Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2014/ Improving Elections

Improving Elections

I know, I know. I'm sorry. I guess I wasn't done blathering about elections after all. But sooner or later I will be spent, and then you will enjoy blissful radio silence until the next awful election in 2015, or maybe enjoy radio silence forever more.

In any case, since the election I have come across a bunch of proposals to improve elections and democracy. Several suggestions hope to improve voter turnout.

What follows are some of the suggestions I have come across, and my uninformed opinions about them. I feel somewhat ashamed that most of the changes I endorse will not improve voter turnout, and in fact will probably reduce it.

Another disturbing trend is that I tend to be suspicious of democracy, which is weird since I mostly got what I wanted out of this municipal election. I think my elitism is showing; on some level I do not trust the electorate to make decisions that are in their own long-term interest. My excuse is that I believe many people cast votes in ignorance, but that is just an excuse.

  1. Improving Elections
    1. Term Limits: No
    2. Eliminating Single-Member City Wards: No
    3. Signature Requirements: Yes
    4. Political Parties: No
    5. Ranked Ballots/STV: Maybe
    6. Internet/Phone Voting: No, tentatively
    7. Permanent Resident Voting: No
    8. Lower the Voting Age: Yes
    9. Open Data: Yes
    10. Participatory Budgeting: Maybe
    11. Centralize Election Information Officially: Yes
    12. Outreach to the Poor: Yes
    13. Banning Signs on Public Property: Maybe
    14. Close the Funding Hole: Maybe
    15. Fixed Election Dates: Probably Not
    16. Eliminate the Region of Waterloo: Maybe, but Probably Not
    17. Mandatory Voting: Maybe
  2. Sidebar!

Term Limits: No

Dan Glenn-Graham proposed term limits for the mayor's office, and other people have noticed that races are more exciting when there are no incumbents. Fair enough. I think term limits are an awful idea, because municipal politics is one of the few jurisdictions in which our politicians are actually making long-term decisions for the future. You might like the LRT or hate it, but it is difficult to argue that it is intended to win votes in the short term.

I do feel that incumbent advantage is strong (probably too strong) and that sometimes it is appropriate to kick incumbents out, and that we have been undeservedly lucky in having incumbents who (for the most part) have served us well. I still strongly oppose using term limits as a mechanism for emptying seats. I want politicians to make decisions with the full knowledge that they might have to deal with the consequences of those decisions down the road, and term limits eliminate this pressure.

Eliminating Single-Member City Wards: No

This idea comes courtesy of the proportional representation zealots. They would like to make all voting proportional. The problem is that there is not really a good way to make races in which there is a single winner proportional (such as mayor or Regional chair). They would like ward races to be proportional, so they propose doing away with wards and instead having candidates run in regions. For example, Kitchener currently has 10 city wards. A proportional system might have Ward candidates compete across the city for 10 seats, or perhaps having two "superwards" of five seats each. Then when constituents have issues, they can approach any of the councillors in their superward with their concerns. Because there are now multiple winners per race, we could use a proportional system such as STV to elect the councillors.

I oppose making wards much bigger than they are now, because it makes canvassing more difficult. I feel it is important for councillors to understand their constituency and address as much of their constituency as they can, and I feel that smaller wards make this easier.

Here is a more concrete example: already wards are much too large for Regional Council candidates (nevermind Regional Chair). So instead of canvassing individual homeowners, candidates are turning to mailouts and robocalls, and as a result potential voters are left out of the political process. This is particularly acute in poorer neighbourhoods: already candidates avoid canvassing apartment buildings because "poor people don't vote", which means that nobody takes the concerns of the poor into account, which creates a cycle of apathy and makes poverty worse. There is not much incentive for candidates to canvas poor parts of town when "more established" dwellings have not been canvassed yet.

I want our politicians to be in touch with their constituencies, and I feel this is particularly important for city councillors. So I would oppose making boundaries much larger just to appease proportional representation zealots.

