates competing for them.
The fastest way to annoy Mr. Neshi is to ask whether he is after a bigger job in government now that he has left the mayor’s office. “There is no bigger or more important political job than the one I was just lucky enough to hold for 11 years,” he retorts.
Yet many bright, dynamic people like him are choosing to give the whole game a pass. The evils that are seeping into our national and provincial politics – the cynicism, the divisiveness, the disengagement – are starting to infect the local level, too. Let’s not let it happen. Municipal politics are where it’s happening. Voting day in Ontario is Oct. 24.