Municipal Election 2014

Voter Turnout: The Red Herring in The Room

Here's to the next four years and a much different municipal governance landscape when we return to the polls in 2018.

By M Adrian Brassington
Published November 12, 2014

Another election is over and another Council term is about to begin. Since the dust has settled, the hottest topic hasn't been light rail transit, or dealing with the budget deficit, or what our expectations are for this Council, or even how the quartet of newbie Councillors will fare - how long they'll be sucked into The Dark Side.

No, the topic that's gotten more press, and certainly more letters to the Editor, is voter turnout.

I find it reminiscent of Chicken Little running around yelling 'The sky is falling! The sky is falling!'

Yes, voter turnout in Hamilton dropped by almost seven percent. Yes, this is disappointing from a civic engagement/exercising democratic rights point-of-view. But we're talking deceptive optics here: it's a red herring, hardly more than grist for the journalistic mill. Gobs of convenient flammable pitch for the mob's torches.

I say this as someone who has been yammering on for the last four years about the importance of more ballots being cast by informed constituents, as opposed to voting according to 'name recognition'. Indeed, since I began holding forth about this radical philosophical adjustment, friends and colleagues have been staring at me, gobsmacked.

Instead of getting all bent out of shape about this, I believe we should be examining what we as Hamiltonians really, truly want. How about these notions?

  1. Councillors who are fully 'engaged' with their residents. That is, consulting with them, listening to them, collaborating with them, injecting into the conversations the realities of politics at City Hall, fighting for their needs.

  2. The open encouragement of 'fresh ideas' from both sides of the table. That is, from citizens as much as Councillors. A constant influx of new concepts, new ways of making Hamilton a better place in which to live, to thrive.

  3. Performances at 71 Main Street West that are consistently above the rank of 'satisfactory', with 'exemplary' often being the case. A successful pursuit of excellence.

  4. Ultimately, authentic 'leaders' that inspire communities as much as they're inspired by them.

If local governance looked like this, why would it matter what percentage of eligible voters actually made it to the polling stations?

The world has changed. We have access to information that even a quarter-century ago, we didn't. And we have this access 24-7. We didn't have live-streaming of Council meetings back then. We didn't have easy access to City departments, to documents, et cetera. We didn't have access to information about other cities in the province, in the country, across the world.

Because of this, I believe our roles in our local governance need to change. We've collectively been unwilling, uninterested or unable to imagine being far more invested residents.

Yes, we love our social media, and yes, there was a tremendous amount of chatter on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram this election. But in all seriousness, these modes are 'engagement lite'.

I know that the notion that residents need to be more invested in what goes on at City Hall offends some people. The standard cry is 'They should be doing their jobs! That's what they're payed to do! I shouldn't have to do anything except vote!'

I can't argue with this mindset. Except to say that it smacks of 'You pays your money and you take your chances.'

Along with what I've just suggested, Council's job descriptions need to change. But change is not going to be initiated by Council. For proof of this, look no further than the hands-off behaviour towards ward boundary review. No, the necessary change has to come from us.

I'll accept the idea that we get the government we deserve. But there's another truth that goes beyond this maxim: 'We get the government we demand.'

And here's the silver lining: demanding and effecting better municipal government does not require that we have a massive amount of participation in this long-game endeavour.

Let's face it; only a certain percentage of eligible voters will ever cast ballots, only a certain percentage of these will do so by way of a solid decision-making process, and only a small percentage of these will be 'active' in their communities.

But directing a Councillor's behaviour, moulding their mandate to reflect the concerns, needs and priorities of their streets, their neighbourhoods, their wards does not require vast participation on the parts of Hamiltonians.

What is required is a riff on Margaret Mead's "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has," a tactical, widespread effort at community organizing by core groups of 'civic activists' towards creating a much stronger voice at City Hall.

Think of it as an equivalent to organizing a union.

Here's to the next four years and a much different municipal governance landscape when we return to the polls in 2018.

M Adrian Brassington is a Hamilton writer.

