In the good old days, elections were fought on platforms, real platforms, made of planks, where candidates stood and made speeches and answered the voters’ questions. These were mostly variations on the same theme: tell me why I should vote for you. What was promised on these platforms became known as the candidate’s election platform: the ideas, policies and promises made to the electorate.
These days, we are getting used to other kinds of platforms in our elections: social media ones. On the face (Facebook) of it, this is a positive development. Citizens can now interact with candidates in real time, ask them questions and discuss issues one-on-one. It does make the candidates more accessible and, in some ways, is an improvement on the old wooden platforms, where you had to go along in person and listen to interminable speeches and impossible promises being made in all weathers.
But nothing is perfect, and we are still in the early days of this new format for democratic debate. Looking at the various Facebook pages that have been set up by some of the candidates in the municipal election, a few things become clear. In general, the people using these platforms are talking to their own supporters, rather than to the general public. This is, perhaps, because the general public don’t know these pages are there; or because they just don’t like Facebook.
But I notice the same names turning up all the time, and that makes me wonder about the usefulness of the social media platforms in this situation. Facebook and Twitter have become popular ways for people to communicate with each other, and at least one politician seems to use Twitter almost exclusively to communicate with the world outside his head. At the same time, more and more people are turning off social media. A recent article in the Guardian newspaper in the U.K. indicates that there is an increase in personal peace of mind when these platforms are turned off.
This seems a shame, because social media seems to be perfectly designed for democratic debate. No intermediaries, no need to attend a particular place at a particular time, and no reliance on organisers to provide opportunity for questions. Perhaps, in time, this will become more and more central to our electoral process. But, for now, it seems only to cater to those already talking about things, usually to each other. On the other hand, and this may be the most important thing in the end, those using Facebook and Twitter to communicate with candidates and other voters are probably more likely to be the ones who actually vote.
When only 40% of residents actually vote in municipal elections, then the few who are active on-line are probably among that percentage. And, given the opportunity to vote on-line (their natural environment), their impact on the election results could be disproportionate to their numbers.
That number – 40% – is worrying for anyone who cares about our community. Municipal government may not be the most high-profile level, but it is the one that has the most immediate impact on the day-to-day lives of the people in any community. It is at the municipal level that issues like roads, recycling, development, and the many, many bylaws that govern so much of the character of the community are discussed and decided.
Municipal government is the most accessible: members of Council are available every day, at least in theory, if you need to talk about things. Council meetings may be too choreographed and are often just performances in a theatre, but they are performances you can watch, live or at home.
Basically, anything that puts citizens in a position to be informed about what’s happening in their neighbourhood and community, anything that provides them with information and context in order to vote effectively for their public representative, has to be a good thing. Platforms of all kinds need to be used and taken advantage of, so that we can make informed decisions about who will sit on council for the next four years. The various Facebook sites are there to be referenced. And there will be a number of opportunities for the old-fashioned platforms too: all-candidate meetings are being arranged in various places over the coming weeks. Details can be found in the Times.
Whatever platform suits you, make use of it. Get to know these twelve people who are asking for your vote for council, and those who are running for School Board Trustee. If they appear on your doorstep, take the time to hear them out, and ask them serious questions too. This is their job interview: make them convince you that they deserve the gig.
It is not enough to vote based on name recognition: knowing their name does not automatically make them a good candidate for the job. Don’t be fooled by their promises either. There is almost no likelihood that taxes will go down (we’re already too close to being broke), and it is far more important to find people who will know how to use the taxes we pay in the most efficient and cost-effective way. This democracy thing is not easy, but this is our time, as residents, to put in the work and the thinking. Otherwise, we’ve no right to complain afterwards – and they won’t listen to you then, anyway!