Fringe, favorites, front-runners and fairness

As you’ve probably heard, there are six people running for Mayor.  You’ve read headlines about George Smitherman, Rocco Rossi, Giorgio Mammoliti, Joe Pantalone and Sarah Thomson.  And as of this week, you’ve also heard that Rob Ford is running.

What you haven’t heard in the news, is that 21 other people are also running for mayor, a total of 27 candidates.

Electoral exclusion happens at all levels of government, but is most interesting and complex at the municipal level.

Provincially and federally, the exclusion is pretty straight-forward: if you’re not with the four major parties (libs, tories, new dems and bloc) then you don’t exist.  The Greens have managed to gain enough popularity to get recognition from some media outlets, but that still leaves 14 parties who are completely ignored, meaning zero media coverage and exclusion from all Leader’s debates.  Independent candidates are also excluded from media exposure and most debates.

It’s a democratic crime, but at least it’s a straightforward exclusion and quite transparent.

Municipally, however, there are no official parties.  So the process of determining ‘fringe’ candidates from ‘credible’ candidates and identifying ‘front-runners’ is a vague and shady business with no clear answers.


I hadn’t thought much about this, until I started to organise a mayoral debate with the Better Ballots team.   We were reluctant to invite all 27 candidates to the debate, because it would leave so little time for each candidate to speak.  (I organised a debate in the 2006 city election with all the Mayoral candidates.  It was really fun, but not necessarily effective for the audience who only got a very small taste of each candidate).  At the same time, we didn’t want to be unnecessarily exclusionary.  So we decided that we’d have the six media-acclaimed ‘front-runners’ on the stage with equal time, but also give the other 21 candidates a moment at the microphone, to briefly introduce themselves to the audience.  It seemed like a fair compromise to me.

Mayoral candidate Rocco Achampong

But then I started hearing from some of those 21 invisible candidates. Last week my phone rang, and I found myself chatting with a mayoral candidate named Rocco Achampong (“the other Rocco”).  He had heard I was organizing a debate, and he asked a simple question:  How are we selecting the six ‘front-runners’?  I gave him the obvious answer:  we’re using polls and media headlines as our gauges.  Well, he asked, how does the media select the frontrunners?  I said they probably look at the public profile and background of the candidates.  He was unimpressed.  If Rossi and Thomson are being included, both having never been elected to public office, then why isn’t he being included?  He admits that he doesn’t have a big public profile, but points out that neither Rossi nor Thomson had much of a public profile prior to 2010 either.

Keith Cole is a friend of mine and he’s also running for Mayor.  He attended a forum I was speaking at two weeks ago, and publicly asked me the same question:  How is Better Ballots choosing the front-runners for the debate?  If we are allegedly a pro-democracy project, then why are we being exclusionary?  I wasn’t able to offer him much more of an answer than the one I gave Rocco. I summarized the apparent qualifications the media is using for front-runner as: any candidate who is an elected politician, a successful fundraiser for a major party, or owns their own magazine.  He too was not impressed with my answer.

There’s no doubt that elected politicians should be seen as credible candidates.  And there’s no doubt the Rossi and Thomson are credible candidates.  But the question is, has anyone looked at the other 21?  And who decides if any of those candidates deserve equal exposure?

Keith is a well-established and much-loved artist in Toronto, who is prepared to push the envelope on social and political issues with courage and style.  Rocco Achampong is a practicing lawyer, quite passionate and articulate and clearly has leadership skills having served as President of the U of T Students Union and the Black Students’ Association.  But the mainstream media has decided that neither of them deserve to be heard.

So I’m left with a dilemma. If we only go with the media-selected front-runners, then we’re perpetuating a culture of political exclusion.  If we hand-pick one or two additional candidates ourselves, then we’ll have 20 angry candidates asking why they weren’t chosen.

So this is what I’m thinking, and I’m seeking advice and feedback from you, the reader:  I propose that we develop some kind of empirical process of identifying one or two candidates from the so-called ‘fringe’ category and include them in the debate seated alongside the so-called ‘front-runners’ in an effort to give them their deserved exposure.  (this would still be in addition to giving brief mic time to the remaining candidates).