14 Comments

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By Hamilton Civic League (anonymous) | Posted November 12, 2014 at 13:59:05

I totally agree. Residents must continually help City Hall with setting priorities and City Hall must open the doors and provide a seat at the table for residents. The annual budget process typically begins in September and residents are not offered an opportunity to comment until February when most everything has been decided. We need to be included in the budget process from the beginning if we are ever going to build trust in local government. We should be afforded the same training and orientation that the new councillors will receive. 34% voter turnout on one day every four years is not the statistic that is worth measuring. The level of resident engagement on a day to day basis is far more valuable. Let's grow those statistics together over the next four years.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted November 12, 2014 at 14:16:58 in reply to Comment 106150

" The level of resident engagement on a day to day basis is far more valuable."

Hear hear!

So on that note, something rather important.

The city, one may wish to note, has a webpage where it tells citizens to "check this page periodically for notification of any advertised vacancies" in its Advisory Committees, Boards and Agencies.

Those committees, boards and agencies are one of the principal ways that ordinary citizens can get engaged with the City and the work it does. Their work is vital.

As these boards and agencies and committees are restaffed every four years with the arrival of a new council. As you can imagine, that means this is a tremendously important time! There is currently a call for volunteers for these, one that ENDS on November 28.

That page has NO NOTICE posted on it. The notice so far has only (it seems) been given to councillors. Who would seem with one exception, to have handed it around to friends and otherwise left it alone.

The one exception is Councillor Brenda Johnson (THANK YOU COUNCILLOR!). Her posting is here, and I suggest you look at it, and please consider where you can help your city.

When we talk about a city that is not merely closed and unfriendly--but in fact openly hostile--to those from outside the magic handshake circle, this is exactly what we mean. It is unconscionable that the City is keeping critical information on public participation from the public, to the extent that it is not even posting the information on its own website, not even in that section of the website dedicated to that purpose.

The City must do better.

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted November 14, 2014 at 04:30:50 in reply to Comment 106152

The problem with committees is they do not reflect the people as a true democratic process takes a long time. In analyzing the now defunct social justice strategic committee, that process was flawed as much effort was filled coming up with nicely worded suspension letter pushed forward by those the brown Noser's who do not live in poverty opposed to the majority stance of low income people who do not want suspensions at all. Cutting someone off OW violates basic human rights.
When I started asking hard questions regarding delegate status I was called a terrorist. And given Mr Elliot's recent editorial on three protests, the ruling class continues on its us vs them status quo. And you wonder why people do not vote and are disengaged.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted November 12, 2014 at 14:19:50 in reply to Comment 106152

Sorry, I thought links worked. The posting is at http://brendajohnson.ca/2014/11/citizen-...

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By mel (registered) | Posted November 12, 2014 at 14:43:42

People will turn out to vote IF they know that their participation is vital to the success of their city, their neighbourhood, and their family (however they define 'family').

The City of Guelph began an ambitious goal about 18 months ago: Open Government that seeks to actively engaging citizens in all aspects of the city, essentially opening the doors of City Hall to citizens and treating citizens as equal decision-makers on par with city Councillors and city staff.

But it's not a one-way street (pardon the pun), as City officials EXPECT citizens to help find solutions, to fix problems, not just point them out (or point fingers of blame).

I asked each Mayoral candidate for their view on Open Government and didn't get one reply. I still voted and will try to find ways to press my new city toward an Open Government philosophy.

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By Voter Turnoff (anonymous) | Posted November 12, 2014 at 15:12:32

It's ok, Bratina told us why voter turnout was so low, it was because of the media meanies and LRT advocates.

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By charlesball (registered) | Posted November 12, 2014 at 15:13:07

I think the use of computers and on-line voting would help. I also think that putting major decisions to the citizenship, at least for direction, would help as well.

In my experience, most people don't care because they like the status quo or if they don't because they feel powerless, or because they don;t have the time to do other than delegate responsibility to other people they trust. Very often they only react long after the decisions have been made.

Lobbying always scares me because by its nature it rarely leaves a record. Squeaky wheels will get the grease. That does not make them right.

In other words, do neighborhood associations speak for the neighborhood, or only for the people who care enough to belong to the neighborhood association? Does the union speak for the employees, or for those who care enough to sit in committee.

