Another municipal election has just concluded and I hope the City of St. John’s will invite citizens to a review meeting to discuss the election. Not only from its operational viewpoint but also from a candidates’ and citizens’ viewpoint.
As a candidate who participated in the last three municipal elections, I would like to offer the following insights.
The campaign favours the incumbent. There is little doubt incumbents receive favourable conditions for an election campaign. First up is the mail-in ballot system. From the time nominations close to the mailing of ballots, there is only 10 days. Then, unlike other legislatures that shut down for an election campaign, council continues its weekly meetings, thus creating opportunities for incumbents to grab the headlines.
Election timing: the timing of the election has to be reviewed. A late September date does not help citizens. We are still relaxing in summer’s glory and/or ensuring the start of the school year goes well. Why not change the election date to the last week of October? This would mean a campaign start for the middle of September and allow a better focus on the campaign — free from new school year distractions — and a climate still suitable for campaigning.
If we stay with the late September election day, do we scrap the mail-in ballot system and either go back to the traditional election day voting process or an Internet ballot, where voting is made on election day and there is limited early voting options?
Campaign funding: currently, a mayoral, deputy mayor or councillor-at-large candidate can spend up to approximately $80,000 in election expenses. A ward candidate can spend between $20,000-$25,000 on a campaign. This should be reduced.
Such sums allow for huge discrepancies between campaigns. It favours candidates who have funding. It means our democracy can be determined by dollars rather than ideas.
Our system already favours name recognition and this continues for those who can place signs everywhere. A much lower dollar threshold for campaign expenditure will offer a more even playing field and may even attract more candidates.
Signage is a rather large cost factor within a campaign — well, it is for a newcomer. Incumbents and others who have campaigned in the past, may have the flexibility of being able to use signs from past campaigns. The cost of signage is expensed against the campaign for which it was bought. Therefore it may be possible to run a campaign without incurring any or minimal costs for signage. That’s a big advantage.
A lower campaign expense limit would provide a more equitable election campaign.
As for city hall’s involvement, it is time for city hall to be more pro-active in the election campaign. It should broaden its responsibilities as the election co-ordinator.
The city’s election website should have links to all the candidates’ websites. It should organize debate forums for each ward and at-large categories. This would create exposure for candidates and hopefully stir curiosity within citizens to participate in the campaign process.
Provincial government involvement: the provincial government often bemoans the lack of candidates in municipal elections. It, too, can take a more positive approach.
Why doesn’t it open up the legislature’s television channel to all candidates? This way, a candidate could be allotted, say, three minutes of TV time to make a personal appeal to voters. The candidate’s address would then be rotated throughout the campaign period. This would help candidates and voters.
Disclosure: it should be a requirement of all candidates to disclose who is on their election executive team.
This disclosure would provide an insight into who is supporting the candidate. Candidates should also be required to disclose their campaign contributions throughout the campaign.
We ask our politicians to be open and transparent while in office, so why not in campaign mode? Currently campaign donations are not disclosed until some three months after the election.
All expenditure related to a campaign should be disclosed.
Currently, a candidate only has to swear an oath of confirmation that their campaign expenses were within the limits defined by the city’s election finance bylaw.
In other words, the honour system determines the campaign financing and no financial documents are tabled.
What should be done with campaign signs? Should they be banned? Be only electronic on fixed billboards? Only allowed on private property? Limited to a certain size?
There is much to discuss about the municipal campaign. I’m sure there are other ideas out there.
Let’s talk about it while things are still fresh in our minds.
Lionel West writes from St. John’s.