Excited and engaged? The impact of federal and municipal elections in Calgary

There's a confluence of politics in Calgary this year - but what's the impact on the local level?

Calgary went Tory blue in the 2019 federal election. LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO

Kim Tyers said since the federal writ dropped, their campaign for the Ward 2 seat hasn’t skipped a beat.

“If anything, we’ve actually picked up the pace,” Tyers told LiveWire Calgary.

“What I have found is that voters are engaged on both sides, so they know about both elections – the federal election and the municipal election – and they’re vocal about both issues and things that they care about.”

On Aug. 15, Canadians learned they were going to be electing a new federal government on Sept. 20. For political watchers here in Alberta, that meant it would be shoehorned right into one of the most interesting local elections in recent memory. The nomination day deadline for city council and mayoral candidates, in fact, falls on the same day as the federal election.

There are varying opinions on the impact it will have on candidates and their municipal campaigns. Campaign cash, voter fatigue, information overload and strain on the finite political volunteer base are some of the concerns.

We talked to candidates, political scientists and campaign teams to find out how it’s impacting them and their march to the Oct. 18 municipal vote.

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Attention seeking

Lisa Young, political science professor at the University of Calgary, said that one area local candidates will feel it the most is in potential media attention.

“If people are only going to pay so much attention to politics, the more immediate campaign, the federal campaign is going to draw their attention away,” Young said.

“That’s the problem for candidates who at this point are really just trying to get name recognition, as much as anything.”

Young also said there are typically only so many politically engaged volunteers. It might put a strain on that group to campaign hard for 36 days federally and then peak on Sept. 20. Then, they go for another 30 days for the last stretch of the municipal campaign.

She acknowledged that it’s not always the same set of people, but in many cases, volunteers will be pulled in two different directions.

Susan Elliott, communications manager for the Brad Field for Mayor campaign, said the concurrent elections might be a benefit on the volunteer side.

Some municipal candidates may be more aligned with certain federal parties – she cited Jeromy Farkas’s alignment with the right and Jyoti Gondek’s with the left – could help candidates tap into different volunteers.

“There may even be sort of some volunteer and donor crossover just from the heightened awareness so I think there may be some benefits to some candidates,” Elliott said.

Campaign tactics

Elliott said in planning Field’s campaign, they assumed a federal election would be called. Field announced in mid-November of 2020 and Elliott said they initially expected a spring election.

“We were going to defer the rollout of our lawn signs until after the federal election so that we wouldn’t have sign wars,” Elliott said.

Instead, they’ve had to put them up to build name recognition for the candidate.

“People are smart. They can tell the difference between a yellow Brad Field sign and a blue conservative sign or a red liberal sign, so we’re just going to keep on going,” Elliott said.

With the federal election going on, Elliott said they know media coverage of the local race will be tough to come by. That’s an opportunity for a reset, she said.  They’ll be using the time on their “ground game,” political jargon for door-knocking and attending events.

“Things that don’t require media attention,” Elliott said.

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Tyers said they’re hoping to capitalize on the political engagement due to the confluence of the elections.  With Calgary’s municipal election only two months out, candidates have to stay focused through this dual election cycle.

“Now not the time to get distracted by all these different levels of government and things going on around us,” she said.

Tyers said at the doors they’re talking about everything from federal issues right down to local because of the heightened awareness. Right now, she said people aren’t necessarily feeling overwhelmed. Many just returned from their summer breaks.

“They’re like, ‘OK let’s start getting involved in what’s going on and let’s get our political brains back on,’” she said.

Orders of government

If you’ve heard campaign trail stories, many of them are tales of municipal candidates trying to answer question on federal politics, and vice versa. It happens in any election.

Ted Knudtson, running as a candidate in Ward 8, said the parallel elections, plus the provincial questions, make this even more commonplace.

“In any municipal election, there is a fair amount of confusion about separation of powers between orders of government,” Knudtson said.

“This concurrent election situation has compounded that – I am being asked about a lot of federal issues – and the provincial government’s decision to include an equalization referendum has further exacerbated this confusion.”

Tyers has experienced the same thing. She said it’s a normal occurrence, but she tries to use it as an opportunity to let the voter say their piece. Then she directs them to the right level of government.

“I always let them know that as their representative I’m more than happy to keep that communication open with their different elected representatives at different levels of government,” she said.

Voter fatigue

Lisa Young said she understands concerns about potential voter fatigue.

The reality though, after watching several federal elections over the years, is that Calgary seats aren’t typically at risk.

“There are people out campaigning, but there are not a lot of really competitive seats,” she said.

“People in electoral districts where conservatives win with 60 to 70 per cent of the popular vote aren’t going to find that they’ve got the candidate at their door every night or that they’re getting many phone calls.

Young said most people know there’s a federal or municipal election going on, but because of this it might not be top of mind.

Elliott agreed with Young, though she acknowledged the potential for voter fatigue. She said many people’s voting intentions are locked in for the federal election.

Elliott also said that for many, the local issues are the ones that are closest to people. There are local issues that are very important, such as jobs and taxes. She said issues like the fluoride debate are always contentious and will keep Calgarians engaged.

“So, I don’t think the federal campaign is going to elbow those issues out of the window,” she said.

Knudston is concerned about the electoral fatigue. Particularly in terms of engagement.

“People seem a bit overwhelmed by the added challenges presented by making decisions in the elections, and my concern is that by October people may be a little checked out,” he said.

Cashing in, revealing priorities

Some candidates have expressed concern about the pool of cash available to municipal candidates with a concurrent federal election.

Young, however, said she’s not too sure about the overlap between the two pools of donors.

She said there are a lot of habitual political donors in Alberta. She said Alberta is typically a rich source of cash for conservative candidates on the federal front. But, she said it’s possible that candidates on the small-c side of things might have a tougher time rustling up cash.

Young said, if people are motivated, they’ll still give.

“The amounts that people are able to give at the federal level, there’s still money left over if you care about a municipal candidate,” she said.

“In some ways, once you’re in the habit of giving money politically, it becomes easier to give money at another level.”

Cash aside, Knudtson said having the federal election at the same time is giving in other ways: People revealing their priorities.

“Overall, the federal election is revealing the priorities of electors in an interesting way – issues like cost of living seem to be at the forefront of people’s thoughts, which is instructive for all orders of government and candidates,” he said.

Net gain or loss for voters?

There’s a lot for voters to take in this year. 

There’s the federal election on Sept. 20. There’s the municipal election Oct. 18. Along with that ballot there will be questions on equalization, the senate, daylights savings and fluoride.

In some ways, it’s a federal, provincial and local election all rolled into one.

Tyers said there’s a lot on people’s plates. She doesn’t see it hindering the process. As a candidate she said it’s fun being out there.

“Everything’s going on at the same time. There’s so much more action. I’ve seen teams out door knocking, I’ve seen signs going up all over the place and people are really getting engaged,” she said.

Elliott said many voters might tell you they’re sick and tired of politics. She’s not sure they are.

“There are probably some who are getting a little tired of people at their door, or in the news and maybe they tune out,” she said.

“I actually think that most people, especially right now we got so many issues with the pandemic and with economic recovery and things like that I think people actually do care about the future and care about the decisions that we’re making.”

About Darren Krause 910 Articles
Journalist, husband, father, golfer, writer, painter, video gamer, gardener, amateur botanist, dreamer, realist... never in that order.

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