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Guelph Politico is locally sourced and dedicated to covering the political and cultural scene in the City of Guelph. Est. 2008.

Friday, October 31, 2014

12 Lessons From the 2014 Municipal Election

With the 2014 campaign officially over, it's time to take stock and consider some of the things we've learned from this election cycle, and how we might take them with us as we move on the next four years. It was a very electric election, I have to say, a lot of ideas and opinions were floating around, and there were high expectations for the candidates and for their political futures if they ended up on council. The people of Guelph made their choices, and now its time to look at the 12 lessons that the 2014 Municipal Election have taught us here in the Royal City.

1) Online voting (sigh) is likely here to stay.
With almost 16,000 votes from advanced ballots, almost 13,000 of them from online voting, it seems reasonable to expect that we're going to see internet voting again in the next election. Turnout was up 11 per cent over 2010 results, but the question is, did the availability of online voting have an effect on voters? If we look at the numbers, the answers might be 'yes.' The advanced poll turnout for 2010 and 2014 is statistically more or less the same, with only about 200 more voters coming out on Monday than four years ago. On Election Day itself, over 700 fewer people voted in 2014 than came out in 2010, yet still, turnout went up by just over 10,000 votes. One wonders though, was the majority of the 12,768 people that voted online new voters this election, or were many of them voters who typically vote anyway, but just chose to do it online this year? That, I think, is the real test of success for online voting.

2) Guthrie's election is a victory for centrism, not for right-wing extremism, and not a repudiation of Guelph progressives.
One of the mistakes of the negative ad posted in the Guelph Tribune (more on that later), was to play into what they're calling in the United States "partyism," which is where you discriminate against someone based on the political party they support. The thesis was that Cam Guthrie can't be trusted  because he's been associated with Progressive Conservative and Conservative Party candidates, including, as Joseph St. Denis repeatedly put it, "The Traitorous Sona."
Forget the fact that municipal politics are reputedly beloved for the fact that their non-partisan, because people seemed to want to get partisan in this round. Despite that though, Guthrie campaigned direct from centre, and in the process scooped up a lot of people that lean slightly either one or the other. Comparisons to Rob Ford are innocuous when the candidate discusses the method of budgeting, as much as the desired goal. They're also innocuous when you hear Guthrie talk about bike trails, not ripping up bike lanes, and saying that he'll say 'no' to privatization if the option doesn't work. That's policy, not ideology. Building subways for made-up numbers without a source of viable funding? That's ideology not policy. It's a very important distinction, and the reason comparisons between Ford and Guthrie were completely off the mark.

3) It's also not to the credit of lightning rods. 
I chuckled to myself when in yesterday's Guelph Tribune I read Gerry Barker say, “Cam Guthrie ran a good campaign, with a lot of help from yours truly, who did almost all the heavy lifting for him in terms of criticism of Mayor Farbridge and her administration." Uh-huh.That's interesting because Guthrie went out of his way on his own website to say, "GrassRoots Guelph is an independent organization that has no affiliation with the Cam Guthrie campaign. In the Tribune article from today (October 2), Gerry Barker alleges that there’s an alignment between GrassRoots Guelph and the campaign. This is false and misleading." But that was hardly the most unwanted endorsement of the campaign. Marty Burke came out of the shadows to defend Guthrie who had been accused of missing one too many debates. The Farbridge campaign picked up on that in their attack ad, and struck. However, if you think anyone was faceplaming harder than Guthrie about getting stapled to Burke in anyway shape or form, then you're as delusional as, say, Gerry Barker.

4) Engagement matters.
Old-fashioned signs and door-knocking* are still key to coming out victorious in the local race, but unless a video camera's following you around nobody ever sees you do it. Social media though it a quick, easy and efficient way to reach out, and as my colleague Oliver Rockside learned, it's also an easy way to get some love when once there's been none. Mark MacKinnon responded to Oliver's tweet right away, all but saying that he'd be right over, and that has a lot to do with why MacKinnon finished first place in Ward 6 with nearly 4,000 votes. Dan Gibson also finished first, but in Ward 1, and his engagement with citizens via social media, and his message about Ward 1 being ignored, were probably the reason he resonated. Overall, there was an increase amongst candidates in their use of social media this election, but many of the candidates that won showed a degree of mastery over the platform as compared to their competitors. It will be interesting to see the influence of Twitter et al in another four years.
*Incidentally, I live in Ward 4 where 9 candidates were running and not a single one of them came to my door. Why do I have a suspicion that the candidates were all working the same areas of Ward 4, like the middle class developments west of Imperial, and ignoring the working class/new immigrant areas in the eastern part of the ward where I live?

5) Name cache matters.
Looking at who among the new city councillors won Monday night, it's easy to see a pattern: you had three former councillors in Mike Salisbury, Christine Billings and Cathy Downer, a former Federal candidate in Phil Allt and a former provincial candidate in James Gordon. Andy Van Hellemond was re-elected, and it could be argued that his name cache as a former NHL referee has a lot more to do with his victory than any particular stance he has on the issue. (I think former referees in local politics is a trend in this area as Bryan Lewis sits on city council in Halton Hills.) Incumbents always have the upper hand in name cache, but with almost half of council's seats open for grabs, only two of the newly elected councillors were first time candidates.

