Striking a blow for municipal democracy

With only days left in the municipal election campaigns and advanced voting already underway, the decision about who to vote for remains largely unanswered.

A study published in the Canadian Journal of Urban Research in 2006 says the general reason most people do not vote in any election is apathy, a lack of information, meaninglessness of the vote and laziness. For municipal elections, specifically, it is a lack of interest that is by far most cited as the reason for not voting.

The media also takes some heat in the study. The intense and longer media coverage associated with federal election compared to the weaker coverage of local elections is one explanation. Also, federal and provincial campaigns tend to spend more money than municipal campaign.

While this formal study shed some important light on voter turnout, another reason could be the lack of focus on issues of grassroots concerns.

Students in the journalism program at Loyalist College undertook an important exercise on Oct. 12 during a mayoral candidates debate in Belleville. About 25 first-year students were sent to seven high traffic locations throughout the community while the live debate was going on.

During this time, the students asked people a simple question: If you could be at the debate tonight what would you like to ask the candidates for mayor?

These were sent into the hall via text message using a cell phone carried by each student. Another student called an e-host got to ask them during the live debate.

The public response was overwhelming.  Within 90 minutes, seven pages of questions were generated, but only a handful were asked during the two-hour debate. There were 38 separate issues or themes expressed in all the questions recorded.

What is most revealing was that taxes, jobs and the economy were not high priority issues.  Transparency and openness were barely on the radar.

In fact, the most popular topic was potholes. Yes, potholes. When asked, the mayor said a record 14 roads were worked on this past summer. Still, this was voter’s greatest concern.

The Northumberland elections are quiet affairs so far. There are few fireworks and nobody seems to be battling over any contentious issues. Nothing seems to be catching the collective imagination, at least as this column is being written.

Yet, like our neighbours to the east, there is no doubt there are latent issues lying under the surface. But for some reason, these are not breaking into the public debate.

This is good news for candidates, especially incumbents, since nobody can blame them nor do they get held accountable. As for the challengers, this saves them the embarrassment of appearing ignorant of an issues they may know little or nothing about.

Maybe this is the reason for the lack of municipal voters the study failed to examine. It could be people don’t participate because the issues of concern to them don’t get attention. Instead of the election platforms being contrived by candidates, it should be grassroots individuals, meaning everyday citizens, who should dictate the agenda.

The short campaign window that started well after Labour Day and ends next week left little time for any issues, like potholes, to surface. As the clock ticks down, it can only be hoped people attend public events or confront candidates at the door to challenge them.

Finally, it is vital to vote. Despite the study’s finding, there are good reasons to base a ballot. With the disregard many candidates display towards the public once they are in office, voting is the last remaining tool we have to strike back at the system.

It may feel like a feeble attempt, but at least it is a blow for democracy.