No contest: Why it matters when candidates run unopposed

On municipal-election day, hundreds of candidates will win by acclamation in communities across Ontario — but what does that mean for democracy?
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on October 11, 2018
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This November, Daniel Lafleur will be acclaimed mayor of Casselman, a francophone village southeast of Ottawa. (David Rockne Corrigan)

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CASSELMAN — Twenty minutes before nominations for the Casselman mayoral race were set to close on the afternoon of July 27, candidate Daniel Lafleur received a surprising phone call.

It was from Claude Levac, who from 2010 to 2014 was mayor of the francophone village (population 3,500) 60 kilometres southeast of Ottawa. He had previously announced his intention to run for office again, but now he was notifying Lafleur that he would be dropping out of the race. That left Lafleur — a sitting councillor — and the current mayor, Conrad Lamadeleine, as the only two candidates.

Then Lamadeleine, who was starting to think it might be time for him give up the chain of office he had worn for 24 of the past 33 years, called Lafleur into his office and asked the councillor, “Rich or poor, will you be fair with every class? Will you be honest with everything and wear their shoes for a minute before you give them an answer?”

“He said, ‘I will do that,’” Lamadeleine  says. “And I said, ‘If you do that I will let you be mayor of Casselman.’”

No other candidates came forward — so this November, Lafleur will be acclaimed mayor of Casselman.

In the provincewide municipal elections on October 22, hundreds of candidates will win by acclamation in communities across Ontario — they’ve already won by default, because no one has registered to run against them. According to data compiled by the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, Casselman is one of 120 municipalities that have acclaimed their next head of council. Of 3,273 council positions up for grabs in Ontario, 536 have been acclaimed — up from 458 in 2014. In 26 municipalities, the entire council will be acclaimed this year.

The number of acclamations in Ontario municipal elections has been ticking upward since at least 2003, when the AMO began collecting the data — and political scientists say a lack of competition has long been a feature of local politics, especially in smaller communities. “I think there’s a sense in a lot of these communities that that’s just the way things are done,” says Aaron Moore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Winnipeg. People in small towns are less inclined to run for council, he adds, because it’s usually a part-time job with little compensation and prestige.

But do acclamations rob Ontarians of the opportunity for democratic discourse and debate that comes with a contested election?

“They sure do,” says Jonathan Rose, a political studies professor at Queen’s University.

But he believes acclamations aren’t a cause of weak participation in municipal politics — they’re a symptom. Most Ontarians, he says, simply don’t pay attention to local issues or politicians. (According to a Nanos Research survey released in August, one in three Ontarians was not aware that municipal election campaigns were under way.)

Chris Erl, a doctoral student at McGill University whose research focuses on municipal politics in Ontario, says acclamations may be less problematic in small towns and villages than in bigger cities.

In Casselman, Erl notes, four councillors represent the population of 3,500 people. That works out to one councillor per 875 residents. In Ottawa, by contrast, 23 councillors represent nearly one million people — a ratio of roughly one representative per 43,000 residents. Toronto’s new 25-seat council will have one representative for every 109,000 people.

“In Casselman, it’s likely that you will know someone on council,” Erl says. “If you disapprove of a decision, you can go speak to these people. Democracy is very direct in these small towns and villages. So it’s not that [winning by acclamation] hurts democracy. It’s that democracy happens in a different way.”

John Henderson, who will be the next mayor of Cobourg (population 19,440), argues that voters in his town are not losing out on a chance for democratic engagement.

“I may have cut back on my campaign signage and door-knocking, but I’ve answered all the questions the other [council] candidates have answered,” Henderson says. He released a platform on his personal website and has pledged to attend upcoming candidates’ meetings. “I don’t see myself as doing anything less than the others in regards to the debate and dialogue.”

Henderson, who is currently deputy mayor, takes it as a vote of confidence from residents that no one challenged his candidacy. “They trust me. They think I’m an approachable person.”

At least one Casselman resident is disappointed that there won’t be a race for mayor: Stephanie Hill says she wishes there’d been some healthy competition. “There’s an old boys’ club here,” she says. “It’s got to be said.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

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