IserveU, e-democracy experiment in Yellowknife, finds fans and foes

In three weeks, Yellowknifers will vote in a city election that is also a testing ground for a new experiment in direct democracy. It's an idea that has some people excited, and others alarmed.

'Frankly, as a Yellowknifer, I would prefer that people don't experiment with my tax money'

IserveU's volunteer and events coordinator Carly Bradley poses next to one of the group's lawn signs. (Submitted by James Young)

In three weeks, Yellowknifers will vote in a city election that is also a testing ground for a new experiment in direct democracy.

Three of the 15 people running for eight seats in council are part of a non-profit organization and website called IserveU. The three don't share any platform, other than a pledge to vote in council according to the website, where citizens can vote on issues they think are important.

To supporters, it's an opportunity to have a say in municipal politics.

"Prior to this, I had no interest in voting," says Cat McGurk, 21, one of about 1,300 people who've signed up with the project. "A lot of people my age are kind of disenchanted."

IserveU, she says, will give her the opportunity to make decisions directly, which she says will motivate her to learn more about her community.

Njal Rollinson, a volunteer with IserveU, also sees the project as a counter to voter apathy.

"If you really want to be a part of every decision that council makes, you'd have to go to a heck of a ton of meetings. With IserveU, you can learn about these issues, discuss these issues and even have a say in these issues from your own house."

What excites one Yellowknifer troubles another.

"We elect people to council for their experience and their knowledge," says Lynn Brooks,  who called CBC's Talkback line this week to raise a word of caution. "I cannot see people who've signed up for IserveU doing that kind of in-depth research.

"We don't want councillors hamstrung by people who just see a headline in the paper and decide, 'OK, we need to vote this way.'"

'More good than bad'

"It's a very exciting project," says Peter Loewen, a political scientist at the University of Toronto. "It's got a lot more good in it than it does bad."

But Loewen can point to some flaws in the idea. For example, he says it's unwise to ask voters to weigh in on single issues without considering the bigger picture.

He also wonders about accountability.

Paige Saunders is one of the founders of IserveU in Yellowknife. (submitted)
IserveU, Loewen says, will have no way to ensure its candidates adhere to their pledge and vote according to the site. "Politicians are free to do whatever they want."

If the politicians do vote according to the website, that could put voters in an awkward position in the next election, he says, "because you're asking them to pass judgement on a politician who's saying they can't actually be responsible for what they've done."

Ultimately, though, Loewen believes the next Yellowknife election is something Canadians should be watching.

"It sounds like a really interesting democratic experiment."

'Putting democracy in the hands of a third-party'

"Frankly, as a Yellowknifer, I would prefer that people don't experiment with my tax money," says Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox.

She holds a PhD in politics from Cambridge University, and recently published an article in Northern Public Affairs about the project.

Irlbacher-Fox is unsettled by the idea of taking decisions that are made in open council chambers and moving them into "a private platform run by a society where there is no public oversight."

"It's putting our democracy into the hands of a third party," she says.

Though admiring of its founders and their goals, Irlbacher-Fox dislikes the idea that IserveU is being "foisted" on Yellowknifers.

"I think the city should be stepping in and assisting this kind of effort in a way that everyone kind of has a chance to understand it," she says. "Because as it stands right now, whether we like it or not, there are candidates running on this platform who may get elected."

Having already heard much of the criticism, IserveU founder Paige Saunders recently described the project as "a low-risk, high-reward opportunity that, in our view, is worth trying" in a sponsored post published by Edge magazine.

Saunders will appear live on The Trailbreaker Monday morning at 7, followed by a live chat.

Got a question for IserveU? Join our live chat with founder Paige Saunders at 7:30 Monday morning.


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