Voters waiting to enter the polling place at Fire Station #3, North Pelham, on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. DON RICKERS

Across province, public interest in running for office lags behind 2018

October 24 is municipal election day in Ontario. In Niagara, registered voters will get to choose from a slate of municipal and regional government candidates, as well as those who have put their names forward to become school board trustees.

To date, as a folksy rural Pelhamite might opine, “the candidate pickins are slim.” But it isn’t just a Pelham problem. Anecdotally, citizen interest in running for local office is way down compared to 2018 all across the province.

In Pelham, with two exceptions, only incumbents have filed so far. Marvin Junkin is running again for the mayor’s seat, while Wayne Olson, John Wink, and Bob Hildebrandt are up for re-election as Town councillors. Late last week, newcomer to politics but longtime Fenwick resident Kevin Ker filed to represent Ward 1. Diana Huson is eager to return to Regional Council. The other newcomer is Linda Borland, who is on the ticket for a school board seat. Incumbent Nancy Beamer has yet to file, but said in a Voice commentary earlier this spring that she intends to do so.

In Welland, incumbent Frank Campion is thus far the sole candidate for mayor, and there are only two council seat applications listed on the city’s election website.

In St. Catharines, the only registered candidate for mayor is councillor Matt Siscoe, with incumbent Walter Sendzik choosing not to run again. Seven individuals, including four incumbents, have declared for City Council, while four are prospective Regional councillors, and six have put their names forward for school board seats.

In Niagara Falls, one person has signed up to challenge incumbent mayor Jim Diodati. Six are candidates for City Council, three for Regional Council, and only one for the school boards.

In West Lincoln, there is one candidate for mayor, and it is not controversial incumbent Dave Bylsma. Five are on the list for Town Council, one for Regional Council, and two for school board trustee positions.

Niagara Regional Chair Jim Bradley intoned a view of calm and optimism.

“It’s still early in the process,” he told the Voice. “A lot of people who are thinking about running for office at the municipal level are planning where they might run, be it locally, or regionally, or perhaps at the school board level. And they’re often waiting to see who else is running. They always factor in how many incumbents are running, because they would feel that the incumbents would have an advantage, with name recognition and having worked in the community.”

A lot of people who are thinking about running for office at the municipal level are planning where they might run

Bradley said that if the current level of interest was indicated three days prior to the August 19 cut-off date for filing papers of intention to run, he would be very alarmed. But at this point in time, he’s not overly surprised.

“You often get a lot of people wanting to run for office if there’s great dissatisfaction or controversial issues at play. This time around, the atmosphere seems to be considerably different. There doesn’t seem to be the level of anger that there was as the last municipal election approached. But one never knows,” he said.

One could certainly say that a level of anger existed in Pelham in 2018, resulting in an entire council being voted out of office—incumbency was no asset. Twenty-four candidates vied for council’s seven seats.

Bradley expects that we will see a surge of candidates coming forward in August, just prior to the deadline.

“Traditionally, the voting public’s interest has been largely directed at the federal and provincial levels, even though municipal government probably has a more profound immediate impact on people,” he said. “I honestly think that as we get into the second week of August, you’ll have a pretty good idea of those who are going to be running. I think I filed 45 minutes before the deadline last time, so I can’t criticize anybody else for waiting to file until the last minute.”

One politician on Regional Council won’t be throwing his hat in the ring again.

Bob Gale, who ran unsuccessfully for the Progressive Conservatives in the recent provincial election, told the Niagara Falls Review that eight years as a Niagara Falls Regional Councillor taught him he doesn’t belong in a crowd of politicians.

I believe in more checks and balances than the normal crowd, and I don’t fit

“I found that politicians are different from me. I believe in more checks and balances than the normal crowd, and I don’t fit,” said the retired businessman and philanthropist. Gale acknowledged that he had met “some very good people” during his political career, but “people that are in private business and politics don’t always mesh.”

Turning to voter apathy, polling organization Nanos Research had some disheartening news prior to the last municipal election, reporting that a third of Ontario’s populace didn’t even know there was an election on October 22, 2018. Almost 50 percent of the respondents who didn’t vote in the municipal election said that either they weren’t interested, or didn’t follow politics closely enough to make an informed decision.

Young people ages 18 to 29 were the least informed, with only 52 percent responding that they were aware of the municipal election.

In the 2018 municipal election, 414 municipalities held direct elections, while 26 had their entire council acclaimed. Women comprised 27 percent of candidates, and 29 percent of elected or acclaimed candidates. Incumbents comprised 34 percent of candidates and captured about 59 percent of seats available.

Average voter turnout across Ontario in 2018 for the municipal election was 38 percent, the lowest in 40 years. In Niagara, Pelham led all sub-municipalities with a 50 percent participation rate. St. Catharines, Welland, and Niagara Falls were at 33, 34, 39 percent respectively.

David Siegel, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Brock University, echoed many of Bradley’s points.

“The turnout for the last provincial election was really distressing,” he said. “People seem to have their minds on many other things these days, rather than elections. Of course, if there are hot issues in some municipalities, that could lead to higher turnout. Things at the Region currently seem to be quiet. Pelham has had some controversies, but I don’t know how [engaged] the total electorate is. St. Catharines will be electing a new mayor, but there doesn’t seem to be a race there yet. West Lincoln could be hot, but I don’t know that area very well. Not sure how much excitement there will be to motivate people.”