6) Negative campaigning still doesn't work.
Looking back, The Sona ad in the Tribune was a last act of desperation on the part of the Farbridge campaign. Unable to win the war of ideas, they hoped a candid shot of a political active citizen talking to a campaign worker in a moment when no laws were being broken would sling enough mud to make tacit supporters of Guthrie think twice. But negative campaigning only entrenches the base, and as evidenced by the final numbers on Election Night, really no one that was on the fence was swayed by the argument that Guthrie and Sona are two sides of the same coin. On the other side, a series of cartoons depicting Farbridge as Snow White (which have been taken down along with almost the entirety of the GrassRoots Guelph website), doesn't help either. Language like calling Farbridge "Her Highness" and drawing crude pictures depicting her as Snow White is exactly the kind of thing you don't want to be doing if you want to attract voters that might support your political ideals, but fear you for being backwards and maybe slightly misogynistic. Again, if your ideas are that strong then you don't need to lob mudballs at the other side to win.

7) Everyone (and I mean everyone) needs to behave themselves.
As much as Farbridge supporters might have felt they were under siege, there were just as many complaints from Camp Guthrie that their supporters were being targeted and harassed. There are always bad actors in a campaign, sometimes they're "privateers," used by a campaign to meet its ends but with strings that could be cut, and sometimes they're just anarchists with nothing better to do. When you find a bunch of your election signs in a dumpster in Mississauga, yeah, someone's out to get you, but ruined, rundown or broken signs might be more likely the work of the bored or the drunken than a systematic campaign to intimidate. That doesn't address allegations of harassment that some candidates reported, some of it, undoubtedly, was systemic, but when it comes to how one should act in elections, I think we could do worse than return to our Sunday School days and think, "Do on to others as you would have them do unto to you."

8) The early bird gets the worm.
Of course, several factors came into play leading to Guthrie's victory Monday, but would it be incorrect to say that his declaring on the very first day of the campaign played no part whatsoever? Hardly. When you look at who won Monday, particularly amongst the new councillors, many of those that took at seat at the horseshoe started out early.  Phil Allt in Ward 3 declared in January, as did Cathy Downer in Ward 5. Mark MacKinnon added his name to the ballot in February, Mike Salisbury stepped forward in March, and Dan Gibson declared in May. Coincidence? Perhaps, but let's look back at the Mayor's race. Jason Blokhuis, who declared in the first week of August, was polling at 4 per cent in a public poll released in early September, and by Election Day he had one just over 10 per cent of voters. One wonders if that number might have ended up being higher had he started as early as Guthrie and Farbridge....

9) Although that's not a universal rule for all the winning candidates... 
Christine Billings declared on the last possible day, and Andy Van Hellemond and Bob Bell filed their papers barely a week before. But those three are experienced politicians, so that name cache meant they could skip a lot of the leg work, and although there were many candidates that filed in January and February and ended up losing, if you were a first time politician and declared in the first half of the year, you had a better chance of winning. Food for thought.

10) Candidates need to campaign like it's their first time.
A couple of candidates, and I'm not naming any names, came out on the campaign trail with a simple message: vote for me, I'm not done yet. Incumbency is a  problem sometimes, look at the United States Congress, a body that has near single digit support, yet is almost unanimously re-elected every four years. Canada's not there yet, at least there are some places in the country that aren't there yet, but candidates can't take their incumbency for granted. Yes, you have the experience to lead, but the people want to know as much about what you intend to do next as they want to know what you have done. Everything changes, and you must change with each election in order to convince voters why you should be elected, and not just acclaimed. It's why having a variety of candidates is so important in every race.

11) Your vote counts.
This should be a no-brainer, at least if you live in Ward 3. When the final count was finished, five single, solitary votes separated a win for June Hofland and a loss for Craig Chamberlain. A recount can, and should, be undertaken, but if more of the 55 per cent of people that didn't vote in this election had taken it upon themselves to vote in one of the myriad of different ways offered, then the margin might have been wide enough for Hofland and Chamberlain (and the rest of Ward 3) to see the matter settled. Of course, this is the second time in 10 years, a matter of election has had to be settled by recount in Guelph (and Cambridge too had another close race in its Ward 6 Monday night), in 2006, Laura Bailey and Kathleen Farrelly actually tied for the second seat, the winner chosen by the city clerk by random draw. So next time you stew about your vote not counting, Hofland and Chamberlain probably wish right now that you had.

12) Politico learned lessons too.
Yup, I can learn from my experiences. For one thing, I too will start earlier next time. I seriously underestimated the sheer volume of surveys and questionnaires that the candidates have to deal with, and although I'm very pleased with the responses in terms of both number and quality, I know there were a couple of candidates that couldn't get their answers together because time was an issue. I also regret that my time chasing surveys didn't leave me with a lot of time to do issue reporting or any of the podcast roundtables I wanted to do. It was also an unusually busy summer in terms of news, and it was originally my intent to find someone to help out doing that heavy-lifting, but I didn't even have the time to look for help. Ah well, Politico will carry on per usual. Posts won't be as frequent for the next couple of weeks as I take time off to visit other matters, but I do have plans to continue developing the Politicast, Politico videos, and to cover the brand new city council when it takes the horseshoe in December. Plus, there's always another election around the corner...

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