There was an article over on the main page yesterday about the high levels of incumbency in American Congressional elections. Somewhat closer to home for me, one of Toronto's better municipal affairs columnists wrote a good article about how the same phenomenon affects Toronto City Council:

  • Of the 38 members of Toronto city council who sought re-election, only one was defeated. Just one!
  • Coun. Giorgio Mammoliti, who had his pay suspended earlier this year after the city's integrity commissioner found he had breached fundraising rules, was re-elected handily. A possible conclusion? Break all the rules. No one cares!
  • In Ward 12, veteran councillor Frank Di Giorgio was elected with just 29 per cent of the vote, meaning more than two-thirds of voters didn't support him. But he keeps his job anyway.

I look at stuff like this and just one word comes to mind: broken.

Toronto's municipal government is broken.

Even though they hold a tremendous amount of power, city councillors are not generally held accountable at election time for how they used that power. They're able to wield vote-splitting like a sword and incumbency like a shield. It's a potent combination that can make sitting councillors virtually unstoppable, even when facing qualified challengers.

This has got to be near the top of the list of things that makes people disengaged politically. But the question then becomes, well what can you do? And honestly, I don't know the answer. I'm a big proponent of moving away from First Past the Post electoral systems, but even that will not alone solve the problem of the incumbency advantage. So, here's my non-exhaustive list of good, OK, and awful ideas on what could be done, for the sake of a discussion. For the record, I'm not in favour of all, or even most, of these, but I think it's a good place to start talking.

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- Leave it how it is! Maybe you do not think things are that bad. Maybe you do, but do not believe there's a better option.

- Term limits. If you don't like long-serving politicians, ban them!

- A new voting system. Moving from FPTP to some kind of ranked ballot or proportional representation system.

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- Mandatory voting. When turnout is ~30%, how can you expect to represent the wishes of the population.

- Change voter eligibility. Maybe open it up to 16-17 year olds? Or non-citizen residents (some municipalities allow this already)? Or go the other way and require some kind of knowledge-testing question?

- Change campaign laws. Limit the power of donations and advertising. Try and support grass-roots movements by providing government funds for campaigns.

- Change the balloting system. Remove party affiliations from the ballot. Or require all votes to be write-ins.

- Give up on representative democracy altogether. Hold referendums on every important issue.

- Give up on democracy altogether. Select a dictator by lottery for a one-year term. Make me president for life. Annex ourselves to North Korea!