Mississauga, January 2010, one year ago and the official start of the 2010 Municipal Election Campaign. Over the cold winter months and into spring, those who might be candidates were deliberating the possibly fateful decision of running for public office. By May of 2010, over 50 candidates made that decision and registered their nomination papers with the city. By the official cut-off for nominations on September 10th, the number of registered candidates had swelled to over 100.
Unlike a Federal or Provincial campaign, Municipal campaigns have no Political Party brands. No campaign advertisements come on television from the party leader keeping their brand top of mind. Instead Municipal candidates are independents who must build their own brand. This is a struggle. Municipal campaigns simply do not have marketing budgets to make the same impact with voters as a Provincial or Federal campaign. And they are generally viewed as less important –– which is interesting given the fact that city government deals with issues we experience every day such as neighborhood planning or transit.
Typically without adequate financial resources a candidate cannot mount an effective campaign or hope to be successful (Mayor McCallion is probably the only known exception to this rule as she returns all donations –– which is not a tactic I would advise for anyone else!).
The spending limit for a municipal campaign forCouncillor in Mississauga is on average $30,000 to $40,000. Here there is no rebate program for donations to municipal candidates. In most cases, at least 50% of a Mississauga candidate’’s funding comes from businesses. Citizens who are used to the Federal and Provincial programs that provide tax credits for donations simply find it unpalatable to give when there is no recognition of their donation. This is not how it’’s done in Toronto,Vaughan, or Oakville, all of which have rebate or credit programs. Our lack of a similar rebate program makes fundraising extremely difficult for new candidates and naturally tilts the playing field in favour of incumbents,who usually have much greater name recognition.
Door to door canvassing, personal phone calls, morning greetings at Go Stations and waves to passing commuters are tried and true tactics to get the candidates name in front of voters because name recognition is the key. During the 2010 election, some wards in Mississauga managed to conduct a single all Candidates debate! While most wards did not do that much.
There are two important ““asks”” during a campaign, one is for money, the other is for their vote – mastering the ““ask”” is essential to success. Securing money and support in the early days of a campaign can be quite stressful and de-motivating. Many candidates find the““ask”” very difficult. The only way to avoid having to contact friends and associates is to self-fund your campaign. Most people do not have the financial means to do this, nor should they as there are negative implications in being the only one to support your own campaign. It is donations from others to your campaign that suggest you are a viable candidate and gives people a sense of engagement in the political process. Once individuals are personally invested then they are also more committed to work for the campaign.
In addition, candidates are embracing new tools like Facebook, websites, and twitter. Recorded calls by a candidate seeking endorsement are becoming more common. The latest innovation is the ““virtual town hall””where residents are placed on a call with the candidate to listen in or interact. Look for this to become a common tool in the upcoming Federal and Provincial campaigns (spring and fall of 2011!).
The rise of electronic media means that the local media can be sidestepped. No campaign can count on the local media to provide coverage of a municipal campaign and for good reason; they provide poor coverage if at all. Sadly they seem to have abandoned their role to new media without a fight.
Recent complaints about the accuracy of provincially supplied voters’’ lists are well taken but the opportunities for improvement to the municipal election process extend beyond blaming the province.
Voting in Mississauga went up dramatically this year to only 35% of the eligible voters. Other municipalities have implemented changes to increase their turn-out ,such as more advance polls in more locations, on-line voting (over 30 municipalities tried it this election) and most importantly election financing reform that provides rebates for citizens who donate and bans donations from business and unions.
Staffing and training of City election officials for Election Day is also important. Election officials would be better equipped for the challenges if they participated on Provincial and Federal E-Days to further their experience and skills. Based on what we saw in this election Mississauga’’s process needs improving. Now is the time to start the discussion, identify options and make some changes so that in 2014, we’’ll get the election we deserve.