Election races with no incumbent

Toronto election to produce shake-up
Some wards feature no incumbent as councillors retire
(Column written March 31 for Town Crier.)

We are guaranteed new political faces at city hall.
Here’s a sampling of the changes, why it will make these election races exciting and should increase voter turn out but may make it hard for constituents to choose new reps.
In midtown, councillors Kyle Rae and Michael Walker are retiring and in the east end Case Ootes is doing the same. Councillors Joe Pantalone, Rob Ford and Giorgio Mammoliti are running for mayor rather than re-election in their wards. As of April 1, a total of 36 candidates are registered in these six races with no incumbent councillors.
But the absence of incumbents, doesn’t mean newcomers will have an easier time getting elected. In fact, they may have to fight just as hard.
Toronto Centre Rosedale Councillor Rae’s Ward 27 is a prime example. His name won’t be on the ballot, but 12 candidates have registered here so far to try and replace him.
Name recognition can still be a factor in races with no incumbent, says University of Toronto political science professor Larry LeDuc.

“More candidates are attracted by the appeal of an ‘open’ seat, so the number of candidates ought to increase. And lesser known candidates will think they stand a better chance,” he wrote in an email. “But, somewhat perversely, the larger number of candidates may also confer an advantage on some whose names are better known to voters, even though they are not incumbents.”
One way to stand out in the pack is to run a serious campaign with a well thought out platform, says York University political science professor Robert MacDermid.
“The problem with 12 candidates is how do you sort out each person,” he says. “How do you tell who the serious candidates are?
“Many of these candidates aren’t serious. They want to appear at all candidates debates and talk about their one favourite issue,” says MacDermid. “If they are not serious candidates, so some voters get frustrated.”
While some see fresh blood on council as positive, too much change may not good.
“You don’t want so much turnover … with people who don’t know anything parliament or city government,” MacDermid said. “But you don’t want no turnover for years and years.”
Don Valley West Councillor John Parker knows firsthand what it’s like to run in a packed field with no incumbent. In 2006, then councillor Jane Pitfield ran for mayor and 15 people including Parker fought in this local Ward 26 race.
“I can tell you there were a lot of names on the ballot, but not a lot of names in the race,” recalls Parker on March 31. “I am suggesting there were five or six serious campaigns that had profile.”
Parker, a former Conservative MPP from 1995 to 1999, admits he had more name recognition that other candidates at the beginning of the 2006 city race. But that leveled out in the end.
“By the end of the campaign, five or six candidates had name recognition,” Parker tells me.
But does an exciting race with no incumbent increase interest and voter turnout? I can’t say for certain without more statistics, but in 2006 there was 52 percent voter turnout in Ward 26 versus the citywide average of 39.3 percent.
Parker said the higher local voter turnout may have been because of a keen interest in the mayor’s race.
“We had a local favourite (Jane Pitfield) running for mayor so a lot of people in Ward 26 came out to elect a person running for mayor and while voting for mayor they also voted for a councillor at the same time,” says Parker, who is seeking re-election in 2010.
Having no incumbent in the downtown ward I live in, means I also face the challenge of choosing among candidates I don’t know much about yet.
It requires more attention and research in order to make a wise choose and distinguish the serious candidates from ones who just throw their hat in the ring because they can.
Mayor David Miller is not seeking another term, several councillors are retiring or running for mayor so this will bring extra scrutiny to this year’s election.
I think this will demand more from the media covering the election, more from candidates articulating their vision and more from voters making crucial decisions.
I am up for the challenge, how about you?


2 responses to “Election races with no incumbent

  1. Not having so many incumbents running ” will demand more from the media covering the election, more from candidates articulating their vision and more from voters making crucial decisions.”
    I absolutely agree, but fear that those voters too comfortable in the past with name recognition as their only evaluation of a candidate will go with comfort and just not vote or worse – make a random pick.

    • Ken,
      Torontonians not voting is a real fear as on average there was a 39% turnout in the 2006 city election. In terms of making a random pick, that can happen when people don’t know the candidates well…
      I hope the media, including myself as a city hall journalist with the Town Crier, and candidates such as yourself (in ward 18 and across the city) get voters thinking of all their options in this election. The next four years of the city is at stake.

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