The question is, how do you measure electoral credibility?  Here’s a few ideas:

a)    Facebook numbers.  Who’s got the most fans?  Is someone far ahead of the others?

b)   Fundraising.  Who has raised the most money?  This is an easy thing to measure, and is one of the criteria that Wikipedia uses to define the word ‘front-runner’.  Although this is slippery slope and re-enforces class issues and the unhealthy correlation between privilege and access.

c)    Signatures.  We could ask candidates to start a petition, and see who get’s the most signatures.  This levels the playing field, but could be an administrative headache for everyone.

d)   An online poll.  A simple ballot where anyone could choose who they want to see at the debate.  This essentially would be a popularity contest, but so is the entire election so it seems appropriate.

e)    Or we could rely on traditional methods of selection such as bribery and/or arm wrestling.

What are your thoughts?  How should Torontonians and the Toronto media approach and interpret the long list of candidates running for mayor? Most importantly, even if a candidate has no chance of winning, shouldn’t they still have a right to be heard?  After all, an election isn’t just about selecting a new council.  It’s also a time to share ideas, learn from each other and perhaps even shift the political climate.

Should Better Ballots select one or two candidates beyond those six appearing in the headlines?  If so, how should we select them?  Share your comments below.

In the end, we want to host an event that is educational, useful, effective and fair.  It’s probably an impossible task, but we’d like to try.

31 responses to “Fringe, favorites, front-runners and fairness

  1. Reasons why suggestions not the best answer:

    a) Facebook numbers/fans: Popularity is only ‘spin-deep’ and not a good way to find people of substance, ideas and vision. Just look at the inane tweets by so many of the so-called front runners and a few others.
    b) Fundraising: Yes, it reinforces classist views and favours former incumbents (even if from another realm) who are already very advantaged. Also, much of fundraising happens after many successful election campaigns.
    c) Peititions: Again – see facebook/popularity. Likely would be meaningless and hard to verify.
    d) Online poll: Automatically disadvantages those not hooked in to social media. Classist again.
    e) Bribes/wrestling… isn’t that what happens now with those who already have power?
    ..I will have some other suggestions in next post.

  2. Okay, so here’s the positive – some ideas:

    1. Lottery: Simply throw all names of not-media-covered candidates in a hat and pick three that would be invited to join the other 6 media acclaimed front runners in a debate. Nine seems a good number and manageable.
    2. Structured issue Q&A: Have ALL candidates respond briefly to their stance on 5 or so top issues (as determined by media coverage/common top 6 candidates platforms) PLUS ask a sixth questions: : “What other issue is not being talked about that should be and what is your plan to address it?” Then publish the responses both on the web and in paper handouts at the debate (and try to get mainstream media to publish it as well).
    3. “Team Top Six”/””Team Alternative” Debates: Do the top 6 candidates debate, followed by three other sessions of the alternatives (I hate the word fringe) group. Important to use the same formats on all debates.
    4. “Mayor Market”: Invite everyone to the debate. Top 6 on stage, remainder having a table that allows them to be there with handouts, answer questions before/after debate and at least get introduced and get a little coverage.
    … Ideas still percolating, but that’s off the top of my head.

  3. What are the top 5 issues for mayor candidates?
    Interesting…just looked at the “top 6″ and only one who has a list of issues as they see it on their websites are: Mammoliti (Senoirs, News sources of revenue, safer streets/communities, smarter services, smarter spending); – and – Thompson (Economic development, transit, fiscal responsibility, best service/pricing, social entrepreneurship). Guess we either wait or define the top mayoral issues ourselves.

  4. Five debates, seven participants each. Three or four of the ‘front runners’ for each debate along with three or four of the alternatives. That way no one debate is overloaded with front runners and becomes “the one debate to see”…they would all be equally interesting and everyone would get their due.

  5. If each “fringe” candidate had to select another “fringe” candidate for the debate other then themselves, who would it be?

  6. Julien,

    You mean, let the 21 candidates vote for their favorite, amongst themselves?

  7. Front Runners should be selected based upon:
    1. Higher Numbers of signatures
    2. Online Poll
    These both tools combine electronic and traditional way of assesment and puts candidate on a real challenge ofhow many ppl believe in him/her in both real world and cyber world.
    Ofcourse i am talking about Non-Visible Excluded candidates. So that we can bring them at par with so called Media Favourites;

    Also i would like to see all of them in debate. Who cares if the list is long. It is an equality issue.If audiance really cares for city then they will sit and listen patiently to all 27 candidates.

  8. The only reason Sarah Thomson is on of the top 6 is because she is female. That allows us to feel warm and fuzzy over the fact that more women are getting involved in politics. She is as “fringe” as Mr. Achampong with similar name recognition.

    Similarly, if Achampong were to be included to make it an even 7 contenders at the top of the heap, it would be to show the city that we have a black candidate in the race (which no one even knows).

    Smoke and mirrors everywhere.

