Saskatchewan·REGINA VOTES

Municipal challengers face steep odds when battling incumbents: researcher

One researcher said it's been found that incumbents in Canadian municipal politics are likely to win 80 to 90 per cent of the time.

One researcher said it's been found that municipal incumbents are likely to win 80 to 90 per cent of the time

Regina city councillors voted unanimously in favour of a motion to help restrict future commercial development in Wascana Centre. (Kevin O'Connor/CBC)

With election day set for Monday in Regina, two researchers say challengers to incumbent municipal candidates will have a steep hill in front of them. 

Jack Lucas, an associate professor at the University of Calgary's department of political science, said incumbents' success rate in Canada is among the highest in any democratic country — and higher in municipal politics than provincial or federal. 

"It's often the case that above 80 per cent — and sometimes above 90 per cent — of the incumbents who choose to seek re-election in Canadian cities are successfully elected to office," he said. 

"There's an enormous success rate."

Lucas pointed to a few reasons for this, including name recognition, the prizefighter hypothesis, the office holder benefit and satisfaction with incumbents.

The prize fighter hypothesis posits that it's unsurprising when a good candidate does well repeatedly in races. He said it's similar to if a good football team continues to win football games. 

"Maybe they are high quality candidates, meaning that they have the characteristics that appeal to voters," he said. "So because of those attractive characteristics, they continue to go on winning just as they won in the first place."

The other side is that they could be benefiting from what Lucas calls the "office-holder benefit." This is where incumbents have advantages simply because they are already in office. 

"[Voters] assume, for example, 'Well, this person has won in the past and so they must not be that bad. So I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and vote for them again,'" Lucas said. 

The more information that voters have about the challenger candidates, the more likely they are to feel comfortable looking at those seriously.- Jack Lucas

As well, the incumbent's name is known to voters. They may have solved problems in the past, or been to groundbreaking or ribbon cutting ceremonies — something challengers may not be able to do, he said. 

The final reason incumbents can typically do so well is because people are generally satisfied with their performance, Lucas said.

Information key to combat incumbency advantage: researcher

There are ways to combat incumbency advantage and have a level playing field, but it starts with accessible information, Lucas said. Typically, municipal elections don't have as much information online as provincial campaigns do and that should change, he said.

"The more information that voters have about the challenger candidates, the more likely they are to feel comfortable looking at those seriously," Lucas said. 

Jim Nicol, Regina's city clerk and returning officer for the 2020 municipal election, said he's proud of the Elections Regina website. Each candidate has a bio and was allowed to post a short video.

"The information for voters on the website is extensive," Nicol said. "We believe it's a leading edge website in terms of election information."

Nicol said he hopes it levels the playing field and gives candidates and voters all the information they need. 

Jim Nicol is the returning officer with Elections Regina. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

Another option could be to move toward a party system in municipal politics, Lucas said. It may be easier for voters to keep track of what a candidate stands for if they are part of a larger slate.

Robert MacDermid,  a professor emeritus at York University and researcher in municipal politics, also said a party system — similar to how it works in Vancouver — could help break the incumbency advantage. 

"When you have a person who's been in office for a long time, has connections to the development industry … It's very difficult for someone who is not part of a party, as an individual to challenge that incumbent," he said. 

"However, if there were parties, people would know, 'Oh, that's the committee of electors against development' … The party label would be sufficient."

It's hard in the majority of non-partisan elections to know what people stand for and therefore how they would react to challenges down the road, MacDermid said. A party system could be helpful. 

Lucas said voter turnout may play into the incumbency advantage as well, but that more research is needed to substantiate a link between the two.

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