Monday, November 10, 2008

Voting a crap shoot at municipal elections

In just over a week, we’ll pick the mayors and councillors who will lead B.C. communities for the next three years.
It’s an incredibly important job. We “hire” municipal councils to tend to dozens of vital tasks in our communities - from dog-catching and parking tickets to policing, planning, roadwork and economic development. A single term of bad council can turn a community on its ear for years to come.
Councils also play an important role in representing our interests at the provincial and federal levels. Municipalities generate a scant eight per cent of the total tax base in the province, so we all want councils that are strategic and clued-in to ensure they’re effective at “managing up.”
You’d think that the hiring process for a big job like that would be done with the utmost care. You’d think we’d be really conscious of wanting to pick the right people to lead our communities.
But you’d be wrong. In truth, 70 per cent of us won’t even show up to vote in many B.C. communities, based on voter turnout from the 2005 municipal elections. Even those of us who do will often have no real sense of who we’re voting for.
Just 27 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls last time out in the City of Victoria. In Saanich, where the mayor was acclaimed in 2005, turnout was 19 per cent. Only Metchosin and North Saanich saw anything approaching a respectable voter turnout in our region, and even that was a minimal 50 per cent.
Turnouts in the 2005 municipal/regional elections throughout B.C. were 25 to 35 per cent in most communities. (Go to http://www.ubcmsurveys.com/election2005/turnout.asp for individual results).
Voter turnout on much of Vancouver Island was below 30 per cent. Tahsis and Alert Bay saw remarkable turnouts that topped 90 per cent, but those communities were notable exceptions in an otherwise dismal year.
As for whether those scant voters made the right picks in 2005, all we have is our councils’ accomplishments these past three years to help us come to a conclusion about that.
That’s never an easy thing to measure. We don’t ask our incumbent politicians for proof that they did a good job. Nor do we often have enough information to gauge whether the newcomers clamouring for our votes will make things better or worse. I suspect I’m not alone in heading into next Saturday’s election with much uncertainty as to who to vote for.
It’s up to each of us to get informed, of course. In Esquimalt, where I live, nothing is stopping me from contacting each of the candidates myself to see what I can ascertain, because at least I’ve managed to find all their e-mail addresses on the Township of Esquimalt Web site. But that’s hardly an efficient way to inform the most number of voters.
The Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce has a helpful “meet your candidate” feature on its Web site for the four core communities, at http://www.victoriachamber.ca/elections/
There’s a brief resume-style summary of each candidate, followed by their answers to five questions on topics including economic development, tax rates and top priorities. A sixth question asks about an issue specific to a particular community (sewage in Oak Bay, homelessness in Victoria, etc.).
But the Chamber can’t insist candidates take part, so the listings are incomplete. Only one Oak Bay candidate has bothered to post a response. Half of the City of Victoria’s eight mayoral candidates haven’t posted responses. And with only four municipalities included on the site, two-thirds of the region’s electorate are out in the cold at any rate.
The Times Colonist has begun community profiles, but can’t devote the space and resources required to feature each of the 100-plus candidates running for a seat in our region. As for all-candidates forums, most are unsatisfying affairs unable to give candidates more than a minute or two to state their case.
Small wonder, then, that local candidates have been inundated with questionnaires from people trying to figure out how they’ll vote. How else to determine who to pick?
The lack of meaningful engagement goes a long way to explaining why so many of us just give the whole process a pass. Yet to think we’re now electing our local governments based on the largely uninformed choices of a quarter of the eligible voters - well, that’s kind of scary.
There has to be a better way. But until we figure it out, it’s head-first into another crap shoot. I’ll see you at the polls Nov. 15, and we’ll just have to count on luck to take it from there.

1 comment:

Chris Eve said...

Saanich residents are well served this year. The Saanich Civic League has analysed the record of the incumbents and provided links to candidate sites at http://www.saanichcivicleague.ca/

I voted yesterday in the Advance poll at the Municipal Office. The line up was out the door when we got there, it took awhile and the staff were phoning for reinforcements!

But a big thank you to each of the candidates for their websites, to the Saanich Civic League for their efforts.

School trustee was a bit harder to figure out, but I sure had enough information over the internet to make an informed choice even here.