I have a love-hate relationship with municipal election campaigns.
OK, maybe it’s more of a hate-love relationship, but there is a tiny, microscopic bit of love.
For example, I love when innovative ideas get put forward by candidates. I also love the excitement on election night when there’s a close race.
But mostly, I love the sweet innocence of people who are running for public office for the first time. They’re so full of energy and idealism – that is before the dreary reality sets in about just how difficult it is to topple an incumbent council member. You know, the ones citizens have been lazily voting into office for decades because … well … they don’t really know why, but they keep doing it even though the warhorse in question hasn’t had an innovative idea since 1985.
As you can tell, the love part in me gets overwhelmed by the hate that’s built up inside from covering civic election campaigns since I began journalism in 1990.
It’s because pretty much everything sucks about civic election campaigns.
They are (mostly) tiresome and petty and amateurish.
And the worst part of all is they almost always culminate in a pathetic 25-per-cent turnout of registered voters. It’s been said many times before, but I’ll say it here again – municipal government is the most accessible level of government and yet, provincial and federal elections always receive vastly bigger voter turnouts.
It doesn’t seem to matter how much information about a campaign the media publishes. Or how much individual cities promote them. Or the long list of important issues that directly impact each city resident – from property taxes to development to garbage collection.
No, even with all of these things, my spirit has been crushed by every single election due to the terrible turnout of voters who can’t seem to spare an hour of their time every three years (now four with the new terms) to mark a ballot at a location that’s usually only a few blocks away from where they live.
There’s an election Oct. 20 (PLEASE TELL ME YOU KNEW THIS!) and despite all of the vital issues going on in this community, I’m not expecting more than the usual 25 turnout. Thirty per cent would literally make me fall to my knees and weep. Thirty-five per cent would probably put me in the hospital.
Based on my experience, the months leading up to that final, soul-crushing event are filled with this series of irritations:
- All-candidates’ meetings: These events involve too many candidates and not enough time to allow them a chance to make an impact on anyone in the room (outside of each candidate’s family and friends on hand to clap too loud for their answers). Organizers do their best, but when you’re dealing with this many candidates, it’s tough to get each one some face-time. Incumbents usually dominate because they are often asked the most questions. And I always feel bad for the last candidate who has to answer a question after 20 other candidates had their turn first – tough to make your thoughts sound fresh. These events are usually a waste of time for both candidates and voters, but we don’t really have many other options.
- The “We’re going to cut waste and red tape” trope: This warhorse is a fixture on the campaign circuit. Someone always has this as their major platform and yet they rarely ever have a good answer about how exactly they will cut so-called red tape in a city bureaucracy. And when you ask them what “waste” there is, they usually don’t have any concrete examples. Or if they do, it’s some minor little cost that’s a drop in the bucket for a budget in the hundreds of millions. But they’re going to cut it. If you ask them long enough, they might eventually let it slip that they don’t like how much city staff make in wages. I’m not saying one way or another if city workers make too much, but the odds of a city councillor managing to cut what they earn in wages is practically zilch so their claims they will cut costs are pretty much bogus. (FYI: By “red tape,” what they are really referring to are city rules, regulations and processes designed to protect citizens. For example, when a developer wants to build a major project, all three are there to ensure the city gets the best deal possible and that the builder is held accountable. So when a candidate wants to cut back on those three, ask them what exactly that would involve and if speeding things up to satisfy a corporation is really worth it.)
- Corny slogans: I’ve seen some real howlers over the years. (Like a candidate named Scarlett whose campaign was: “Frankly, I give a damn.”) The worst are people rhyming things with their name, as though that tells a voter anything about what a candidate’s stance is on urban density.
- Election signs: I hate these things. I hate looking at them as they litter our community. I hate how homemade and sloppy some of them look. I hate that there’s always one candidate who puts them in a distracting place, or forgets to take some of them down after an election is over.
- Disorganization: Some candidates are barely able to file their paperwork and announce their candidacy by the deadline. Nothing tells the public you are ready to help run an entire community by jumping into such a big decision at the last moment. Others can’t even properly fill out a basic candidate questionnaire from the newspaper. They either can’t stick to clear word counts because every word they write is spun gold or they can’t get it down by the deadline despite having a month to fill it out.
- Evasive candidates: Some candidates toss their hat into the ring without ever thinking about the fact that voters want to know everything about them. I know some things are off-limits and really personal, but some candidates are downright testy when asked basic questions. One guy named Gerard who ran for council in Pitt Meadows refused to put down what he did for a living – it turned out he was unemployed, which shouldn’t necessarily disqualify anyone for political office, but you have to be honest about it.
These are just a few of the things that make civic elections a drag.
Oh, there’s a new one that has entered the political realm – the door-knocking selfie. Candidates go knocking on doors to meet the public – a good strategy – but they can’t seem to go a day without posting a selfie that says they did it.
OK, we get it, you’re campaigning. We don’t need to see one of these posted every day saying the same thing. Maybe mix it up and post an interesting issue someone brought up at said door. Anything but another “LOOK AT ME!” selfie.
I can’t take it anymore.
Follow editor Chris Campbell @shinebox44