Every three years, in the lead-up to another civic election, I think to myself: it’s got to be easier than this.
My nagging suspicion rang loudest on a recent, rainy Tuesday night. I was taking in an all-candidates meeting at my local community centre, not as a reporter for the Victoria News but as a citizen and voter.
The event was set up like a trade show. With 20 council candidates there was no way to host a meaningful moderated debate. Over the course of an hour, I’d managed to make contact with about eight candidates and weigh in on a couple of meaty issues with no more than three.
It hardly sufficed to inform my vote, and yet, it was more effort than most voters make.
As a reporter, the problem is even worse. There’s no time or space to give all candidates a proper, critical profile. At the same time, there’s no justifiable way of interviewing only the “serious” candidates. So instead, we give equal opportunity to all, by printing their platforms in a soundbite.
Add to the ballot 16 school board trustees and the choices are overwhelming. The result is a pitiful 26.4 per cent voter turnout among City of Victoria voters.
Province wide, the average isn’t much better, at 29.5 per cent. Within Greater Victoria, turnout ranged from a pitiful 13.9 per cent in Langford to a high of 48.8 per cent in Metchosin.
It’s clearly time to give some serious thought to improving turnout, while the foibles of the election process are still fresh in our mind.
There are lots of ideas about how to make the process easier and more engaging.
I think weeding out unmotivated candidates is the most important step.
It always amazes me to see candidates file nomination papers who have little to no community experience. I’m talking about the ones with some vague notion for change, but no political, volunteer or leadership experience that proves they can get the job done.
In this past election, Victoria had one candidate who spent the entire campaign period on the road. Another couldn’t take the time to fill out surveys on his platform — a time-consuming but critical way to reach voters.
The city took the first step in raising the bar when it upped its requirements to run in the election. Candidates now need to be nominated by 25, rather than two people. I think the requirement could be much higher still. A candidate with deep roots in the community should have no trouble gathering 100 signatures.
Another idea is capping donations to election campaigns. Unsuccessful candidates often complain they didn’t get elected because they didn’t have the money. Limiting donations to $1,000 (or some measured amount) is a good way to ensure anyone running an expensive campaign is doing so with the support of hundreds of small donations rather than a few big ones.
A ward system is another idea for the region’s most populous municipalities.
Imagine the City of Victoria split into four wards, with residents in each ward voting for two representatives.
The city once had wards, back in the late 1800s. It may be time to revisit the merits of a system where voters choose between a smaller pool of candidates vying to represent their specific interests on council.
There are also ways to make voting easier.
For instance, Oak Bay introduced mail-in ballots, but only 34 were mailed in. Victoria has also given it a try, with better results.
Is electronic voting next?
It’s an idea bandied about by councillors and mayors in many Greater Victoria municipalities, and one which helped increase voter turnout from 30 to 38 per cent in Markham, Ont.
The election may just be over but we can’t wait to start talking about changing the system.
Vancouver learned this lesson the hard way. Its city council embraced electronic voting in May — too late for the province to accommodate the request in time for last Saturday’s election.
Now is the time for municipal governments to launch public discussion on election reform, before it’s too late to make changes for the 2014 election.
Roszan Holmen reports for the