Low turnout in municipal elections has been a trend in Halifax for a decade, despite the key role municipal goverments play in the everyday lives of citizens.
In Halifax’s 2012 election, only 36 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot, compared to turnouts of 55 per cent or more in provincial and federal elections. But Kristen Good, a political science professor at Dalhousie University, says municipal governments deserve more voter attention.
“They have a really crucial day-to-day impact on how people live,” she says.
Good explains that cities like Halifax are attracting more and more residents, making them major players in Canada’s economic and social development.
That makes municipal governments – and the elected officials who lead them – even more important, Good says, adding that councillors live in the communities they represent so they can understand the logistics and needs of residents.
“They’re on the ground,” she says. “In a context where everything seems to be affected by global forces, city governments are a place that people can access.”
Good says that partnerships, coalitions and healthy communication between local leaders and organizations can be crucial when trying to make cities more environmentally and socially positive for both residents and businesses.
Despite municipal government’s potential to impact their communities, people generally show less interest in municipal elections compared to provincial or federal ones.
Low public engagement in municipal politics causes a problem for new candidates and can inhibit change in council.
“In municipal politics, people often vote based on name recognition,” says Good.
Brenden Sommerhalder, one of seven candidates competing in District 8-Peninsula North, says new candidates are at a disadvantage if they’re running against someone who has served as a councillor or mayor.
In four HRM districts where councillors are re-offering, no other candidates even tried to compete.
A lack of competitors means a quarter of Halifax’s councillors have already won by acclamation. They’ll represent their communities for the next four years without facing an election.
“I actually wouldn’t be running right now if I was up against an incumbent …. It’s expensive, emotional, difficult and almost impossible to beat an incumbent,” says Sommerhalder.
“For somebody who’s trying to work full-time and raise donations and do it all one’s self that can be a major deterrent from entering the political arena in the first place.”
Mayoral candidate Lil MacPherson agrees about the disadvantage, but she is not deterred by the challenge. MacPherson is up against incumbent, Mayor Mike Savage.
“Its definitely different because everybody knows Mike,” says MacPherson, “but I think we need to do this.”