How does anyone run for city council?

An old chum of mine, public policy analyst and cross-country smart guy Steve Lafleur, recently wrote a compelling piece arguing that a combination of limited policy influence, undesirable lifestyle, and uncompetitive compensation-levels has led to fewer people putting themselves forward to serve on Toronto City Council.

You can find Steve's article here.

The challenges faced by local councillors and mayors start before their terms even begin. They face a number of barriers that elected officials at other levels of government do not. Brigade Digital brings experienced professional data management services to municipal campaigns to close this capabilities gap, but changes to the municipal system could help bring more resources and attract more people to run.

The October 24th municipal election comes on the heels of the June 2nd provincial election, which makes for an interesting comparison.  Municipal candidates in Ontario do not have political parties to fundraise, plan and spend money on critical campaign infrastructure, advertising and increasing voter identification data in between elections. Local elections are overseen by the local Municipal Clerks with guidance from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing and support from the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC).  In British Columbia, where civic political parties are commonplace (most notably in Vancouver), local elections are managed and parties are registered and regulated by the independent Elections BC. Readers may groan at the idea of partisan municipal elections, but parties at the local level can help in many ways, including encouraging good people to run who may have never considered it, helping those candidates to run professional and organized campaigns and improving communications with voters.

One might argue that the lack of parties in Toronto does not appear to be holding back voter turnout.  Turnout in Toronto was 41% in the 2018 municipal cycle compared to Vancouver, which saw a 39.36% turnout that same year. I will note that I have not done a deep-dive into the Elections BC regulations governing civic parties to see if reforms could help empower these organizations to do better Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) efforts. But there are reasons to believe that having political parties involved in municipal elections could lead to a more informed and engaged electorate.

Both during and in-between elections, federal and provincial political parties spend huge swaths of money preparing and campaigning. They have events, websites, databases, staff and professional fundraising-arms. Ontario municipal candidates are restricted to only incurring expenses after they've registered as a candidate, the earliest possible date being May 1st (or Monday the 2nd in most municipalities). There’s also no advantage to registering early, since spending limits are independent of the amount of time between registration and election day. Early registration also does not create an information advantage as voters lists are not available until September. So there is no way for candidates to make up for the lack of a permanent campaign infrastructure.  EDIT: A key differential that I neglected to include in my first draft of this post was how candidates for provincial and federal office can offer a large tax receipt to donors as an offset, encouraging their generosity by lowering the amount they would otherwise have to pay in taxes to the government every year. This perk has been withheld from municipal candidates, handcuffing their ability to raise important capital to run professional campaigns.

In addition to benefitting from political party election and pre-election spending, candidates in the June 2022 provincial election could spend $1.40 per voter in their electoral district. This fall, candidates for local council will get a $5000 base amount and only $0.85 per voter. Mayors get only a $2500 boost to the number. The larger constituency size and party support give candidates for Queen's Park a lot more room to run professional voter outreach and GOTV campaigns than would-be municipal representatives.

Further, MPPs and provincial political parties maintain access to a permanent register of electors in between elections. From this they are able to add contact information from other sources and continue their campaigning and preparations. Fortunately, 2022 will mark the last round of municipal elections where the voter list is prepared by MPAC.  In 2020, the Provincial government enacted Bill 204, Helping Tenant and Small Businesses Act, 2020 which made changes to the Municipal Elections Act, 1996 giving responsibility to Ontario's Chief Electoral Officer for preparing a municipal voters list based on the permanent register of electors used in provincial elections. Under this approach, voters lists should be available earlier for would-be 2026 municipal candidates. Hopefully this could also signal a willingness by the Provincial government to consider more reforms that would harmonize the municipal election system with the provincial one.

For city council candidates, it comes down to resources. The municipal system currently favours incumbents and better known candidates, like the former provincial party leaders running in the Hamilton and Vaughan mayoral races. New entrants into the local political sphere are handcuffed by not having a pre-election political machine, a prohibition on pre-election fundraising and spending and very limited resources during the election period. This makes it very difficult to run the type of professional campaign that would engage more voters and attract people to consider running for local office. 

Steve Lafleur made the case that the role of being a municipal politician could be improved to attract more and better candidates. The same goes for the electoral process.

The good news is that Brigade Digital has the skills to provide candidates with a professional data-driven election strategy to narrow the resource gap created by the inequities between elections at different levels of government.  Brigade's approach to providing data management, analytics, and strategy is focused on arming you with the data team and tools you need to win. 

Want to see how we do it? Click the link: Brigade Applied Data Services