Calgary's high-stakes, low-attention election is fast approaching
Municipal politics has been crowded out by other pressing issues. And the vote is just 3 weeks away.
Calgary's municipal election is fast approaching, and for many voters, it may seem like it came out of the blue.
With so much going on lately — a contentious federal election, ongoing twists and turns in provincial politics, and the brutal fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic — there hasn't been a lot of time or attention for people to spare.
In a poll conducted for CBC News in partnership with the University of Calgary, most Calgarians who participated said they are interested in municipal politics but many said they know very little — or nothing at all — about the candidates running for city council in their local wards. This is especially true in the wards with no incumbent councillor seeking re-election.
And, in this election, most wards have no incumbent.
Then there's the long list of candidates running for mayor: 27 people, in total. Plus 100 more candidates for city councillor across the city's 14 electoral wards. It's a lot to take in.
Faced with such daunting numbers, candidates struggle to get their messages out, while voters struggle to sort out who best represents their views.
There's no shortage of information out there. Virtually every candidate has a website or social media presence — and CBC News has compiled all of them into an easy-to-navigate format you can find here.
What's at a premium — and understandably so — is people's attention.
Even the most engaged person has a limit to the amount of news they can consume, and those limits have been tested with everything else that has been going on lately.
The result, political observers say, could be a low-attention campaign in a high-stakes election — one that will likely set the future direction of Calgary for many years to come.
What's at stake
The federal election that just concluded yielded a more or less status-quo outcome. The new Parliament looks a lot like the old Parliament.
The same won't be true for the municipal vote. Calgary's new city council is guaranteed to look very different from the old council.
Just five councillors are running for re-election across Calgary's 14 wards. Three other councillors are vying to be the new mayor, after Naheed Nenshi decided not to run again. And two former councillors who last sat on council in 2017 have thrown their hat in the ring again for 2021.
That means at least seven of the 15 seats at the next council table will be filled with new people, which is an unusually high turnover rate.
Municipal elections have historically favoured incumbents; mayors and councillors who seek re-election usually win.
And that raises the stakes even higher for October's vote.
"It's not just the next four years that this historic election is going to influence," said Jack Lucas, a political scientist with the University of Calgary who specializes in municipal governments.
"There's real potential that this election could influence many terms to come, if these councillors who are elected for the first time this year stick around for two or three or more terms."
And for a lot Calgarians, the people vying to become these future councillors remain relative unknowns.
Door-knocking in a pandemic
Municipal candidates often start campaigning months — sometimes years — ahead of an election.
With no political parties at a municipal level, every candidate has to stand on their own platform and try to get their own message across to would-be voters.
This is often done through old-fashioned door-knocking, which is a time-consuming process. Calgary's electoral wards, on average, are home to about 92,000 people. That's a lot of doors.
"I started door-knocking almost right away," said Ron Taylor, who began a campaign for Ward 2 city councillor in early 2021 but recently decided to drop out of the race.
He figures he knocked on about 4,000 doors since February, which may sound like a lot but is actually fewer than a lot of candidates would hit in a normal year.
Like many aspects of life, Taylor said, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into campaigning. A lot of people are suspicious of strangers showing up on their doorsteps at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic.
Getting to know your candidates
Many candidates have struggled to introduce themselves to voters, judging by a poll of 2,200 Calgarians carried out in July and early August by the University of Calgary, in partnership with CBC News.
- More details about the poll's methodology can be found at the end of this article
While a majority of voters said they were interested in municipal politics, many said they knew "nothing at all" about any of the candidates running for council in their local wards, especially those with no incumbents.
Calgary voters who took part in focus groups convened in late August told a similar story.
"At that time, people told us that they had barely started to think about the municipal election," said Janet Brown with Janet Brown Opinion Research, who organized the focus groups in partnership with CBC News.
"People admitted to us that between the federal election and COVID and all the other controversies in the news that they just really had not been able to invest any sort of time or energy into thinking about municipal politics."
Things are further complicated by the fact that, unlike in the federal vote, the municipal election isn't a single ballot.
Lots of 'homework' to do
When Calgarians enter voting booths in October, they will be asked to pick their preferences for mayor, city councillor and school trustee.
On top of that, they will be asked to vote in provincial referendums on equalization and daylight saving time, and in a municipal plebiscite on water fluoridation.
And then there are the non-constitutionally binding Senate-nomination ballots, to boot.
Lucas said voters have a lot of "homework" to do, if they want to get informed before Oct. 18.
It may seem daunting, he said, but it also has profound consequences.
"The next council is going to make decisions about policies that affect all of our lives — and for many of us, affect us every single day," Lucas said.
Municipal governments and your daily life
Municipal governments, Lucas noted, handle many of the basic aspects of life that we often take for granted.
The water we drink. The roads we drive on. The police and firefighters we expect to be there when we need them. The buses and trains we use to get around town. Garbage collection. Building inspections. Parks and recreational facilities. The list goes on.
The next city council will also make long-term decisions about how the city grows — where new developments go and how existing areas are redeveloped.
And, of course, how all these things are paid for. The effects of these decisions will be measured in billions of dollars.
It will be up to Calgarians to pick the 15 people who will be making these decisions for the next four years.
And they have three weeks to figure it all out.
Polling details and methodology:
The poll was conducted by Forum Research on behalf of the Canadian Municipal Election Study with the results based on a telephone recruit-to-web survey of 2,209 randomly selected eligible voters in the City of Calgary. The poll was conducted between July 6 and Aug. 4, 2021.
For comparison purposes, the margin of error for a probability sample of the same size would be plus or minus 2.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Results at a ward-level and other subsamples have a larger margin.
The sample sizes in the wards range from as high as 213 in Ward 4 to as low as 78 in Ward 5. As a result, estimates in Ward 5, in particular, should be interpreted with caution as they carry a significantly higher margin of error.
CBC News is including all of the ward-level data because it represents some of the most detailed ward-level polling done in Calgary to date.
The Canadian Municipal Election Study also used a statistical technique known as multilevel regression and post-stratification (MRP) to adjust ward-level subsamples to better match known population characteristics in each ward.
More details about the full poll and methodology can be found here.