By Riley Stovka, October 14 2021—
On Oct. 18, Calgarians will head to the polls to elect a new mayor and city council. The next municipal government will undoubtedly have a great impact on the city and life within it. Every election matters — whether its federal or municipal — and a healthy participatory democracy is crucial to our society.
But sometimes election fatigue can kick in, especially during a time as politically active as the last month has been.
It’s easy to get lost in the constant flow of campaign ads, town halls, polls and yard signs. Having elections so close together can really drain the enthusiasm from an electorate, lowering voter turnout and hampering the democratic process. Yet, it’s important to remember that every election matters, no matter its size or scope. Every election has the chance to impact your life — positively and negatively.
Of course it’s easy to say that. It’s easy to preach about the importance of elections for the goodness and health of democracy, but what does that really mean anyway? And do you have to believe it?
Take this mayoral election for example. With the incumbent, Naheed Nenshi, opting not to run for a fourth term, the field of candidates eager to take his place at City Hall is vast, with 27 officially declared candidates. This number itself is incredibly overwhelming and is enough to make even the most politically conscious voter nauseous. That’s not even mentioning the numerous ward races and school board trustees that will also be on the ballot, as well as a referendum vote on equalization payments, daylight savings, senate appointments and the fluoridation of the water.
It’s going to be a very packed ballot, with differing topics galore, each more contentious and important than the last.
So how do we, as university students, compartmentalize all this? How do we cut through the weeds and see what is important and how it can affect us as a community? To get these answers I spoke with Dr. Jack Lucas, a political science professor at the University of Calgary who specializes in city governance and municipal politics.
“If you think about the kinds of policy decisions that a municipality makes, many of those decisions affect the day-to-day lives of students, just as they affect everyone else,” he said. “And that certainly includes public transit to and from the university, and decisions related to housing affordability.”
It’s clear to Lucas, a trained political scientist, that any election presents ample opportunity for people’s voices to be heard. Young people understand this too. It’s seen in the social media posts of most, the political activism of the few and the spirited debate of the many. Yet, when it comes to election time, young people — those aged 18-24 — only around 54 per cent of eligible voters turn out to vote, compared to the 79 per cent of eligible voters for those aged 65-74.
So why then, do the people that seem the most involved and aware of these elections, and who will be affected the most, not show up to vote?
Well according to Lucas, there are several factors to explain this phenomenon, chiefly among them being that young people tend to move more often than any other age group.
“Everything related to the voting process is a little less clear,” he said. “It’s not incredibly complicated to vote, of course, but if you haven’t voted before in a particular city, […] it can be a bit complicated to figure out where you need to go and when you need to get there.”
Practical considerations to apathetic voters is an interesting paradigm to consider when we look at numbers for voter turnout. The yearly hassle of having to find new places to live can make it difficult for voters at the university level to feel a sense of community with the neighborhoods they live in.
The sheer number of candidates running for mayor and for the city wards can also present a real challenge to voters, and it can even have the effect of turning people away from the whole process.
“There are no political parties or other institutions that are controlling how many candidates jump into the race. That can cause confusion and frustration for voters because it can be difficult to know which of these candidates is likely to be competitive, and which ones should be taken seriously,” added Lucas, who concurs that the quantity of candidates running has made it fairly difficult for people to digest the volume of election content.
However, do not mistake the high number of candidates for those of low quality, at least politically.
“There are really impressive candidates at the ward level,” he said. “Candidates who are quite young — young men, young women, young people of colour, young Indigenous people — who are running great campaigns. I think University of Calgary students can look at the candidates, not only who are running for mayor but who are running in their ward races and I think they’re going to find some exciting candidates who really catch their enthusiasm and excitement,” said Lucas.
The lack of political parties is something unique to Calgary politics. It’s what separates federal and provincial elections, where parties duke it out in the political area, from municipal elections, where candidates are forced to appeal to the electorate based on merit.
“Municipal politics exist within a larger system of Canadian politics and we sometimes look at these elections as though they’re stand-alone events that exist inside their own bubble and aren’t affected by politics at a different level,” said Lucas. “I think you can see in this Calgary election how false that is and how much that every election is, in some sense, related to every other election, particularly when they happen so close together.”
Lucas believes that politics, no matter how national or how local, do not happen independently of one another, and all exist within a vacuum. The same can be said for voter allegiance. There is a connection.
“I tell my students that voters are voters. It is not as though we have a part of our brain that we switch on when we sit down to vote in municipal elections and then switch back off when we turn our attention back to federal or provincial elections,” he said. “Obviously there are important differences between municipal politics and federal and provincial politics in Canada. But there are more similarities than we often realize, especially in what influences voters and their choices.”
Advanced polling has already begun, with more than 81,000 people casting their ballot in the mark up to the Oct. 18 election. But the big question everyone will be asking is still up in the air — who of the 27 candidates will end up with the mayor’s gavel on the morning of Oct. 19? Well, that may be easier to answer than one might think.
“My expectation going into the race was that the most prominent and high profile candidates would end up being the three candidates who are already city councillors, and that has proven to be the case.”
The three candidates that Lucas spoke of are city councillors, Jyoti Gondek, Jeff Davison and Jeromy Farkas. Recent polls have indicated that Gondek has a slight lead over her rivals with 27 per cent on the decided vote, while councillors Farkas and Davison trail with 24 per cent and 12 per cent respectively.
The election is only days away and the future of the city will be shaped by its outcome. The policy direction of the next city council will shift dramatically and it is important for students to keep this in mind as election day nears.
“It is important to remember that, in many ways, our day-to-day lives are most affected by the decisions that municipal governments make. We should have a say in who makes those decisions,” Lucas concluded.
This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.