There are ample examples of people with ulterior motives taking over unions (think Canad Post in the 1970's and early 1980's) who did not have the best interest of the union membership at heart, or, who's stated interests and true objectives conflicted with the interests of the union membership at large (I belonged to one such union and my disinterest is partly to blame for letting radicals run roughshod.)

But the writer is entirely correct. Unless the people show some interest and get involved, nothing will change.

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By CharlesBall (registered) | Posted November 12, 2014 at 15:14:20 in reply to Comment 106160

I seem to have lost my ability to edit. Sorry for the error above.

Comment edited by CharlesBall on 2014-11-12 15:14:36

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By redmikeatwork (anonymous) | Posted November 12, 2014 at 17:43:54

an out of town friend was visiting hamilton in the week leading up to the election. since he is a former hamilton media proffesional, he spent a lot of time observing local media, print, tv, radio, social. he did not know there was and election till the next day when i told him how i voted and why. through our media he knew, for sure, without a doubt, that nathan cirillio had died a hero and that hamilton was proud and bereft. through our media he had no idea there was an election.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted November 12, 2014 at 18:38:52

A few pushbacks:

  1. I don't like the idea that we want politicians with 'fresh ideas'. Our politicians should be up to date with current trends and best practices in city building, so that they can make informed contributions to council proceedings. That doesn't mean they need to come up with the original concepts, and in fact I think that can be more harmful than good --- city councillors don't necessarily have the expertise to be formulating the big-picture plans on many municipal issues, and expecting them to come to the table with 'fresh ideas' could easily lead to bad planning for the sake of originality. Just look at the Toronto election, where John Tory achieved traction on his "SmartTrack" plan, which is not a well-thought out plan. It might sound like good branding, but when you dig into it a lot of the ideas are not that great, and the ones that are good are copied from GO Transit's long-term strategy --- in other words it would be really stupid for the city to spend money implementing them. The best think that Tory could do is to admit that its not his job to come up with a fresh take, but instead to seek out the right advice and then implement it.

  2. I take issue with the suggestion that social media is "engagement-lite". Governments need to be on-board with web culture, because that's where many citizens are, and it is an extremely powerful tool for engagement. Of course social media engagement is not enough, but if you think its not an integral and necessary part of engaging citizens, you need to get a reality check. Multi-national corporations have taken to announcing their products on Twitter. If you want citizens to know about and care about a committee meeting, you have to tell them about it and social media is a key element of doing that.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted November 12, 2014 at 23:48:58

We have no real media coverage of ward-level elections. This makes them a mockery of democracy - many voters are going on a flyer at best. Our anemic CBC pseudopod did their best, and RTH made do with what little responses they got from candidates, but ultimately the best source for debate coverage was an independent blogger with a video camera who runs on donations. AM900 basically acted as a mouthpiece for the established interests (particularly the mayor), and CHTV seems to forget where they're located.

Joey Coleman is the best journalism in the city by a long-shot... and no slight to Joey, but that's kinda pathetic.

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By jonathan (registered) | Posted November 13, 2014 at 10:58:23 in reply to Comment 106185

To be fair, AM900 had a segment on each and every ward during Scott Thompson's show, where all candidates were invited to the studio. Very few of the incumbents showed up. Thompson railed about this every. single. day. In fact, he pushed for no votes for the incumbents who couldn't be bothered to show up. In his opinion, this was because they felt they had nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by opening their mouths on live radio, and were relying solely on the fact they were incumbents to win the wards. I'm not sure what else they could do.

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By Missy2013 (registered) - website | Posted November 15, 2014 at 13:00:13

I applaud 100% Ryan McGreal's efforts to ENGAGE the politicians and the public, regardless of IMMEDIATE impact or seeming voter 'irrelevance'. It's all about transparency, and elevating the dialogue. CATCH is another good 'group' in Hamilton that keeps politicians 'feet to the fire'. - http://hamiltoncatch.org/index.php

In Burlington, Pepper Parr does a good job of providing information and context for many Burlington City Hall items, via his privately owned 'Burlington Gazette'. With one fifth the population of Hamilton, he's doing a good job of it. http://www.burlingtongazette.ca/

To be sure, there are other groups that are working in Wards to raise awareness and impact on Councillors. Find those 'voices' and add yours.

Change will come if we change it.

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