The field contesting our municipal elections here in Whitehorse last week was extremely crowded. Twenty two candidates put their names on the ballot to choose who would set the direction of the city for the next three years.
And while I don’t doubt that the six we chose will serve our community well, I don’t feel that I got to know who they or the 16 who were unsuccessful really are.
Despite being something of a political junkie myself, I have to confess that between work, raising a toddler, regaling all of you with my opinions on the political issue of the week, and the long list of other things that demand my attention I find forming a properly educated opinion on 22 people – many of whom I’ve never heard of before – is a daunting task.
Campaign literature and candidate debates assist in the task of weighing our options, but there are limitations. Digesting the former is time consuming with such a large field. Moreover, such materials are often vague and lacking in detail, thus requiring follow up questions that too often don’t get asked. Debates in such a crowded field provide only a sliver of information on which to base the decision, as each candidate only has only a few minutes to make his or her pitch.
Even the media appears overwhelmed by the task. In elections for other levels of government, reporters have the time and resources to assist in carefully scrutinizing candidates by thoroughly reviewing their credentials and asking probing, critical questions. In municipal politics they too are limited to a few interviews with a handful of factoids.
The pressure to pick six councillors increases the likelihood that some form of sloppy shorthand will be used by voters to round out the list.
Part of the difficulty is that many of the people vying for council are relatively unknown quantities. The information overload we are faced with could mean that we might elect one without a thorough vetting of their credentials.
Alternatively we might pass on a relatively unknown yet quality candidate in favour of someone with more name recognition. Simple name recognition plays too large a role in our municipal elections, meaning that incumbency is a major advantage (although apparently not enough to prevent Dave Stockdale’s ouster after sitting on council almost my entire lifetime). I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard people rationalize their decision to vote for a particular candidate for reasons that boil down to “because I’ve actually heard of him or her.”
Making matters more difficult is the short elections window in which we have to process municipal politics. We knew the final list of candidates for less than a month before the election. So not only do we have a lot of information to sort through, we have to do so in a matter of weeks.
This is not conducive to a thorough and proper vetting of the candidates.
Is there a way of whittling down the number of candidates that we have to consider without taking away one of the best aspects of municipal politics – the ease of getting on the ballot for people who want to put their names forward? Perhaps.
Whitehorse elects its city councillors at large, meaning that every councillor is elected by all of the voters of Whitehorse. It is a system that has the advantage of making each councillor accountable to the entire city but makes the process cumbersome for voters.
Many cities use a ward system, where the community is divided up into what are comparable to what we know as ridings in the federal and territorial context. This system narrows the choice for voters and reduces the number of candidates they need to pick to one. If Whitehorse were divided into six wards, for example, each ward would have averaged about three of four candidates – a far more manageable number than 22.
This would allow the candidates to more directly engage with a greater proportion of the voters who elect them. It is pretty difficult for a candidate to knock on every door in town, and as a general rule you don’t get to meet many candidates during the short election window unless you actively seek them out. More discussions on the doorstep could serve to make more community members engaged with the process.
There are other reasons to favour a ward system. Graham Lang expounded on some of them in a column he wrote for the News on May 7, 2014 entitled “Whitehorse needs a ward system,” and even proposed how the city could be broken down.
It is an idea we should seriously consider. We are blessed that so many people want to put their names forward to participate in the democratic decision making of our community. But such a crowded field is not conducive to the type of thorough vetting that a healthy democracy requires.
Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.