British Columbia·Point of View

I attended an all-candidates event every day for a month. Here's what I learned.

CBC's Municipal Affairs Reporter Justin McElroy made it his personal challenge to attend an all-candidates event every day of the municipal election. Here's what he discovered.

Or, 'How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Democracy'

Candidates in the District of North Vancouver speak to voters at the Mount Seymour United Church on Oct. 16, 2018. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

To get a sense of how democracy is going during an election, you can read candidate questionnaires, spend all day on social media, join a campaign and knock on doors.

Or, you can do something even crazier: attend an all-candidates event, every day, for an entire month.

Which is I what did.

For 31 days, I travelled around southwestern B.C. — mostly in my spare time — spending hours in packed churches and halls and community centres, typing on top of chairs and church organs and garbage cans, watching candidates make their pitch directly to voters.

I did it because, as CBC Vancouver's municipal affairs reporter, it's important to cover more than just Vancouver. I did it because you get a really good sense of what matters in communities by what questions are asked and what level of applause is given.

But mostly, I did it because the challenge seemed like a lot of fun.

Dozens of council and mayoral candidates in Richmond speak to the public at the Steveston Community Centre on Oct. 17, 2018. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Older and whiter — just like the politicians

There are a few things you realize when town halls with politicians go from something you attend once every four years to something you're at every day. 

First, the people attending these events are older and whiter than the general population. At most events, I could count on two hands the people in attendance who looked like they were under 35. 

It was a very visual reminder of the self-perpetuating forces that make the demographics of local politicians unrepresentative of the public at large. And it made the audience questions at a lot of events heavy on issues of taxes, transparency, and traffic. ​

At the same time, democracy rewards those who show up, and show up people did. In Maple Ridge, the room was so crowded there were dozens of people watching from the church lobby. In Richmond, I had to prop my laptop on top of a garbage can because the room was so packed. In the District of North Vancouver, there was a 50-metre-long line outside the community centre to get in.

The passion is inspiring. One wishes it was a little more broadly distributed. 

Port Moody mayoral candidates Mike Clay and Rob Vagramov debate at a Chamber of Commerce all-candidates meeting on Oct. 11, 2018. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

All types of candidates

Not to be pedantic, but the best part of an all-candidates meeting is that all the candidates are there. 

Unlike the rest of Canada, large cities in British Columbia don't have a ward system where people choose candidates for individual neighbourhoods. Most Metro Vancouver municipalities have more than 10 councillors on the ballot, making it hard for voters to be informed about each one. 

Unless you show up to all-candidates meetings. For voters, it's the great equalizer: donations don't matter, name recognition doesn't matter, incumbency doesn't matter — all that counts is the ability to sound knowledgeable, authentic and reasonable in 60-second chunks.  

In some ways, it's a format that favours incumbents: the vast majority of times they were called upon, sitting councillors knew the details of files, understood what municipal governments could or couldn't do, and showed the oratorical skills that come with experience. 

Yet there were plenty of new candidates — particularly those who were younger — that showed a strong grasp of issues and a real passion for improving their cities. 

A lot of them won't get elected, because that's how politics works, particularly for first-time candidates. But you hope that they continue to be engaged in their city, win or lose. 

And then there were other candidates who had a tougher time winning the hearts and minds of the audience. 

But that is the fundamental pillar of local democracy, in all its wisdom and inspiration and absurdity and humour: anyone can run. Anyone can vote. Everyone gets their chance to stand in front of their peers and explain why they should be trusted to oversee their community for the next four years. 

And at event after event, people are engaged, civil and passionate about the future.

Which as a reporter, you can't help but feel good about — even if I'll be happy to start spending my evenings at home again.  

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

now