How partisanship gets involved in municipal elections, whether we like it or not

"Partisanship is like magnetism: the same force both attracts and repels," says U of C political scientist Jack Lucas, looking at issues relating to municipal elections.

People say they prefer non-partisan but also use shortcuts in municipal voting

This Calgarian leaves a polling station after voting in the municipal election in October 2017. The next municipal election is set for Oct. 18, 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

EDITOR'S NOTE: In the lead up to the municipal election, Jack Lucas, who teaches political science at the University of Calgary and is part of The Canadian Municipal Election Study (CMES), will be writing a series of columns to help us understand the mechanics of how a city election works. The CMES is a multi-year series of surveys analyzing how and why we vote as we do.

The federal election is over and done. And to sum it up in a word, it was partisan. 

In federal elections, it's the parties, and the people who lead them, that shape how nearly all of us vote. One recent study found that the way people think about the local candidate only affects the election outcome in about one in 10 ridings in Canada. 

In municipal elections, it's a different story. It's all about the candidate.

The people running to be mayor or for council, with no party labels or leaders to dictate their fates, create their own platforms and "ballot box issues." They sink or swim on their own.

Voters, too, find themselves on strange terrain, searching for information to guide their choices. That's particularly true in this current municipal election. 

Twenty-seven mayoral candidates — more than any election in Calgary's history — and 100 council candidates across the 14 ward races. And not a political party in sight. 

So we, the public, whether we realize it or not, tend to slot candidates into "teams." We align them with provincial and federal parties and with certain demographics. It makes sorting through a huge field of candidates a bit easier. 

Meanwhile, candidates looking to lure voters can be tempted to wrap themselves in the colours of a party, or get endorsements from party politicians. Though, as we'll see, that comes with its own political dangers.

The hidden partisan hand

Partisanship isn't good or bad, just or unjust. And it certainly isn't binary. 

We tend to talk about "partisan" and "non-partisan" elections, but the distinction is really more of a continuum. 

At one extreme are fully partisan elections, like the federal election. At the other extreme are totally non-partisan elections, like a vote to choose a representative for your workplace safety committee — an election in which (I sincerely hope) partisanship plays no role. 

Somewhere in the middle, there's Calgary. 

Political parties aren't formally involved. There are no competing slates of Conservative or Liberal candidates. But it's not your workplace safety committee, either. Political parties may not be on the ballot, but partisanship is still a powerful force.

In Calgary municipal elections, the provincial or federal party affiliations of the voters are often one of the best predictors of who they'll support on the city council level. 

I'll give you a historical example. 

Data from the 2017 Canadian Municipal Election Study (CMES) in Calgary shows more than 80 per cent of provincial NDP and Liberal partisans supported Naheed Nenshi, while Nenshi's support among UCP partisans was less than 20 per cent. 

Even when we adjust for other factors, like left-right ideological alignment, the relationship is huge: voters were 20 or 30 percentage points more likely to support a mayoral candidate if they thought the candidate was on the same partisan team. 

Partisan voters

This year, between July 6 and Aug. 4, we ran another CMES study, partnering with Forum Research to conduct a random survey of more than 2,200 Calgarians. We wanted a detailed survey on political and policy attitudes at the municipal level.

As part of that, we asked Calgarians about their mayoral vote preferences and party affiliations. 

Our data allows us to explore if the partisan positions of voters indicate a preference for a particular candidate like they did in 2017. But let's be clear: I'm not saying any particular candidate is more or less partisan, nor am I trying to attach candidates to parties. This is about what voters told us. 

We asked about what was already a wide field of mayoral candidates. (Remember: this poll was done from July 6 to Aug. 4.) We got statistically significant results for two of the declared candidates at that time: Jeromy Farkas and Jyoti Gondek. 

We found that 60 per cent of decided voters who self-identified as UCP supporters planned to support Jeromy Farkas, while just six per cent of UCP partisans supported Gondek.

In contrast, 48 per cent of decided voters who self-identified as NDP supporters planned to support Gondek, while Farkas's support in that group was below 10 per cent. 

Again, this is not meant to associate these candidates with a provincial party affiliation. Rather, it's about how voters, themselves, align.

This is important because if voters think a municipal candidate's provincial or federal partisan politics matches theirs, that candidate is much more likely to get their municipal vote.

So how can voters end up slotting particular candidates in partisan political groups?

Discerning partisanship

These perceived or real connections between non-partisan municipal candidates and provincial or federal parties can emerge in a variety of ways. 

In some cases, a candidate's party affiliation is well known. We all know that Kent Hehr (who has now dropped out of the race) is a former Liberal MLA and MP. 

Public endorsements by well-known political figures can also make a relationship more obvious.

Then there is the more direct approach: Some voters learn a candidate's party affiliation by simply asking them. Over the past few months, dozens of municipal candidates have told me that Calgarians regularly ask them which provincial or federal party they support. 

But there can be subtler signals. 

Next time you're out for a walk, take a look at the election signs dotting lawns and green spaces. Observe which signs are shaded in, say, "Conservative" blue, "Liberal" red or "NDP" orange. And keep an eye out for candidates who carefully avoid party colours with signs shaded in yellow, purple or black. 

Party affiliation, real or perceived, is information. And the information these partisan signals carry is like a high-voltage cable: powerful, but also dangerous. 

If you're wearing one team's jersey, it also means you're not wearing the others'. That's the danger of partisan cues. 

Risky connections

In 2019, I used an experiment embedded in a public opinion survey to randomly assign party affiliations to some candidates while leaving other candidates as "partisanship unknown." Then we asked voters whom they preferred. 

We found that the partisan candidates did worse overall than the non-partisans. Partisan candidates won big among their "in" groups but lost support among the other voters. Overall, support for the partisan candidates dropped by more than 10 percentage points. 

Partisanship is like magnetism: the same force both attracts and repels.

Many municipal candidates enter city politics precisely to avoid partisan battles, and genuinely hold little attachment to any provincial or federal parties. 

For non-partisan municipal candidates, this creates a conundrum: voters deeply curious about candidates' party affiliations, and candidates, often for good reason, reluctant to supply the information that voters so desire. 

Party time?

If Calgary's elections can be so shaped by partisanship, why not bring it all out of the shadows and run openly partisan elections? 

Evidence from the United States suggests that partisan municipal elections can have some benefits, such as higher turnout, lower voter confusion, and clearer accountability

But most people in non-partisan cities in Canada hate the idea of partisan municipal elections.

A Ryerson University study found that fewer than 14 per cent of big-city residents supported the idea of political parties in municipal politics. 

Party affiliation may be useful information, but the idea of party competition in municipal elections — with the bickering, polarization, and making-it-all-into-a-partisan-issue that often accompanies party politics — is rarely attractive to voters. 

In Calgary, as in many other non-partisan cities, we do our best to throw a blanket over party politics in our municipal elections. But often, in our behaviour as municipal voters, the partisan colours still shine through. 

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. For more methodology information, see here. See here for more information on the data, methods and sources in this analysis. 


Jack Lucas is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Calgary. His research is in Canadian politics, with a particular focus on municipal democracy and municipal elections. He has been part of the CMES research team since 2017.


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