Signature Requirements: Yes

In light of this election, I have been thinking a lot about joke candidates and soapbox candidates:

I would classify John Wolf as a joke candidate, and Oz Cole-Arnal as a soapbox candidate. Cameron Dearlove is a serious candidate, even though he did not win a seat on Kitchener Regional Council. These lines are a little blurry: Jay Aissa was some combination of serious candidate and soapbox candidate. It is entirely possible for people to start out as a protest candidate and then become a serious candidate later on.

The problem with joke/protest/soapbox candidates is that they clutter conversations. There were seven candidates for Regional Chair, and I would argue that no more than two were serious candidates for the position. But in the spirit of democracy all-candidates meetings invited all of the candidates, which meant we spent a lot of time listening to nonsense answers from candidates who had no business running for the position, and a very small amount of time listening to serious candidates for the position.

In provincial and federal politics I get really angry when smaller parties are excluded from all-candidates meetings. For some reason I felt the opposite during this election; I got really mad at some of the jokier candidates wasting everybody's time (in particular, one candidate who felt that registering for office entitled this person to a personal audience with all the serious candidates).

One problem is that the barrier to entry is very low. It costs only $100 to register as a candidate for Regional Council, and only $200 to run for Regional Chair. That's a barrier, but it is not much of a barrier. It is also a good return on investment: for $200 you get lots of media attention, and you can spout your ill-informed opinions at all-candidates meetings.

Thus there were seven candidates for Regional Chair. In some races the problem is much worse: there were 67 candidates for Toronto mayor -- three or four frontrunners, a few others who may have been running seriously, and then a bunch of others who were just along for the ride. Holding an all-candidates meeting for 67 candidates is unworkable, so no doubt most all-candidates debates featured only the frontrunners (thus rendering the gambit of registering for media attention less effective).

My goal is to reduce the number of joke candidates running for high-profile positions. However, I believe that protest/soapbox candidates can contribute some value to elections: they raise issues that might be worth our attention to heed, and sometimes they turn into serious candidates worthy of our consideration.

I reject the idea of dramatically increasing registration fees. This might dissuade poor people from registering, but I believe that poor pepple can make good serious candidates. Having said that, it does take money to run effective campaigns -- but money can be fundraised.

As I wrote above, I believe canvassing is an important element of being a political candidate. If you have a message to spread then you should be willing to work to spread that message. Therefore, I propose that a signature/petition requirement be added to municipal election the nomination process. If you want to run for office, you should be required to gather a certain number of signatures before declaring your candidacy for a position. This would dissuade many (although not all) joke candidates, and it would weed out protest candidates who are ineffective at getting their message out. It also would help prevent these mysterious last-minute candidacies from former politicians with large name recognition; they could still jump into races, but it would not be so secret.

How many signatures should be required? I think it should be a nontrivial number, but it should not be so onerous that only popular or rich people can manage. Here are some ideas:

I believe that at one point there were signature requirements for federal politics, but as of this writing I have not confirmed that. For most federal ridings, candidates must collect 100 signatures as part of the nomination process. I do not think this number is high enough in environments where political parties are at play, but maybe it is high enough for municipal politics.

Political Parties: No

One strategy to improve voter turnout would be to permit candidates to run under party banners. This is done in some municipalities already (such as Vancouver). I think this is a terrible idea, and it would be one of the worsts thing that could happen to municipal politics:

If I had my way we would banish party politics at the provincial and federal levels as well.

This does not mean that party politics is absent from municipal campaigns. I have been around long enough to recognise several of the people working behind the scenes on certain campaigns. But even with this corruption people are not allowed to be explicitly partisan.

Ranked Ballots/STV: Maybe

There are actually two issues here: the use of ranked ballots (where you mark "1" beside your most approved candidate, "2" beside your next choice, and so on) and proportional representation systems that use ranked ballots (such as STV). Ranked ballots will be approved by the province shortly. Should we use them?

