The double-edged sword of expanded voting opportunities without campaign finance limits

Image © DonkeyHotey, see postcript

Given the abysmally low voter turnout of past civic elections (just under 35 percent of eligible voters in 2011), Vancouver chief election officer Janice MacKenzie’s announcement on June 25 to expand opportunities and places to vote with at-large advance polls in malls and community centres is a laudable goal. That said—in the absence of any campaign finance limits—quicker, easier voting has the ability to skew the democratic process as much as it might enhance it.

What’s your vote worth?

Consider that in 2011, the disclosure statements for campaign contributions to both Vision Vancouver and the NPA for that year’s election clocked in at $2.2 and $2.5 million respectively (about $40 per ballot cast). Many of the more substantial of these campaign contributions (almost $1 million from one NPA donor) were received from corporations and developers with vested interests in the commodification of housing and real estate in our city—interests that are impossible to reconcile with the crisis in affordability faced by too many Vancouverites.

If you are reading this on the Straight site, chances are that above or on the side of this article is a stern-faced Gregor Robertson advertisement urging you to vote for his party four-and-a-half months from now.

Money buys eyeballs, and easy access to ballot boxes coupled with no election finance limits favour big budget parties that can better saturate media markets and reach casual voters with simple messages like “No Pipelines” or “We Need a Broadway Subway Now”. Like the mayor’s 2011 election pledge to “end homelessness by 2015”, these slogans are often little more than empty promises reliant on senior levels of government to actually fulfill them. Will casual voters be able to see beyond slick packaging and sloganeering—or will they default to the narratives put forward by the biggest parties with the biggest bankrolls?

It seems that no-one trusts big money around voters.

Ironically, last month, when Green party councillor Adriane Carr proposed a plebiscite be included on our election ballot to let voters decide on the expanded Kinder Morgan pipeline project, the motion was squashed by the Vision caucus, who argued that voters might be unduly influenced by big (oil) money campaigns. Similarly, earlier this year, when Carr introduced a motion calling for voluntary campaign finance limits, it was rejected by the two big-money parties, with long-time politician and Vision city councillor Tim Stevenson opining it was naive to trust politicians.

Stevenson’s comments raise the question: is voter disengagement a result of lack of access and convenience—or is it a lack of trust?

Since 2011 we’ve seen a precipitous decline in trust in Vancouver’s municipal organizations, with trust in our municipal government slipping from 62 percent to 34 percent between the last election and March of this year. Disengagement and mistrust of the political system are often cited as causes of low voter turnout. Big-money campaigns resulting in a steady bombardment of spin, rhetoric, and the inevitable “attack ads” are also often cited as cause for voter-fatigue and disengagement.

If we want to fix the issue of low voter turn out, then we need to address the elephant in the room and restore trust in our municipal government.

Restoring that lost trust is not something that can be bought with multi-million dollar campaigns. That’s why I’m proud to be running alongside Adriane Carr and Cleta Brown for city council with the Green Party of Vancouver: a party that has imposed voluntary campaign finance limits; a party that won’t take contributions from the development industry; a party that believes in grassroots not astro-turf; a party that eschews backroom deals and believes listening to and working with citizens in an open, fair and transparent way is the key to restoring trust.

When you head to the ballot boxes in November I hope that it’s as an informed voter, with real trust in your chosen candidates and all the convenience these new expanded voting opportunities will afford—to elect a capable and just council that will work together to put the needs of our citizens first and foremost and make this city the best it can be.


This Commentary was first published in the Georgia Straight, June 26, 2014
Image © DonkeyHotey