    At the end of the day, let’s face it. The only people that actually have the skill-set to become mayor and “manage” the city are Pantalone, Rossi and Smitherman. No one will convince me that Ford/Thomson/Mammolotti can be taken seriously.

    • Totally disagree with Mr. Smee’s [offensive!] remarks… his “skill-set” three will never get a vote from me!

  9. I agree with the idea of using support to justify each candidate’s value in participating in the debate’s as well with media coverage. Yet in this day and age just signatures and phone polls are not enough to truly give an true example of one candidates following. We need to start looking at social media and other forms of support structures as a basis on who gets attention by the powers that be. This is important to me because I found this blog Googleing Rocco Acampong’s name after I meet him at an event my friend dragged me too, and I was impressed enough to look him up. Give Mr. Achampong a chance to get him self heard because he was making a lot of sense, unlike the rest of the pack.

  10. Pingback: Mez Dispenser: Fringe, Favorites, Front-Runners & Fairness | Toronto Election News

  11. Perhaps it might be worthwhile for each of the candidates to have an opportunity to present their positions in a series of forums timed so that each has an opportunity for public interaction. Who shows up at those meetings will be decided by a series of ads/blogs where each candidate set for a particular date of appearance can submit a short piece outlining his/her platforms.

    Like a theater presentation series.

    Not having equal opportunity for all candidates smacks of political opportunism where somebody with public clout pushes their own choices for city council by choosing for the public’s edification those who are “allowed” to present. Moreover, such a presentation is publicity, and worth monetary value the others will never be able to make up.

    Publishing a limited blurb about their platforms prior to their appearances will ensure that only those members of the public who like what they read will attend.

    Having a “Candidates’ Series’ of public fora will allow the press to get up close and personal with those they have labelled “fringe”, and may bring one or two others to the attention of the electorate through more public attention.

    Everybody wins, especially if the series is repeated in different parts of the city so that citizens all over the metro area are able to attend.

    Fortunately, in ignoring an equal opportunity appearance for all, one can only be damned for having a lack of civic conscience…which you don’t have. There’s no economic justification for political elitism in a true democracy, because the electorate loses their chance to make an informed choice.

    And, in case it’s necessary due to a lack of venues offered on the basis of civic pride, there might be a good advertising buck to be made by the sponsors, if they are so inclined.

    Mark State
    2010 Mayoralty Candidate

  12. Alexander Laemmli-Zeller

    The “fringe” is very loosely defined, and encompasses a broad array of candidates. I think this lumping together is the reason why the entire “fringe” is being ignored.

    I seriously question anyone giving any credence or airtime to the White Supremacist candidate running for mayor, and who has also run for the several past elections. There are also a few other candidates with a tenuous-at-best grasp of rudimentary English or political ideas, and their platforms are sketchy, if not downright lunacy, based on the simple common sense which we all share as Canadians.

    Therefore, I urge you to first classify the “fringe”. Discard those candidates who have no place in the world of our Canadian political ideals–many of whom unsurprisingly have run in many past mayoral elections with limited to no public attention.

    Then, among the remaing “fringe” candidates–people who are untried, untrusted, are new to politics, have no public service experience or have never run anything large before– use whatever method you come up with to include a few “fringe” among the top dogs.

  13. There is no way in the democratic process to leave anybody out, Alexander, which is why I suggested posting the platforms or positions of the Mayoralty candidates who will be appearing at any of the above venues prior to the occasion; so people have an opportunity to attend if they wish, and also to leave the auditorium for parts of the presentation they would rather not be present for, if they are so inclined.

    What I did not make clear in the prior post, however, was that six of these fora could be happening simultaneously, each highlighting four or five candidates, (or seven locations with four candidates each, etc.), in a different part of Metro.

    This would allow for a “Mayoralty Candidate Presentation Series” to present all candidates, hopefully in different combinations, in all the major sections of town. Perhaps it could be timed to occur once every week or two, so that everyone would get a chance to hear all the candidates. I’m not certain that a debate format would be useful in this context, however, because of the frequency of contacts.

    One side benefit of this kind of arrangement is that all candidates will have an opportunity to listen to each other more than once, and pick up some good ideas from each other; whereas not having them speak in company with each other rather insulates the potential winner from accumulating some of the good ideas of the others.