There is no good way (that I know of) to elect people proportionally when there is only one winner, so people propose using Alternative Vote for such races (mayors, ward councillors, and Regional Chair). Until I was excommunicated from Fair Vote Canada I was obligated to oppose Alternative Vote, and to some extent I still do: it favours "middle-of-the-road" candidates disproportionally, because they tend to be the second or third choices for most people. Having said that, this effect is much more pronounced when party politics is involved, so I am less opposed to using alternative ballot in municipal politics when there are single winners.

Exposure to different voting systems might help proportional representation (by illustrating that First-Past-the-Post is not the only game in town) or hurt it (by getting people comfortable with this non-proportional alternative).

I do not think that Alternative Vote would have made much difference in most of the races I know about, with the notable exception of Cambridge Ward 6 (where, ironically, Fair Vote Canada member Shannon Adshade appeared to win the seat by a mere two votes). I do not think that Kitchener Mayor or even Regional Chair would have been changed by switching the voting system.

My feelings around using STV in place of block voting (for school boards and Regional Council) are mixed. On the one hand, if I believe in proportional representation then I should be unambiguously in favour. But now that elections have started turning out the way I hoped I am becoming corrupt. I am happy that Jane Mitchell won a seat on Regional Council. That feels like a good outcome to me. But it was a bad outcome proportionally, because most of those who supported Mitchell also supported Sean Strickland, and those who supported Andrew Telegdi got left out. Under STV, I am much more confident that Andrew Telegdi would have won a seat and that Jane Mitchell would have been left out in the cold. Maybe that's fine, but then I have trouble believing that non-conventional politicians like Mitchell would ever get elected unless we increased the number of seats for regional council significantly.

Internet/Phone Voting: No, tentatively

I know that people claim Internet voting will save democracy because it will make voting more convenient, but it did not help Cambridge much. I still maintain that Internet voting solves the wrong problem; the problem is not that voting is too inconvenient (people flock to the North Campus of the University of Waterloo each Canada Day, and that is much more inconvenient) but that it is difficult for people to feel engaged and informed about elections.

I believe that Internet voting is a solvable problem, but I believe it is a difficult one, because balancing fraud against ballot confidientality is really complicated on the Internet. Maybe it has been solved in Cambridge, but I am skeptical. I do not know how much I believe that Internet voting will be attacked in a largescale way, but if it becomes widespread then it will become a big target, and we already know that people will go to great lengths to get elected.

Permanent Resident Voting: No

There have been some advocacy groups (in particular, Immigration Waterloo Region advocating that people who are permanent residents (as contrasted to Canadian citizens) should be allowed to vote. I concede that many of these people would like to vote, that they pay taxes, and that they are engaged. I still feel reluctant to give them the vote, because citizenship is already a weak institution, and that weakness is being exploited by the powerful.

Already we have two classes of Canadian citizen: first-generation Canadians (who can have their citizenships revoked) vs natural-born Canadians (who cannot, as far as I know). This is not an academic point; assorted laws being passed in the name of "security" make it easier and easier for genuine Canadian citizens to lose their citizenship.

On the other side of the fence there is the way that we exploit temporary foreign workers by keeping them temporary citizens. We exploit their labour, deny them rights, and turn them into third-class citizens that do the jobs other Canadians won't touch. That makes me real mad.

The right to vote is one of the few perks that come with Canadian citizenship. Granting that right to permanent residents further reduces their incentive to become citizens, which means they do not have much political power as their civil liberties are eroded. I do not know how to stop this, but it would certainly help if permanent residents got their Canadian citizenships and started making their political voices heard loudly.

I know this is an unpopular opinion, and if not for these erosions of civil liberties I would have few problems with permanent residents being granted voting rights. But that is not the world in which we live. I will state upfront that I am not confident that I am holding the proper position here.

Lower the Voting Age: Yes

Young people are often more enthusiastic about politics and elections than those who have voting rights. Some people suggest that people should be allowed to vote at 16 or 19. I don't have much problem with this. Among other things, it would make Civics classes in high school more meaningful. It is possible that young people would vote more frivolously than grownups do, but I am sufficiently jaded that I do not believe this will be much of an issue.

