So, tomorrow is municipal voting day here in BC. We all know it’s important, but most people usually don’t bother to vote. This voting guide will explain why, then offer some suggestions on who to vote for. These are my perspectives as a KPU psychology student and former White Rock City Councillor.
Why don’t most people vote?
Because it’s confusing. The whole thing sounds simple enough – show up at a voting station and make a little mark beside names on the ballot. Simple… but not easy. The hardest part seems to be choosing the candidates who best reflect your priorities. But there’s lots of things inside our own heads working against us.
Too many candidates
Municipal elections are perfectly designed for apathy. In most cities, there are at least a dozen candidates. This creates a paradox of choice problem. When faced with lots of options, we tend to feel like we should know them all so we can pick the *best* ones. Which, let’s be honest, almost nobody has the patience to do. There’s all kinds of guilt that comes with the realization that we don’t really pay much attention to government affairs, beyond headlines or cynical social media posts. So, we suffer a sort of decision paralysis. Too many candidates, not enough information, no interest in spending time on such boring issues (yeah yeah, we know they’re important, but important doesn’t make them interesting).
Too much information
This idea that people should be “informed” on the issues before voting is hard to argue against, but sets us up for democratic failure. As any new-school economist will tell you, efforts toward an informed choice is to chase an illusion; there’s no end point. There will always be more to learn, more questions, more perspectives to consider. Condescending comments about people needing to be informed voters are counter-productive. All it does is make people feel like they shouldn’t vote because they don’t really know what’s going on. Please, stop the guilt-tripping.
It’s also common to hear people complain that voting doesn’t make a difference. They might be bitter because a candidate they voted for in the past didn’t win. Understandable, but from my time on council, I found that most people inside city hall listen to the issues promoted by opposing candidates and notice how much support they got. Elections are important for raising issues and advocating for solutions. A candidate’s campaign will still have influence, even if they don’t win.
Some say it doesn’t matter who gets elected, nothing changes… well, that’s a completely and totally fallacious argument, but a topic for different post. Don’t be tempted to follow the idiotic idea that the system sucks, so everyone should stop voting. This is the absolute best way to ensure government does not reflect your priorities. Don’t defeat yourself by pouting and refusing to put your opinion in the ballot box.
How can we overcome this inertia?
Let go of the feeling that you need to be fair to all candidates by getting to know every single one before choosing any.
Stop feeling guilty for having only a couple issues that you pay attention to. Yes, you *should* know more about storm sewers and tactile curb cuts, but let’s get real, almost nobody does. Don’t be embarrassed by the limits of your knowledge. When people pretend they know more than they do, really really bad decisions happen. So, don’t feel guilty for following the advice of someone who knows more about it than you do. It’s ok to defer to expert opinion.
Vote for what’s important to you, not what other people tell you to care about. If you’re indifferent about arts funding, but lots of people you know are angry about it, stay focused on your own priorities. If you don’t don’t even notice how tall the building down the street is, but others are lighting their hair on fire about it, stay focused on your own priorities. Don’t let other people’s passion convince you to vote for people who don’t reflect what’s important to you.
Who should we vote for?
This is a hard question to answer because every city has their own set of candidates. And I don’t know what youre personal priorities are.
Also, municipal issues are different than provincial or federal. At the city level, potholes and leaking pipes don’t really care about ambiguous arguments about economic theories or social justice. The pipes need fixing and everyone has to pay for it. Technical, boring, no philosophical debate. It’s harder to get away with vague, moralistic rhetoric. But this also requires citizens to dive into the details more than they have to during federal or provincial elections. And ugh, nobody really wants to do that. So much easier to just go with the person who matches how we’re feeling and hope they know what they’re doing.
Well, here’s some suggestions on how to pick your candidates.
1. Consider their people skills.
Don’t vote for mean people. That’s not necessarily saying to vote for the nicest people, just avoid the candidates who are telling you that everyone else is stupid and city hall is corrupt. We all know people whose intolerance and distrust best reflects their own inability to empathize or think critically. So steer clear of the haters.
