Who Runs This Website?

Recommendations for the city’s 2010 election website

In early 2006, I launched a project called “Who Runs This Town?”.  It was a rhetorical question of course (45 people do, elected by us) and a slogan that I had stolen from Nike who had plastered Toronto with billboards asking the same question.

The goal of WRTT was to get people more engaged in the election process, not just as voters but as volunteers and candidates.  The website hosted a handful of features and functions that presented basic election information in an accessible and inviting manner.  Essentially, the volunteer-run project was the public service announcement and marketing campaign that the city should have run itself, but never did.  The city’s election website was really bare bones, at best.   In terms of promoting the election, encouraging nominations and providing basic information for citizens to get involved with local campaigns, the city’s site was almost void of useful content or features.


Two of the most obvious functional elements that were missing from the city’s election website were:

a)    a ‘ward search’ function that would quickly allow a resident to type in their street address and be directed to a page that tells them which ward they live in and who is running for office in their ward, and

b)    contact information for candidates.  Candidates were listed, but very few had any contact information listed, and no hyperlinks were provided to any candidates’ websites.

This year I was hoping to see a revamped election website, especially with the City’s alleged commitment to Web 2.0 upgrades.  But sadly, little has changed. This is surprising, as these much needed upgrades are actually part of Web 1.0.  Ward look-up fields and candidate contact information should be basic components of any municipal election website, and should have been for many years.

Let’s take a look at the two features:

Ward Lookup
The vast majority of Torontonians don’t know what ward they live in.  Visiting the election website would be much more useful to them if they could easily find out their ward and local candidates with a quick search field and submit button.  Currently, the user would have to navigate away from the elections page, find the City’s generic wards page on their own, look-up their ward, then go back to the elections page and go through a list off all 150+ candidates to find their candidates.  Any web designer knows that minimizing steps and clicks is crucial to keeping a visitor engaged.  It would be incredibly simple for the City to fix this and create a user-friendly interface.

Candidate Contact Information

In 2006 I was baffled to find that most candidates had no contact information listed.  In 2010, little has changed.  Of the 27 candidates running for mayor, for example, only 7 have an e-mail address or website listed.  “Maybe that’s because the others are fringe candidates?” you ask.  Nope.  There’s no contact information listed for Smitherman, Pantalone, Mammoliti or Thomson.

Candidate contact information, as listed on the City's election website (March 17)

How does this happen?  It’s a result of a prehistoric and problematic policy that is allegedly designed to protect the privacy of candidates.  This is how it works:  Candidates sign up to run for office at City Hall.  They fill out a nomination form (pdf), including contact information, and the document becomes a publicly viewable by anyone who wants to look at it.  There is nothing “private” about it. Then the city puts the candidate’s name on their website, and you would assume that they would list the campaign phone number and e-mail too.  But they don’t.  For some reason, the candidate has to fill out a second form called “Consent to Additional Methods of Public Disclosure” (pdf).  The form is buried in the Candidate’s Information Kit, and has to be hand-delivered or mailed to City Hall.  Most candidates don’t know it even exists. And get this: even if the candidate does fill out the “Consent to Additional Methods of Public Disclosure” and hand delivers it, the city STILL won’t provide an actual link to the candidate’s website (probably in the name of privacy, security or liability). This is an embarrassment.  The city should list candidates’ campaign contact information as listed on their nomination form, allow candidates to electronically update their contact information over the web and provide hyperlinks to any and all campaign websites.

With 7 months left in this election, I’m hoping these changes can be made to the 2010 election website.  I’m going to send this blog post to city staff and try and arrange a meeting to talk about the viability of improving their website.

Back in 2006, WRTT provided the only existing comprehensive list of candidates with contact information.  We did this by walking to City Hall each week, paying fifty cents for photocopies of each and every nomination paper and entering the data into our database.  And our amazing volunteer techie, Michael Pereira, worked for weeks to create the ward look-up feature with ward-specific landing pages.  This involved obtaining a database from the city that cross-referenced each municipal address with a ward number.

But that was 2006. I was an eager 30 year old and felt motivated to create my own election website to fill the gaps in the official city website. Now at 35, I have less energy and a growing sense of entitlement, so I’m more inclined to ask the city to improve their own site.  Haha.

And why stop at these two minor improvements?  I asked a professional web designer to assess the city’s election website and provide suggestions and feedback.  Diana Elkin
volunteered her time to produce an informal report that we’ll send to city staff and follow up with a meeting. (download report here).

To be clear, I’m not criticizing city staff.  I’ve always felt that City Council grossly under-funds the entire election process, ensuring a disengaged population.  So I place the blame squarely on Council, not staff.  I’ll be writing more on this topic soon…

In the meantime, I’ll keep you posted about my meetings with staff and will let you know if any of these changes are being implemented.

If our city is serious about running a fair, inclusive and engaging election, then a good place to start would be a properly functioning list of candidates.

If you have further suggestions for the city’s election website, please leave a comment below.  Thanks!

6 responses to “Who Runs This Website?

  1. I am Ken Wood, running for city councillor in ward 18, Davenport. I agree the election website needs to be more transparent and user-friendly. I did not know the contact information could be there either. A local reporter from the Liberty Gleaner found me through persistence,by going down there and told me of his difficulties in locating candidates. The availability of the extra contact form was not mentioned at my first candidates’ orientation by the elections people, although I eventually found it in the large binder of papers they gave me. We certainly ought to make it as easy as possible for the voters and media to contact all candidates.

  2. Added point: 311 services 180 languages, yet the elections area plans to put out information in only 15 languages (budget says they plan increase to 20 languages next year). Don’t we need to make election information as accessible as possible, given our great “Diversity Our Strength” city motto? Perhaps there could be a user-friendly tie in with 311 for that? I expect many wards will have local community ethnic papers wanting to report on the election too.

  3. Politicians shouldn’t be held responsible for every function of government. Much of what happens in the bureaucracy stems from decisions made by different levels of management. Some are engaged while others are not.

  4. The Toronto Cyclists Union has a ward search at http://bikeunion.to/

  5. Also the elections budget is 8 million dollars. Shouldn’t that be enough for a decent web site?

  6. Hey that’s me Ken’s talking about. It would be nice if the default was to publish on the website, but since there’s a legal issue they really need to make candidates aware of the form.

    I also think the whole vote2010 section of toronto.ca is a little buried. You can search for it pretty easily, but the only link I found to it is if you go to the city council home index, there’s a link in the related information to elections. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough, but that’s the only one I found.

    I do hope more candidates take the time to go down and fill out the form as they find out about this issue. I don’t mind going down to city hall to get the contact info, but I can’t think of a single reason why we should put any interested citizen through the same process when it requires so little effort to make it much easier.

    I’m also not clear on why I can access the data in person, but they aren’t allowed to share it with me over the phone. That part I don’t understand, but I’m certainly not a lawyer.

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