I do not expect that this will improve voter turnout much, unless it gets a cohort of young people voting for the first time, and it turns out to be true that first-time voters keep voting.

Open Data: Yes

This is not directly related to voting, but one tool that has been proposed to improve citizen engagement is for governments to make more of their data publicly consumable. I do not think this is a magic bullet, but I do feel it would help in some cases.

The good side is that people would be able to get a better sense of how government works, and they would be able to put figures in context. The bad side is that it takes energy to do these things, and I am not convinced that the electorate as a whole has the energy to do so. I do think that partisans will take advantage of this open data to create misleading talking points, however.

Here is concrete evidence of how open data may not help: Ed Korschewitz came up with a lot of scary statistics about Waterloo taxes being 733% higher than expected. No third party fact-checked him on this. Some candidates made an attempt -- notably Jane Mitchell (sorry) -- but when asked how he came up with the numbers Korschewitz pointed people to the City of Waterloo website and told them to "do the math". I was interested in doing the math but I did not get around to it, so I am part of the problem. Open data does little good if we don't use it.

On the positive side, I would love to see poll-by-poll numbers of how many people voted for Jay Aissa vs Ken Seiling across the region. I would love information about how much assorted public infrastructure projects cost (and some of that is available online). There are lots of good things that could be done with this data, but some people will use it to do bad things as well.

Participatory Budgeting: Maybe

Some people would like to crowdsource municipal budgets, arguing that this will make government leaner and more effective. I highly doubt this for the same reason that Open Data is not going to be a magic bullet: not many people will have the energy to get involved, and those who do get involved will have agendas of their own -- they will opt to fund their pet projects and let other priorities starve.

However, I do think there are ways in which participatory budgeting could be very useful. A few years ago the New York Times created an interactive budgeting tool that challenged readers to eliminate the US deficit. This tool made it clear that governance involves tradeoffs, which is a really valuable lesson voters don't take seriously. I think that if such exercises could be implemented in the region a lot of good could be done.

Centralize Election Information Officially: Yes

I know that I am being petty, but it makes me mad that official election websites do not publish website addresses for candidates. They publish names, emails, home addresses, and phone numbers, and that is it. It is left to third parties (like me and the Social Planning Council) to compile this information, and then voters have a difficult time finding these compilations on the Internet.

This is ridiculous. It should be fixed. I do not mind collecting and contributing such information, but it should be made widely available so that all potential voters can find out about their candidates.

Outreach to the Poor: Yes

I talked about this earlier, but let's make it explicit: Candidates do not reach out to poor people because "poor people don't vote", which means that poor people are disengaged from politics, which means they don't vote. It is a vicious cycle. Add to this the hassles of getting onto the voting lists when you are poor and move a lot, and there is some systemic discrimination going on.

I don't know how to fix this. I just know it should be fixed. Some people make attempts to canvas apartment buildings in a nonpartisan way. I do not know whether that is sufficient, but it might be part of the solution.

Banning Signs on Public Property: Maybe

Lawn signs are expensive. Well-funded candidates can flood the Region with lawn signs that mislead people into thinking they have popular support. Then their opponents have to put out lawn signs too, and we end up with an unsightly arms race.

Some people propose getting rid of lawn signs on regional roads (they are already banned on city roads). Lawn signs would still be permitted on private property, and thus would indicate genuine support for candidates, as opposed to indicating the candidates who have the most funding.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I prefer seeing expressions of genuine support for candidates, and if candidates had to get permission from people before putting out lawn signs they might canvas more widely. On the other hand, there are a piddly number of lawn signs on private property, which means that there would be even fewer visual indicators that an election was underway, which would hurt voter turnout.

In addition, it is clear that many candidates will simply violate the rules. That happened during this election, and as far as I know none of the candidates who posted signs on city roads were fined for their violations.

Close the Funding Hole: Maybe

According to the Municipal Elections Act every candidate has an upper limit on the amount their campaign is allowed to spend. From what I understand, this is an absolute limit. For example, a mayoral candidate is allowed to spend a maximum of $7000 plus $0.85 for each registered voter.

