New Startup Aims to Level the Playing Field in Local Elections

Grassroots movement afoot to eliminate the 'incumbency advantage' that hobbles newcomers
By Étienne Parent
Étienne Parent
Étienne Parent
November 23, 2016 Updated: November 30, 2016

Recognizing the difficulty for newcomers in municipal elections to run efficient campaigns, a not-for-profit startup is developing a set of free online tools for would-be city councillors to build a strong campaign team.

According to the Open Democracy Project, for many first-timers hoping to break into municipal politics, the odds are stacked against them due to what’s known as the “incumbency advantage.”

Over the past decade, incumbent councillors won 92 percent of the time in Canada’s three largest municipal elections, the group says, noting that in the 2014 Toronto election, only one candidate in 44 races was able to unseat an incumbent councillor.

“This is because incumbents get a head start. Name recognition and access to constituent lists make it easier to raise funds and contact voters,” states the group’s website.

The set of tools the startup is developing, called Democracy Kit, will provide resources for all stages of campaigning to help those who want to run for local office but don’t have experience with the ins and outs of conducting a campaign.

 “A candidate will be able to go to the website and access the resources for free,” says Chris Cowperthwaite, co-founder of Open Democracy Project.

“What we are aiming to do, because there is such restricted spending limits, is to free up some of those resources for candidates by providing some basic services that every campaign needs.”

Short courses will provide useful information on everything from building a fundraising program to volunteer recruiting to doing door-to-door canvassing. Interactive tools such as document templates and database management systems that help in organizing and simplifying daily activities are also offered.

A roundtable of experienced campaigners will develop content and various tools by crowdsourcing. Then, experts will contribute by curating resources in their area of expertise, all of which will be available to aspiring candidates.

Cowperthwaite, who is the son of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, worked on 17 campaigns in Richmond, B.C., London, Ont., and in the Greater Toronto Area in the 2014 municipal elections. During that time he noticed a demographic shift.

“I worked mostly with new campaigns that hadn’t run before and many of them were from a new generation,” he says.

Many of these political hopefuls in their late 20s or early 30s wanted to make a public contribution by running for office, but often ran into the usual set of management challenges, efficiency issues, and name-recognition disadvantage.

Democracy Kit, which is crowd-sourced and crowd-funded, is slated to be ready for spring 2017. This will leave enough time for prospective candidates to prepare adequately for the 2018 municipal elections. It is also available to school trustees.

The goal is to raise $25,000 by spring 2017; $12,000 has been raised so far.

According to testimonials on the website, there’s a pressing need for such a service.

“Citizens who want to run for office and make a difference in education or municipal issues often do not know where to start. There is no one resource offering current campaign information and best practices built by campaigners, for campaigners,” says former MP and city councillor Olivia Chow.

Toronto City Councillor Shelley Carroll notes: “With Democracy Kit, local grassroots candidates would have open access to the tools and training they need to enter any race with the same campaign that well-resourced veterans have access to. That’s real democracy.”

Future projects for the organization include the creation of municipal chapters to help fine-tune the information on Democracy Kit in the context of specific cities. Translation into French and other languages is also in the works.

For more information, visit