    Mark State

  14. As we see in the first Scarborough mayoral hopefuls debate, only the ‘top 6′ were invited. Yet, will it be attended by any voters who have not yet made up their minds, given how Smitherman and Rossi are using their ‘political clout’ to stack the hall with their supporters? I fear all we see with uncontrolled access is American style rah-rah cheerleader campaigns.
    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/toronto/keep-fans-at-home-debate-organizers-urge-mayoral-candidates/article1515271/
    Do we want spin or substance?

    Debate formats are as important as much as who is invited.

  15. A variation on Julien’s idea — poll *all* candidates and ask them to pick their top six (themselves + five others). Pick the six with the most votes.

  16. A bit more work for you Mez, but my suggestion is that you conduct a brief telephone interview with each of the 21 remaining candidates. Weed out the one issue only/white supremists/inarticulate ones. Invite the remainder to a debate.

    Personally, I don’t want a debate with the top 5 or 6. Everyone else is doing a debate with them and/or their platforms, or lack thereof, are regularly written up in the mainstream media. I want to hear from the rest of the credible candidates – the ones that aren’t invited to the other debates and get no time in the media. A debate of the other candidates – now THAT’s a debate I would make time to attend.

  17. The ‘big name’ candidates have already made a name for themselves through extensive political experience elsewhere. It is recognized that they have cut their teeth on the political system and know how it works (sometimes too well!). Fringe candidates really should take a good look at the big names and compare their own experiences. In most cases, fringe candidates’ résumes are rather shallow. It’s a tough world out there and while you have to make your own breaks, experience in the field is easy to recognize and speaks volumes.

  18. Media? …maybe it’s too much too expect the regular networks to give equal time to all of the candidates with their obvious ties to particular political interests but what about The CBC?
    Isn’t this part of their mandate?

  19. How come none of the categories for inclusion involve experience? Anyone running for mayor of the biggest city in Canada, with a multi-billion dollar budget, should have significant political or managerial experience.

  20. Pingback: Meet A Mayoral Candidate — Part VII « All Fired Up In The Big Smoke

  21. Despite being a great idea, democracy in today’s form, is broken.
    Electoral process is really supposed to be like any other hiring process where people are the employer and the candidates are the interviewees. To be fair employers give each prospective employee a certain amount of time to state their case and answer question as to why they would be qualified for the job so I believe the electoral process should not be any different. I understand this comes across as idealistic, however, in order for the system to function better campaign funds should be made irrelevant replaced by equal exposure using various media such as campaign websites, TV, etc (There are some ideas as to how this can be funded) outlining each candidates platform and credentials.

  22. Dave – What about letting all of them do their quick intros and then have the audience vote by a show of hands for the two candidates to stay to participate in the debate? Maybe a little messy, but perhaps a fairer process and somewhat democratic – at least mobocratic.

    It definitately would encourage the other 21 to take the opportunity seriously and try to appeal to the audience.

    In fact you could even have the audience vote on even the so-called front runners and select the top eight (I will predict at least one of the six wouldn’t make the cut).

  23. When trying to decide which candidates should be invited to the debate, keep in mind the types of discussions and issues you want addressed in the debate. It would be reasonable to have a debating event focused on a small set of key issues. For example, you could host one debate to explore TTC, city revenues, and electoral reform. Candidate invitations could then be prioritized based on the extent to which each candidate has taken a stance on those issues. So, if a candidate wishes to be included in the debate, the onus is on the candidate to formulate and disseminate positions on those issues. This method provides you with both selection criteria and some assurance that the debate will be feature a broad covering of in-depth opinions on those key issues.

  24. Dave, you have to do it like they do on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

    All the candidates are asked a question about the city, like “point out where Riverdale is on this map”, or “what is the current population of the City of Toronto” and the first 5 to select the right answer get to participate in this part of the debate.

  25. Pingback: PUBLIC POLL: Better Ballots Mayoral Forum « Mez Dispenser

  26. One alternative is to invite them all to debate… it would serve as an example once and for all as to why an all candidates meeting with 27 people does not work. Finally all the complaining will end. It would be an unmitigated disaster. On the plus side most Better Ballots has done the best job possible given the limite resources available. So with everyone complaining as to why BB doesn’t do it differently, I thought that a simple “thank you” and “well done” was more appropriate. You’ve done something that no one has ever done, tried to include other candidates.

  27. This is a response to the posting by Rob Davis.

    Just a point of information, Rob. There is a suggestion in the list above by yours truly of a method whereby all Mayoralty candidates would be able to appear in all-Candidates meetings for their contested office quite easily, and in small “manageable” numbers of six or seven per appearance where each could talk to whomever wished to hear them speak at length –and never the same group twice, and all over town so huge numbers get a chance to hear them.