Individuals, unions, and other organizations have upper limits on how much they are allowed to contribute to an individual's campaign. However, candidates and their spouses are allowed to exceed these individual contribution limits, and may spend as much as they want so long as the overall limit is not exceeded.

As campaign spending limits get higher (say, for the mayoralty in the City of Toronto) this means that wealthier candidates get a huge advantage. Unfortunately, I do not know of a good way to fix this, because wealthier people also tend to be better connected, and thus can amass more individual contributions. This feels unjust to me.

I can understand why campaign spending limits ought to be higher for candidates and their spouses than for others: candidates have the most invested in their campaign, and it is helpful to have "seed money" to raise further campaign funds. But I am unconvinced that they should be able to spend unlimited amounts up to their overall limit; I feel the limits should be much more modest (maybe the usual limit for individuals or 10% of the overall campaign limit, whichever is smaller?).

Fixed Election Dates: Probably Not

Ha ha. I fooled you. We already have fixed election dates. The 2018 election will be held on Monday, October 22, 2018.

I remain unconvinced that having fixed election dates does much good. I guess it makes more sense to have fixed election dates than for every municipality to decide election dates on its own, especially since there are so many different levels of government involved. But it does not seem to help anybody much; the candidates have these huge amounts of time to campaign when nobody cares about the election, and many people remain unaware that an election is taking place despite the fixed date. Maybe the uncertainty of non-fixed election dates helps raise awareness of elections.

Eliminate the Region of Waterloo: Maybe, but Probably Not

At several of the Cambridge all-candidates meetings, the concept of dismantling the Region came up. Cambridge citizens felt alienated from the Region of Waterloo. City Councillors argued that they should be allowed to sit on Regional Council so they would have a voice at the table, as opposed to having only Mayor Craig and standalone Regional Councillors represent Cambridge's interests. There were lots of stories about how the Region of Waterloo is one of the only two-tier municipalities left in Ontario.

I did not hear such discourse in Kitchener-Waterloo, but I could see symptoms of the problem. I talked to several people who were unaware that the Region had both Regional and City governments. People did not know the difference, and they especially did not know that they would be electing Regional Councillors.

I do not think anybody would be happy with amalgamating the Region into one municipality (Kitcherloobridge?) Amalgamation has not worked out well for Cambridge, after all. But maybe we could break off this unhappy marriage and have Kitchener-Waterloo be one region and Cambridge be another, and have the townships fend for themselves. I personally think that this would be a bad idea, because I want to preserve rural areas, and preserving rural areas means thinking on a Regional scale. But it is clear that people do not understand the way that this region is structured.

One possible way to deal with this situation would be to eliminate the regional councillors for Waterloo, Kitchener, and Cambridge, and instead cross-apppoint city councillors from those three regions to fill those seats (maybe permanently, maybe on a rotating basis). I do not know that I love this idea (it will lose some of the long-term visioning that I like) but it might not be a disaster.

The question then would be whether we would have a Regional Chair, or whether that role would rotate between mayors or something.

My gut feeling is that the regional level of government has been an overall asset to the community and not a detriment, although I expect that many people in Cambridge disagree. I do not feel it is a crime to have our region operate differently than other municipalities in the province.

(EDIT: Ken Seiling wrote in to note that many other regions in Ontario -- including Peel, Niagara, Durham, and York -- also have two-tier governments with elected regional councillors. Some of these regions also elect a regional chair, and some do not.)

Mandatory Voting: Maybe

I could get behind mandatory voting laws, provided there was a "None of the Above" option added to all ballots.

One wrinkle is that voting lists are not very accurate, especially for poor people that move a lot. So people would have incentives to stay off the voter lists, and the poor would be even more systematically underrepresented in elections.

I would feel a lot more confident in endorsing mandatory voting if I had reason to believe it would make people take elections more seriously, and that people would make more informed votes.

I have not done this, but it would be worth looking into Australia's experiences with mandatory voting to see whether the overall effect was positive or negative.