Ottawa·Analysis

Low bar of entry for election candidates is a problem for democracy

Few would disagree that the positions of mayor and city councillor carry a lot of responsibility. And yet, the application process is less onerous than signing up to be a community volunteer.

New, stronger rules needed to make elections fairer

Voting day in Ottawa in 2018. (CBC)

Few would disagree that the position of city councillor, let alone mayor, is one that carries supreme responsibility. This person is your voice on big and small decisions that affect your daily life, helps set priorities for our city, votes on billion-dollar budgets and contracts.

And yet, the application process for this job is less onerous than signing up to be a community volunteer.

You don't need a resume, references or a police record check.

There is possibly no other job where there's such an inverse relationship between the importance of the position and the bar of entry.

And that's a problem.

There's a more onerous process in place to be a community volunteer than to run for municipal office. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Low bar to entry

You shouldn't have to be rich or part of the establishment to run for office. A good political leader can come from anywhere, but that doesn't necessarily mean just anyone should be able to run.

We should have a system that doesn't prevent people from marginalized groups from entering the race, but at the same time only encourages people who are somewhat serious about the job.

That's not the system we have.

To run, you need to be at least 18 years old and eligible to vote in Ottawa. You need to show your ID, pay a $100 fee — $200 if you're running for mayor — and, new this year, file signatures from 25 people nominating you. (More on that last point in a moment.)

That's it.

That process led to 12 people running for mayor, most of whom were not remotely qualified. Nine of the 12 candidates, a full 75 per cent, got less than one per cent of the vote.

Candidates have access to our info

You might say, who cares? The voters will sift the serious candidates from the flakes. After all, that's the basis of democracy — voters decide who represents them from the options in front of them.

And that's a valid argument. But this system also presents some issues.

Candidates about whom we know almost nothing, who may have criminal records, have access to all voters' names and addresses.

First — and this is something not widely known — candidates have access to voters' lists in the ward in which they're running, and for mayoral candidates, everyone in the city.

Think about that.

Candidates about whom we know almost nothing, who may have criminal records, have access to all voters' names and addresses, which some people go to great lengths to try to keep private.

James T. Sheahan, for example, registered to run for mayor. He was not heard from in any way during the campaign.

Who is he? No idea. Does he know where you live? Maybe.

Low bar helps incumbents

Second, the more people who run, the more difficult it is for voters to get to know the candidates.

In ​Orléans, 17 people were on the ballot, making it tricky for electors to figure out what to do come voting day. Two of those candidates weren't even running — it was too late for them to take their names off the ballot — but they each got votes anyway.

Third, the low bar of entry is a huge help to incumbents, who usually have a built-in advantage from name-recognition alone. 

When lots of people are running, the challengers split the vote, allowing an incumbent to win with a relatively small percentage of the vote.

In Alta Vista, for example, incumbent Jean Cloutier won with 32 per cent of the vote, only 201 votes ahead of second-place candidate Raylene Lang-Dion.

There were six candidates in that race, including one who runs perennially in every election and another who didn't campaign. Those two candidates' votes together could have put Lang-Dion over the top.

Now, there's no guaranteeing that the people who voted for the two last-place candidates would have voted for Lang-Dion. But it illustrates how a proliferation of candidates can often help put the incumbent back in office.

Hiding behind democracy

A large slate of candidates also helps incumbents at debates.

The more people who participate in an all-candidates' debate, the less time there is for contenders to challenge the incumbent.

Debate organizers, often volunteer-run community organizations, are loath not to invite all candidates for fear of a backlash.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, right, refused to take part in a one-on-one debate with mayoral candidate Clive Doucet, left. (CBC News)

Worse, incumbents often refuse to participate in debates where all the candidates are not invited. 

Even though he found debates with 10 other candidates "frustrating," Mayor Jim Watson refused an invitation by CBC Ottawa to battle contender Clive Doucet one-on-one.

In Toronto, incumbent Mayor John Tory did the same thing.

25-signature requirement meaningless

This election marked the first time that candidates were required to provide 25 nominations from people who were eligible to vote in Ottawa. The measure was supposed to provide some sort of hindrance to frivolous candidates.

It did no such thing. In fact, the new rule is virtually meaningless.

Elections officials are not required by the province to verify who the nominees are. But they couldn't check on the signators even if they wanted to, because the candidate registration period closes before the province sends out the preliminary voters' list.

Also, if somehow later in the campaign it's discovered that one of the 25 wasn't eligible to nominate a candidate, it doesn't matter. The candidate is still allowed to run.

More signatures, refundable deposit

The province had promised to review the rules put in place for this election before we go to the polls again in 2022.

It should consider raising the number of signatures needed to run for office. If someone wants to be your councillor, it's not too much to ask they collect 100 signatures — a majority of them from the ward they're running in.

To run for mayor of this G7 capital, the bar should be set much higher.

A higher nomination fee could be refunded if the candidate receives a certain number of votes. (Olivier Plante/CBC)

A minimum number of signatures should have to be collected from each of the 23 wards — if you want to be the mayor of this city, then maybe you or your team of supporters should visit all of it at least once.

And there should be penalties for not following these rules.

Charging a higher fee is trickier. You don't want to eliminate candidates based on financial measures.

Some observers have suggested a nomination fee of $1,000 that is refundable if the candidate receives a certain number of votes, say three per cent of the votes cast.

All of these rules should be up for public discussion, of course. But we can't let the status quo ride. Because these rules, which are supposed to be protecting democracy, in many ways are only serving to hinder it.

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