Opinion: Political affiliation has no place in municipal elections

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By Brett Dibble

The Alberta government has recently considered changing the Local Authorities Elections Act (LAEA) to include political parties in municipal elections. This change should be opposed as it promotes polarization and partisanship, doesn’t encourage engaged citizenship and reduces the representation of local communities. Instead, the province should consider electoral reform if it wants to increase political participation.

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Provincial and federal politics have become increasingly divisive and polarized in Alberta and Canada.

The majority of Canadians (66 per cent) align themselves in the middle rather than left or right on the political spectrum, as consistently found over the past decade by the Environics Institute (2020), and research from Janet Brown Opinion Research in 2018 also confirms that Albertans are more likely to place themselves in the middle of the political spectrum. This reflects that most citizens are not polarized or overly partisan in nature. However, there has been an increase in affective polarization, which refers to the hostility in politics toward the least preferred political party and its supporters.

Eric Merkley from the Centre for Media, Technology, and Democracy highlights this growing problem within Canada, stating that this kind of polarization is associated with increasing levels of online and off-line relationships with people who only share similar political beliefs — “discrimination, political bias, echo chambers and the spread of misinformation.” Research by Janet Brown Opinion Research (2023) indicated that 69 per cent of respondents thought including political parties in municipal governments would be “more divisive and less effective.”

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Adding political parties to municipal governments will not increase participation or encourage engaged citizenship during elections. While there are many factors that affect voter turnout, Montreal and Vancouver — both of which operate political parties within their cities — experience higher levels of political apathy than Calgary, which does not. Vancouver had 36.3 per cent voter turnout in 2022, Montreal had 37 per cent voter turnout in 2021, and Calgary had 46.4 per cent voter turnout in 2021 for local elections.

One argument cited for implementing political parties is that it would make it easier for voters to know what candidates stood for. However, if citizens are not willing to research the political platforms and become informed voters, increasing the percentage of people casting their ballot is not going to make our democracy stronger. Rather, this will likely decrease critical thinking among the voting population and increase affective polarization, where citizens simply vote along party lines or in opposition to others.

Adding parties to local elections will reduce the accountability of politicians to constituents. The entire point of having an elected representative such as a councillor is to attend to the unique issues affecting their ward, as these often differ around the city. The entire point of political parties is to vote in unison with the party leaning, which often can go against what citizens in the ward want. This sentiment is also shared in research by Janet Brown Opinion Research (2023) that found that 81 per cent of respondents believed municipal officials affiliated with political parties would “vote along party lines and not necessarily in the best interest of the community.”

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If the province wants to increase political participation of citizens in local elections, electoral reform should be considered, such as runoff voting or ranked ballots. These methods would increase the influence each vote has, which should give greater power to more voters. As well as strengthening options for voting to help prevent barriers, Statistics Canada reported in 2021 that 44 per cent of non-voters in Alberta did not cast a ballot for “everyday life or health reasons,” and 38 per cent did not due to “political reasons.”

These options should be considered over including political parties in our local elections.

Brett Dibble is a high school social studies teacher in Calgary.

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