I like democracy. I'm a big fan. I think it's important.
But a key piece of democracy is choice. Giving people a choice in who they want to represent them. Giving people a choice in whether or not they care who represents them. And, not to be forgotten, giving people a choice in whether or not they want to represent others.
What am I rambling about? Well, let me explain.
It's September 8th. The Toronto municipal elections are less than two months away. And the deadline for filing nomination papers, if you want to be a candidate in those elections, is at the end of this week.
Now, there's plenty of healthy competition ahead — 68 candidates for mayor and 317 candidates for the 44 council wards (people run for school board trustee too, I hear, but I don't have kids, so…). But there is one ward — ward 22, St. Paul's — where there's currently only one candidate registered to run for city council. And that's incumbent ward 22 councillor Josh Matlow.
At this point, I should probably declare an interest under the MCCoIA (Municipal Commenter Conflict of Interest Act). I live in ward 22. I know Josh Matlow. I've worked on stuff — condo development applications, the Sam the Record Man sign — with Josh Matlow. I like Josh Matlow. More importantly, I think Josh Matlow is good at his job.
But if nobody else files papers to run for council in ward 22, he's going to win the election by acclamation. Is that ideal? No, of course not. Democracy is at its best when the voters are presented with a choice (there's that word again). But it's not the end of the world either. There's a notion out in the Twitterverse that somebody else — anybody else — needs to sign up to prevent this, and I just don't get it.
What are some of the reasons why someone running against Matlow might be in for an uphill battle?
- History — among rookie councillors from the 2010 election, he had the third-highest margin of victory and was one of only three newcomers to draw a majority of votes cast.
- Name recognition — prior to this term of council, Matlow spent seven years as the ward's Toronto District School Board trustee. And it's not exactly like he's kept a low profile in the four years since.
- Politics — St. Paul's is a solidly liberal riding. Liberal federally. Liberal provincially. And while we don't have political parties at the municipal level, Matlow's middle name might just be 'Liberal'. No, not really. But maybe. But no.
So you have an incumbent councillor, who received majority support in the last election, who's built a name from 11 years of public service in the ward, and who's solidly in line with the ward's politics. Specifically, centrist politics.
Can you run against that? Sure, if you're a hard-right or hard-left candidate who thinks there's a vast base of voters whose voices simply haven't been heard yet. I suppose you could. Or maybe if you're a centrist who feels you can deliver on that agenda and message in a more compelling manner. I guess, yeah.
But maybe — just maybe — you have the sense that a lot of voters in ward 22 are happy with their current representation. Maybe you can't see a clear path to victory, regardless of what you'd bring to the table. If you're serious about wanting to do city counselling for a living someday, is there an upside to having a losing effort on your resumé? Just because democracy demands voters have a choice at all costs?
And failing that, should we hope for a joke candidate? Or a name on the ballot just for the sake of having a name on the ballot? Is no real choice really a choice?
It's entirely possible Toronto's already made its choice. And if nobody chooses to run against Josh Matlow this October, it just means that choice happened a month-and-a-half earlier than scheduled. And democracy isn't going to collapse as a result, even if we do get only 132 of the 133 election races we expected on October 27th.