The Rural Municipality of Linkletter is among many municipalities in P.E.I. that have never went to the Polls. It will be interesting if they or many small communities will be having an election on Nov. 5, when voters in the rest of the province head to the polls to elect the mayors and councillors who will run their towns and cities for the next four years.
The high number of municipalities like Linkletter — where there is simply no competition for elected positions, where the mayor and every councillor are acclaimed annually — contribute to the perception that local democracy in P.E.I. is in a sorry state.
Municipal government is the closest government to the people. It makes most of the decisions that affect us on a day-to-day basis and it has a huge impact on where communities go in the future.
Municipalities such as The City of Summerside are also experimenting with alternative ways of getting citizens involved in decision-making. A growing number are implementing participatory budgeting practices, which gives the public a chance to express their opinion on how municipal budgets are spent and I commend them for this great practice.
Unfortunately, as problems do get more complex; the aging population, the shrinking size of many towns, the infrastructure needs, a well-functioning democracy becomes all the more essential. We need an active democracy and active citizens to solve these problems. Nobody's coming to solve these problems for these towns; they need to find solutions themselves. One of the ways you do that is by engaging in a healthy debate around policies and direction. That's the role elections play.
Acclamation is perhaps a necessary evil in small-town elections. But it is a shame to see it happen, an open besmirchment of democracy that should not be stood for in a healthy, democratic society. It may be an unavoidable reality, but it should never be normalized and must be combatted.
The issue of acclamation is that it robs the public of one of its best opportunities to hold the council or councillor of the previous term to account. More than most any other time, elections force incumbents to hit the trail, talk to their constituents and subsequently answer to what they’ve done at various election forums. It is an excellent opportunity for municipalities to get feedback, something that municipalities like Linkletter are actively trying to get more of, and for constituents to get their voices heard.
But not so in case of acclamation. The door knocking, and forums don’t happen. The municipality saves a little money, but it hardly measures up to the value of the democratic process.
Some have said it somewhat represents a vote of confidence in the incumbent if nobody runs against them. There is some truth to this; fewer people will be inclined to run if they think the current councillor is doing a good enough job.
But that excuse only goes so far. There are likely plenty who may not be content with the current councillor but do not have the resources to try to oust them from the position themselves. Civic engagement and apathy too can certainly play a role where acclamation happens. If people are not engaged enough in most of what a municipality is doing — certainly an issue in Linkletter and many surrounding small communities of The City of Summerside — they are not going to care to run.
A lack of candidates might share some symptoms with the issue of volunteer decline. Like volunteer decline, acclamation might just be an issue of an ageing population and people civically active already stretched too thin. Without the next generation taking up the mantle from older volunteers — and council candidates — the problem could get worse.
We need to keep our communities civically engaged. Councils need to continue to innovate to engage its constituents, particularly youth. The community too needs to encourage people to run in elections, even where a council or councillor is doing a good job, so we are not robbed of an opportunity to maintain the health of our democracy.
The right to vote is too precious to lose to anything, let alone apathy.
Jeffery Warren Reynolds