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.
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.