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All-Candidates Meetings Considered Harmful

EDIT: I no longer believe that Weiler is engaged in a systematic boycott of all-candidates meetings during this campaign. See my fuller retraction here. However, any of my concerns expressed in this entry still stand.

Yesterday I attended my first (and perhaps my final) all-candidates meetings of this provincial election. It was an all-candidates debate on the environment, and it was organized by the usual suspects: CREW, REEP, the Canadian Organic Council and TransitionKW.

I have defended all-candidates meetings in the past. My feelings about them have been shifting over the years. I used to support them strongly because they provided a good way to compare and contrast the candidates against each other (as opposed to canvassing). I believed that local candidates ought to matter to who gets to become our local representative, and that voting based upon party affiliation alone was kind of stupid.

To some degree, I still feel these things. But it has becoming more and more apparent that all-candidates meetings have some serious deficiencies, and that they are becoming actively harmful.

First of all, the Conservatives (and Progressive Conservatives, it seems) have taken the strategy of actively skipping debates where audiences are likely to be unsympathetic. Tracey Weiler pulled this trick in yesterday's debate; originally she was scheduled to attend, but at 11pm the night before she sent regrets due to an "unexpected conflict". Maybe this is true, but given the history of Conservatives skipping out on all-candidates meetings, I think she is lying. I suspect that her "unexpected conflict" was not unexpected at all. Maybe her campaign manager told her to skip the debate. Maybe she decided to skip it on her own. My guess is that she spent the evening canvassing voters, while her opponents stayed inside and argued amongst themselves.

This is a serious problem. First of all, it undermines the value of all-candidates meetings. Instead of getting to see how all of the candidates (or all of the major party candidates, at the very least, since the Libertarian candidate did not show either, and probably had not been invited) compare against each other, we got to see how the three left-leaning party candidates did against each other (sorry, Greens) and Tracey Weiler got a free pass.

Secondly, there is a large opportunity cost here. Evenings are prime canvassing hours, because many people are at home. Canvassing is a much more effective way to get votes than all-candidates debates unless the debate enjoys a large audience AND you outshine your opponents. Outshining one's opponents is a risky proposition at best, and the audience for this debate consisted of the usual enviroheads and political junkies, few of which would have been willing to shift their votes to the Progressive Conservatives. So for Tracey Weiler, skipping this all-candidates meeting has few downsides and a huge upside.

Now consider that there are all-candidates meetings being held almost every weekday over the next two weeks (see for a compiled listing) and the Conservatives get huge canvassing advantage compared to their rivals, most of whom will be attending a bunch of all-candidates meetings. I think the Social Planning Council is planning three meetings all on its own, none of which will be worth attending (in my prediction).

Another huge problem has to do with outreach. All-candidates meetings tend to be poorly publicized (which is why poor Bob Jonkman spends hours compiling lists of them) and cater to niche audiences. They tend to be poorly attended, and many of the attendees have already made up their minds about how they will vote.

At larger debates, the aisles are stuffed with party partisans who rush to ask gotcha questions of their political opponents. If all-candidates meetings were widely advertised and had large, diverse turnouts, then it could be a political liability for candidates to skip them, and the system might work better. But that is not the case now.

For better or for worse, canvassing is a very effective political strategy. Canvasees often feel as if they have personal connections to their canvassers, and candidates can get their messages across without being called out on their misdirections and lies. It may be irrational, but we vote for the people we like, and canvassing is a great way to build that human connection -- even if candidates proceed to ignore our concerns once they are elected.

Unfortunately, canvassing doesn't help me, because I am a tenant, and I do not answer the door at my dwelling-place. I do not have a phone, so I do not get canvassing calls or robocalls (thank goodness). Similarly, candidates know to focus their attention on those demographics that matter to them -- middle-class and rich people who vote. That leaves many demographics (such as poor people and youth) out of the political process. By sabotaging the effectiveness of all-candidates meetings, Conservative candidates have disenfranchised people like me even further (which -- surprise surprise! -- also works in their favour).

People think I am some kind of political junkie because I try to attend a few debates each campaign. Maybe people are right, but I do not think such behaviour should be so unusual. As potential voters, I feel we have a basic responsibility to participate in our political process, and becoming familiar with the people and issues of the election is a fundamental part of that. If more people appreciated that all-candidates meetings provided such an opportunity, then they might be more useful and less harmful.

I do not know whether this system can be fixed. Recording more all-candidates meetings and putting them online might help. Shaming candidates (and parties) that systematically skip all-candidates meetings might help, but that would require us to keep statistics in an organized way. Publicizing these events in a centralized, accessible manner might help. Having fewer but more important all-candidates meetings might help. Unfortunately, the system we have now is broken to the point where it is harmful to candidates that participate in the process.

Having said that, all-candidates meetings have been scheduled for this election, and some of the candidates will show up. So it still may make sense to attend one or more if you want to get a partial comparison of the candidates.