Vote for candidates willing to upset people. You know the best way to end up with a city council that does nothing? Fill it full of people who are scared to upset anyone. If they’re too scared to take a risk, they will be too scared to try new things. Some of the least effective city councils ever have been full of the nicest people. A councillor being too nice is just as bad as being mean. Vote for candidates willing to rock the boat and bring forward new ideas.
Vote for people who get along well with others. In my experience, some of the most important conversations happen outside the televised meetings. For a member to be effective, they will need to gather information, share it, and explore differences in perspectives. All this is impossible for councillors who rub people the wrong way, are abrasive or cynical. It will be tough for your candidate to influence other members of council if nobody likes them. And from my experience, being likeable is far more important than political party membership.
2. Consider how they approach diversity in opinion.
Avoid anyone who talks about using “common sense.” This is a giant red flag. This term is used to belittle or ignore people who disagree. Not cool. It’s also a sign of intellectual laziness, as if to say they shouldn’t have to explain something that they think is obvious, or that lots of other people want to hear. In council chambers, common sense isn’t good enough.
Vote for people who express an interest in consensus. It’s an impossible goal, but candidates who are always talking about the will of the majority are really saying that, as soon as they get what they want, they stop trying. Truth is, there’s always a way of making things better. A willingness consider and work through opposing opinions toward a better a decision shows that everyone matters. This is a strength, not a weakness. If a candidate can’t handle diversity in opinion, pick someone who can.
3. Consider their vision.
Vote for people with a forward-looking vision. Avoid candidates who dish out nostalgia. Moaning about how things were better in the good old days is a solid sign that a candidate has a really hard time with change. Since change is inevitable, whether intentional or not, vote for candidates who recognize opportunity within change. Be very wary of candidates who talk about “preserving” a way of life. If it seems like they’d rather live in the past than look to the future, move on.
Vote for people who frame issues positively. This is similar to staying away from nastiness. Candidates who can only tell you what’s wrong are really going to struggle to do anything other than complain on council. Of course, every governance chamber needs a critical voice – someone to challenge assumptions and look for alternatives – but if they don’t know how to champion something, they will only be successful at tearing down other people’s ideas. Not cool. Council members need to work through differences in perspectives as a team.
Vote for people who stand for real issues. Don’t vote for candidates who tell you that they’re going to lower your taxes; there’s no better sign that they’re full of… manure. Likewise, stay away from candidates who say empty stuff, like they “listen to you” or “represent all the people” or “stand up for… whomever.” I call bullshit. In my six years as a councillor, I met hundreds, if not thousands of elected representatives. I can count on my fingers and toes the number that I felt didn’t listen to their constituents with genuine compassion and work very hard to advocate on issues affecting their community. If all a candidate offers is that they will listen or work hard for you, move on to others who have something real to say. What are their passions? What are their skills or experiences? What principles or philosophical lens they use to make decisions?
Yeah but, who do I vote for?
Take a few minutes to think about what’s important to you. What do you most enjoy about your community? How do you want to feel over the next four years? Pick candidates who talk about those things and reflect the feeling you want to have. Do they talk about wanting a friendly city, but yet complain a lot about other people? Skip to the candidate who actually models what you want. If finding corruption and being rude to your neighbours is your thing, then vote for candidates who think people in city hall are stupid. If dog parks and friendly neighbourhoods are important to you, pick a candidate who likes dogs and is welcoming to all kinds of different people.
Remember that, although you can vote for many candidates, there’s no minimum. If there’s only one person you feel good about – that’s cool – just vote for one. Don’t water down your choice by voting for people just because you know their name or you met them once and they weren’t a dick. Let your vote reflect your priorities, even if that means there’s only one candidate you know anything about. If they make you feel good about voting, vote for them.
But most importantly, vote.