Monday, February 7, 2011

Rethinking The Democratic Process

I had the opportunity this evening to attend an informal discussion on the subject of Women in Politics; and while the bulk of this post will not be addressing that issue in particular, it was some of the points that were brought up there that spurred me on to write this specific post.

One of the problems that was mentioned in regards to keeping women out of politics was the nature of nomination races. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of a nomination race, since I was involved in a few, let me give you a brief idea as to how they work.

Essentially, the executive of a riding/constituency announce that the party is seeking a candidate. People who are interested then fill out the appropriate paperwork, which could include a background check, and then are approved by the central party authority.

One the candidates are declared, the date for the nomination convention is set by the executive and the candidates then go about attempting to garner support.

This is a two-fold process:

1.) Reaching out to current members (phone calls, leaflet drops, door knocking, etc.)

2.) Recruiting new members

Come the day of the nomination, the candidates gather with the people of the riding/constituency and give their speeches, followed by a vote by the members gathered in which a candidate is decided.

That's more or less the process in a nutshell.

Now, it came up at this informal discussion that this process is not the friendliest process in the world and that in many respects it essentially boils down to a popularity contest. While this is somewhat true, there are other factors beyond popularity that have a major impact on the way a nomination contest unfolds.

The primary problem that I would say exists in the the nomination process is the second fold aspect I've mention, in the concept of garnering new memberships.

The reason this is a problem, in my humble opinion, is people with wide social circles are able to sell memberships to friends who do not necessarily support the party, but want to be able to support their friend's ambitions. As such, some new members are only members until the day of the nomination, at which point they don't renew memberships or make contributions to the party.

Now, I'm not saying this is the general norm. I would surely hope that no one actively enters a nomination knowing that they can get numerous people to join the party simply to sway the vote in their favour, only to have those new members then become inactive in the party and in politics in general.

But, there is the possibility that this practice is used and used well by those who are well connected either through their careers or just through their wide circle of friends.

As such, it is easier for these people to enter a nomination race and secure a victory.

Now, the opposite is also true. Some people are able to go out and sell new memberships to people who stay members and contribute both time and money to the party throughout their lifetime. Certainly, I don't want to admonish those who are able to go out and sell memberships in this way, and it is not my intention to do so. Should anyone feel that I have said that, I wish it to be known that I haven't, and I apologize if any elected official reads this and thinks I'm attacking them for building the party base, because I am not.

So, what do I mean?

What I mean is that through the selling of memberships, there already exists a significant disadvantage between candidates seeking memberships. Let's face it, some of us out there aren't exactly the kind to go out to random doorsteps and attempt to sell someone something; but some of us are. Some of us don't even feel comfortable selling things to family and friends, I know I certainly feel uncomfortable in that way.

So, how can we fix this to make a nomination race a more level playing field?

One could look to the United States for a solution.

In the USA, party membership is by declaration and not dues paid memberships. If someone says they're a Democrat, they can go to a Democratic Primary and be able to vote in it.

Now, what are the advantages to this?

To an extent, it's slightly more democratic. Since candidates go from recruiting new members, although some certainly would continue to recruit members, and instead rely on completely contacting established members it becomes less of a competition over who can recruit new members and more of a competition as to who can establish themselves as the best candidate in the eyes of the membership.

Let me try and clarify that.

As our system exists now, if Candidate A sells 100 memberships that means come the day of the nomination they should have 100 votes for them.

Now, assume that the riding/constituency the candidate is running in has a membership of 450 people, that now rises to 550 due to their recruitment. But, let's say that the candidate knows less than 30% of the membership is going to attend the nomination. That means 135 people from the established membership are going to attend the nomination.

So, entering the nomination Candidate A already has a little less than 1/2 of the vote that is attending, simply because they were able to sell more memberships than the competition.

This could devolve further to Candidate A not even contacting established membership, but rather focus solely on recruiting new members that will support them alone, further increasing the likelihood of their victory simply based on the ability to sell more memberships.

Now, some of you might be nodding your heads and thinking that this makes sense. That the person who can go out and recruit 100 or so new members deserves to win the nomination race...

But, keep in mind what I've argued above. Of that 100 people, what are the odds of all of them staying within the party? Of contributing time and donations to the party?

Practically speaking, the odds aren't good. Of those 100, maybe 50 will stay with the party, and of that 50, maybe only 20 will join their local executive. So, while Candidate A has increased the party and their own nomination chances, they have actually done little to improve the party over all.

So, with that said, what is the benefit of the American system?

Well, given that the system exists independently of selling memberships, it creates a better system of ensuring that the candidates need to reach out to the membership that exist.

Again, a point of clarification.

By preventing a candidate from winning simply by recruiting more memberships to join the party, the candidates then have to reach out to the party membership that exists and be able to articulate their positions and policy ideas while introducing themselves to the members and making an impression on them.

This creates a system where candidates have to position themselves among the membership to garner support, as opposed to simply getting new members to swell their support artificially.

Now, effectively, this creates a system that is inherently more democratic by ensuring that a candidate cannot win by bringing in their own numbers alone and instead has to rely on making the best impression among the members and actually gaining the support of the members of their constituency/riding.

This is probably one thing about the American political system which works well, and would serve well in changing the way that Canadian politicians are selected.

Effectively, we need to ask ourselves whether or not the system that we have serves Canadians the best in ensuring that candidates are selected based on merit and ability, as opposed to 'popularity' or other quantifies that have nothing to do with political acumen.

Only then can we have a democracy that we can be truly proud of.

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