The Fine Art of Casting a Ballot

By M Adrian Brassington

Historically, Hamiltonians have returned incumbent councillors more than 90 per cent of the time. Why? Familiarity? Comfort? Better the devil you know …? Fear of things getting worse than they have been? All of the above?

I think if you were to examine election results going back to the 1970s, you’d find that on the rare occasion that an incumbent was turfed, it had more to do with questionable performance than simply wanting to give someone new a crack at the piñata. A councillor needs to really, really mess things up for people to consider replacing them.

When we vote in municipal elections, we’re hiring someone. Conversely, not returning the incumbent to office amounts to “firing” them, and this carries an unconscious discomfort the likes of which the average person would prefer to avoid.

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In the private sector, when an employer is fielding applicants, certain considerations are made.

The most obvious is the person’s job experience within the field. Then relative job experience. Then total work history, education, activities and associations, and finally, references.

But all things being equal, how well an applicant “interviews” can play the pivotal part in the hiring process, illustrated by the practice of second — or third — interviews. So being good at hiring the right people is a skill, an art, some would say.

But you can’t hire effectively unless you know what the position demands, exactly what the successful candidate will be doing over the following four years. And I doubt that most Hamiltonians could provide a thorough job description for their councillor. I’d be curious to know if non-incumbent candidates could.

Indeed, the office of ward councillor is neither a licensed nor regulated position. There are no official “qualifications” to be met, which is why it’s commonplace to see newbie candidates with no political background attempting to ace the interview and win the election. They’re trying to buck the reality that unseating an incumbent is extremely difficult.

So what is it to cast an informed ballot for the position of councillor? I believe that ideally, we should be poring over candidates’ résumés, making comparisons, delving deep in order to create the informed opinion that goes beyond name recognition.

And then ask the following questions: What should a candidate’s work history mean to a voter? and how does it relate to the demands of the position?

Unfortunately, I suspect there generally tends not to be a thorough process of discerning who’s right for the job. Why not? It’s probably because there’s so little investment in our local governance.

In the main, residents are detached. This means that there’s really not much reason for considered deliberation, for developing informed opinions. And this is a shame, because municipal politics are far closer to being a genuine sort of democracy than the other two levels of government we vote on.

I think that for most voters, it comes down to how comfortable they feel about a candidate, whether or not they trust them, maybe how their job experiences in other fields relate to a position at City Hall, and that they’re a safe bet to look after that ward’s needs.

Here, I would offer up this caveat: In the private sector, you’d never hire someone based entirely on your intuition. Your decision would be a considered one, going beyond the perceived “feel good” of the applicant, one that takes into account everything they bring to the table.

Which leads me to offer up this gem of insight and experience from a family doctor a long time ago: “You don’t play sports to get in shape, you get in shape to play sports.”

The local governance equivalent would be: “You don’t cast a ballot to become more civically engaged. You practice civic engagement to cast a better ballot.”

M Adrian Brassington is a Hamilton writer.

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