    Your comment lacks both depth and thought.

    Better Ballots has NOT done “the best possible job given the available resources”. They have merely done an expedient job to suit their own purposes, and they claim nothing else in the arrangement of this event. They’ve set up an interesting venue. It’s too bad that they included the six they did with no debate from their readership…but they are looking for headlines and the opportunity to introduce one or two others (it’s a good opportunity for candidates to exercise their support networks via email. Better Ballots itself will produce campaign vote-ins for one particular candidate’s supporters in this relationship with the Better Ballots group, since he’s on a committee or two of the group and they would like to get him beter recognition), so no penalty to them for taking that route.

    Judging by the format of this “appearance” ballot, Better Ballots could have, but apparently decided not to try to use this as an opportunity to try out the multiple ballot format of which they are proponents. I personally would have liked to see them take the time to utilize the concept they promote, just to determine how it would affect the outcome of this contest.

    But you…you have misinformed the public, Rob, possibly in order to promote your own agenda.

    You said that having all “27 people” in an all candidates’ meeting “does not work”, and that Better Ballots has “done something that no one has ever done, tried to include other candidates.” Wrong on both counts, Rob.

    In the 2006 election, all 38 candidates appeared at two all-candidates’ meetings. One was the forum at the October 4th, 2006 “Who Wants to be Mayor? Meet the Candidates” … St. Lawrence Centre, Bluma Appel Theatre, which was largely unsuccessful because the experienced candidates stuffed the theater with their supporters (just as happened at the del Grande fiasco recently in Scarborough). Back then, questions from the audience were addressed mainly to David Miller from his well-prepared majority support contingent. Miller ended up occupying 95% of the available stage time answering them because none of the other candidates were similarly prepared with an audience full of supporters with ready questions to submit to the moderators.

    The second was highly successful, because besides introducing themselves to the electorate present in the gymnatorium there, all 38 candidates were invited to speak to any of the points raised by the audience…mainly seniors, at the Native Canadians Center 16 Spadina Road in the gymnasium. And they did.

    Perhaps the chief “unmitigated disaster” in this election is that the electorate is buying information totally lacking in investigative depth being handed to them about the important issues in the upcoming election by a press in pursuit of selling a good story. And you, as a present example, seem to be accepting whatever they offer. Oops, Rob!!!

    If you are hoping as a political candidate that any particular interest group through providing a semi-solution to the problem where folks are asking for all candidates to be present and 8 are attending instead, has brokered a solution where “Finally all the complaining will end.”, it makes me wonder who it is on the confirmed list that YOU don’t want opposed in these meetings.

    Not coming out and saying “I’m a Smitherman supporter” or some similar statement about perhaps one of the other Mayoralty candidates, and pretending that you are all smiling and flowers about the idea of only 8 candidates because of the confusion you pose as “an unmitigated disaster”, should additional numbers of candidates attend, is either less than being genuine about your motivation as a council candidate for remarking upon this proposal in the way you have…

    or the result of shallow research…

    and I must say that I’m disappointed in your participation at this level.

    Mark State
    2010 Mayoralty Candidate

  28. Hey Mark,

    A few comments:

    1) Why don’t you organise a debate yourself? If you think it’s so easy to organise ‘multiple’ debates, and actually GET the frontrunners to attend, then go ahead. What you’ll find is that the front runners won’t show up, and neither will an audience.

    2) I think you forget that we’re just a bunch of volunteers, who are trying to make a difference in this city. Our resources (both time and money) are quite scarce. The fact that we’ve been able to organise a debate at all, on such an important topic, with frontrunners attending, is a miracle.

    3) Rob is absolutely right to point out that this debate is the most accessible and democratic so far in the 2010 race. To compare it to events in 2006 is irrelevant. Each election has it’s own nature, and politics, and the difference between an open seat (2010) and an incumbent returning to office (2006) is enormous in terms of how it effects the behaviour of the candidates and the risks they take.

    4) The reality is, this is the ONLY debate that has invited all 26 candidates to appear, and the ONLY debate that has successfully put ‘frontronners’ on the same stage as other candidates.

    5) You wrote: “Better Ballots itself will produce campaign vote-ins for one particular candidate’s supporters in this relationship with the Better Ballots group, since he’s on a committee or two of the group and they would like to get him better recognition” I honestly don’t know who or what you’re talking about here. None of the mayoralty candidates are involved in any capacity with Better Ballots.

    When you organise your multiple debates with all 26 candidates including the frontrunners, please let me know. I’d love to attend.

    ~ dave

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