Local government elections are the most important elections we conduct. They sustain the most important component of civil democratic society – local (more or less self-)government.
They may also provoke ill-considered emotion, the dissemination of incomplete or one-sided information and questionable advice for voters, sometimes from well-intentioned neighbours.
This post is triggered by an email message from Oak Bay Watch, in which they recommend voting for only a partial complement of Councillors on the basis that this will be ‘good’ for the disposition of one set of issues.
In the face of this message, let us consider that every local government election provides an opportunity for each elector to commit to three important propositions of democracy.
Proposition #1 — elections are about the future, not the past
In Oak Bay, electors must choose the representatives who will move Oak Bay forward in the next four years, and thereafter. It is very important to ask candidates about their vision of the future and, especially, how the candidate would get from here (and now) to there (and then). For example, I suspect that most candidates are in favour of gradual, controllable growth. The issue, for all of us, is what this means in practical terms. Beyond recommending certain candidates, Oak Bay Watch does nothing to reveal the substance of their vision, nor does it offer any explanation for the omission of other candidates from their list.
(As an aside, elections are not the means by which we ‘punish’ representatives who have disappointed us, though ‘punish’ is a term often used in explaining why incumbents lose. Rather, voters should think of a ‘corrective’ election as one in which they are correcting their own missteps made in the last election.)
Proposition #2 — elections with strong outcomes are shaped by hope, not fear
Elections shaped by fear — and negative campaigns — invariably lead to conflicted (adversarial and confrontational) government thereafter, a diminished spirit in the community, defensive rather than creative decisions, and a downward spiral of ineffectiveness and irrelevance. It is unwise for supporters of any candidates to cast them as builders of fences and restorers of the past.
Proposition #3 — local government is not a selfish exercise, for ourselves alone: it is an exercise in community
Voting for a local government council is quite like having the opportunity to choose the Premier and Cabinet for Oak Bay.
The Mayor is not a paramount leader: s/he is, better yet, first among equals – the person with a strong and encompassing vision of the future of the community and the capacity to hold the vision, modify it in response to citizens, experience, and circumstances and move it into the present as the community moves forward. The mayor is the “holder of tension” — the person most likely to be able to knit things together when they threaten to unravel; the person with people skills, empathy, imagination, will, and humility.
Choosing a Council exposes an important question. In Oak Bay, electors can vote for one candidate, or six (or any number in between). There are a variety of negative reasons for voting for fewer than a full complement of candidates: voting for less than a full complement is never a positive expression.
The elector who chooses a full complement of councillors is acting almost like a Premier when choosing a Cabinet. First, the commitment to a full complement acknowledges that the work of the Council is wide-ranging, entails many decisions of many different types, and demands the involvement of more than 1 – 2 people: these people should be chosen on the basis of their capacity to deal sympathetically with more than one issue. Second, and more important, choosing a full complement acknowledges and respects the value of diversity. If Council if homogeneous it is seriously exposed to the risk of group-think, including:
- the inability to see issues from the different perspective of different citizens;
- the inability to see challenges that are outside the group-think box;
- the inability to find solutions that are outside the group-think box.
In local government elections, the admonition to ‘vote strategically’ is an admonition to vote selfishly, for one’s issue #1 of the moment, without regard for others – and other issues — in the community.
Imagine, instead, the careful observer who votes for three incumbents, because experience is important, and three newcomers, because freshness is important. Imagine that the careful observer is also a person who values the different lived experiences of men and woman, and seeks gender balance when voting. Imagine that the careful observer is a hardheaded businesswoman, who wants a number cruncher on Council, and someone familiar with contract management, and someone who has strategic planning experience. Imagine that the careful observer is also part of the sandwiched generation, concerned about aging in place for an elderly parent, and parent of a 20-something who brings home concern for sewage treatment, a pedestrian-friendly community, and more programs for children at the Rec Centre.
Can such a voter limit himself/herself to a partial complement of representatives and be confident that the variety of issues forthcoming will be well dealt with? Does such a voter want one cluster of issues to drive the agenda for the community for the next four years?
A team that is homogeneous around a few issues only is not a strong team. It cannot serve our ‘careful observer’ voter well.
Strategic voting is another name for “block voting”. It is grounded in fear and lack of imagination. There is no reason for electors in Oak Bay to follow this path: indeed, we would be badly served by block voting.
Our future is hopeful, complex, and dynamic. We will be well served by a team of strong leaders who respect diversity, manage differences respectfully and to a creative outcome, and attend carefully to all our issues.
I have already voted (in the advance poll) and I have voted for some candidates with whom I disagree about particular issues. But I believe they will act in good faith, contribute to and make evidence-based (rather than emotional) decisions, respect the will of the majority, and work hard and smart to make each decision of Council work, no matter which side of the issue they may have come down on.