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The Globe and Mail

Incumbency on city councils is killing democracy

Vasiliki (Vass) Bednar is an Action Canada fellow and deputy director of cities at the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

Ordinary people think they can run successfully for city council. They're wrong.

Toronto's council experienced a measly 16 per cent turnover on Monday night. After a grueling 10-month writ, city hall is neither refreshed nor particularly refreshing – a paltry seven seats out of 44 have new faces and in only one instance did an incoming councillor beat an incumbent (Ward 26). Moreover, all three leading mayoral candidates were already well-known public figures with established and sophisticated networks before throwing their hats in the ring. As a citizenry, we haven't voted for our peers; instead, we've elevated professional politicians and confirmed their superiority relative to the average Joe.

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As an electorate, we might be wondering why we even considered indulging alternatives. Prospective city councillors can't be faulted for re-examining their motivations, resources, and appetite for taking on seat-defending goliaths. The barriers to political entry are higher than ever and the success rate of challengers is appallingly low. Why engage in an increasingly futile exercise as a volunteer or prospective candidate? Why donate time or money to a campaign or support a likely loser with a lawn sign? Why did we wait in lines to cast our votes? In hindsight, the Herculean volunteer efforts of non-incumbents can't help but seem like a total waste of time and resources. Why bother trying?

We bother (well about half of us do) because a foundational premise of our democratic system is that "anyone" can be elected to serve public office and represent their community. Instead, the triumph of incumbents makes electing new talent increasingly improbable. It's disheartening – we imagine that elections are time for "change," not a hopeless affirmation of the status quo.

Now, it's an open secret that political incumbents are privileged due to their many home-court advantages: name (and sometimes even facial) recognition, well-established connections to BIAs, substantive local networks and a four-year (sometimes plus) record of assisting citizens with their local needs. But an avalanche of incumbents winning back their seats presents a discouraging and ultimately disappointing detriment for democracy. For the average person, it makes the prospect of actually getting elected less probable and alienating.

If an election is merely a referendum on an incumbent's performance, then we need to introduce thoughtful mechanisms that help voters evaluate a councillor's record and overcome information asymmetry through data rather than casual familiarity. We can do better.

Once a common source of pride, diversity is no longer our "strength." The new council is largely devoid of the next generation (Millennials), largely male (69 per cent), and overwhelmingly white (87 per cent). As Dave Meslin has pointed out, the city council of the most diverse city in the world looks a lot like the Leafs.

Reinforcing the dominance of incumbents, the leading mayoral candidates, though not incumbent to the role, were all certainly incumbent to particular political dynasties. "Newbies" like David Socknacki faced financial hurdles and Ari Goldkind struggled for airtime. Morgan Baskin's representation of youth was admirable but easily sidelined. None were a match for the mayoral muscle of Chow, Ford, or Tory.

Similarly, some of Canada's most charismatic and celebrated mayors were also politicians by trade before holding public office: Vancouver's Gregor Robertson was an MLA for Vancouver-Fairview as a member of the B.C. NDP, Edmonton's Don Iveson was a councillor before becoming mayor, Montreal's Denis Coderre was a Liberal Member of Parliament for Bourassa for 16 years. In contrast, oft-celebrated Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was the ultimate dark horse. A mayor from "out of nowhere" in Toronto feels less possible, and an everyday political citizen becoming councillor increasingly seems just as fanciful.

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The incredible advantage that those seeking re-election benefit from contributes to the incumbent disadvantage: namely, a reinforcement of the apathy and disengagement that we collectively lament. It's disheartening to essentially re-elect an entire council; even moreso when an incumbent is unremarkable or ineffective. I wouldn't be surprised by any consequent disillusionment from voters. I haven't been surprised by my own.

So what needs to change? A two-term limit for councillors would be a welcome governance intervention. Another innovation on the horizon – ranked ballots – promises a small, simple change that would make Toronto's elections more fair, diverse, inclusive and friendly. In fact, Toronto has the opportunity to become the first city in Canada to abandon and antiquated voting system. This revolution in how we vote could encourage more underdogs to seriously put their name on the ballot, diversify the incumbent monopoly and elevate political discourse. Coupled with term limits, elections would facilitate actual change, invite fresh faces and enhance representativeness.

If instant runoff voting doesn't materialize as an electoral option by 2018, perhaps candidates for public office without previous political experience need not apply. We've unintentionally professionalized a vocation that was supposed to be for everyone, and that's the incumbent disadvantage, folks.

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