Politics
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How Greater Victoria candidates are preparing for another pandemic election

Adaptability is top of mind for municipal candidates as they get ready for election day on Oct. 15

By Jolene Rudisuela
April 11, 2022
Politics
Features

How Greater Victoria candidates are preparing for another pandemic election

Adaptability is top of mind for municipal candidates as they get ready for election day on Oct. 15

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Politics
Features

How Greater Victoria candidates are preparing for another pandemic election

Adaptability is top of mind for municipal candidates as they get ready for election day on Oct. 15

By Jolene Rudisuela
April 11, 2022
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How Greater Victoria candidates are preparing for another pandemic election
Top left to right: Dean Murdock, Saanich mayoral candidate; Stephen Andrew, Victoria mayoral candidate. Bottom left to right: Dave Thompson, Victoria council candidate; Basil Langevin, Saanich council candidate. Photos submitted.

When Dean Murdock, a former three-term Saanich councillor, decided to run for mayor, he knew this election would be different from others he has run in the past. His past campaign playbook included meeting people in their homes and holding gatherings in coffee shops—things he realizes not everyone is comfortable with at the moment.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll be following the path that we’re on, that things will stay opened up and we’ll be allowed to get together again and do some of the events that we’ve all been missing,” he said. “But this also means that depending on whatever we’re permitted to do in terms of gatherings, we’ve got to have a flexible strategy to try and reach people.”

He has six months to do so: in October, Greater Victorians will be headed to the polls again, this time electing their local councils and school boards. 

It’s still early, and many campaign announcements have yet to come. But top of mind for those who have already announced is how to plan a campaign and remain adaptable in the months ahead.

“Our electoral process, our democratic processes are really quite volatile at the moment in terms of how campaigns will operate and how individuals respond to those campaigns and these new techniques,” said Colin Bennett, a political science professor at UVic. “It’s difficult for candidates and political parties to plan in the way that they used to.”

The reality is we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. While COVID-19 mandates are on their way out, hospitalizations and test positivity rates are once again trending upwards

This isn’t our first pandemic election, and it might not even be our last, but volatility and uncertainty is putting a touch of added pressure on already stressful campaigns. 

Murdock has recently started doing the classic door-to-door canvassing, albeit wearing a mask and keeping his distance, and he’s held a few in-person events at local parks, but thinking about new creative ways of getting his name out there has been top of mind. 

Murdock was eager to discuss the launch of his last podcast, Saanichland, when contacted on the phone. The first episode, which dropped on March 10, digs into the topic of upzoning, and he’s planning to discuss other municipal election topics with local experts over the coming months. He’s also launched an online survey as a way to elicit questions and comments from residents without requiring any contact at all.

“This is facilitating the discussion around issues in the community, and hopefully in a way that helps inform people for when they make a decision on October 15,” he said. 

Campaigning, even before the pandemic, has progressively become more digital, but this shift has been accelerated by these two COVID-19 years, said Bennett.

“To some extent, at the municipal level, [candidates] still have to rely on, you know, grassroots campaigning and more traditional methods, but you still see these [digital] trends entering into our municipal politics,” he said. 

These digital trends are certainly not going to go away, and are likely only to become more ingrained in our democratic processes.

Traditional with a twist

This isn’t Stephen Andrew’s first time running a campaign during the pandemic. When he was elected to Victoria council in a byelection in December 2020, BC was in the midst of its second wave.

A year later, on the brink of the biggest spike in cases we’ve seen to date, he announced his candidacy for mayor of Victoria. 

During the 2020 byelection, Andrew employed fairly traditional methods of campaigning—with a digital spin. He held virtual town hall meetings and speaking engagements, and coffee groups through Zoom. There was no door knocking, but his team did deliver flyers, and social media channels played a big role. 

So, when asked if he has put much consideration into new ways of campaigning this time around, Andrew replied, “No,” adding that he has time, money, and an excellent team on his side. He’s planning a traditional campaign, with some twists, which he is not ready to reveal yet.

“We have a huge data team that is mining data that we’ve collected for three years now that we can use to identify where our vote is, and then target that vote to ensure that… they’re voting for, obviously, our campaign,” he said.

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Bennett said that targeting electors through data mining is a technique that originated in the US more than 20 years ago before making its way up to Canada. Although it’s still used primarily in provincial and federal elections with large, spread out electorates and bigger budgets, it’s becoming more common in municipal races for candidates with more resources. The pandemic has further accelerated its uptake.

While targeting electors through social media, phone, and targeted advertisements is certainly useful, Bennett said there are also some consequences. Increasingly digital campaigns and targeted ads produce a distance between individuals and candidates, and are certainly not a direct substitute for face to face contact. 

But at the same time, these methods may reach people who otherwise may not be engaged in politics.

Voter turnout

When Premier John Horgan called an election in the first year of the pandemic, a year ahead of the fixed election date of October 2021, he was slammed by critics for bringing British Columbians to the polls in a time of uncertainty and heightened precautions. Similarly, when Justin Trudeau called a snap election last year, he received plenty of criticism for the timing as the country was still reeling a year and a half into the pandemic. 

But according to Statistics Canada, the most recent federal election’s turnout rate didn’t seem to have been affected much by COVID-19. In BC, the voter turnout was 75%, just below 2019’s 76% turnout. 

The same Statistics Canada report showed the most common reason for Canadians not voting in the 2021 federal election was not being interested in politics (32%). COVID, on the other hand, only accounted for 2% of the reasons for not voting in the election. 

Municipal elections, however, always have a greater uphill battle than the more publicized federal and provincial elections, where candidates are backed by large parties, more money is spent on campaigning, and national news outlets spend more resources on coverage despite the more immediate and tangible effects of decisions made by local councils. 

“I really would love to see a world where municipal elections become the focus. How we get there, that’s something that I’m not entirely certain on,” said Basil Langevin, a candidate for Saanich district council.

In the 2018 municipal elections, most Greater Victoria municipalities had turnout rates between 30% and 45%. In Langford, which has only elected one mayor since the city was incorporated in 1993, less than one in five residents voted. (Mayor Stew Young received 83% of the vote and only spent $6.02 on the election campaign.)

This is one upside to municipal campaigns, however, Bennett said.

“If you can shift a few hundred voters at the municipal level, then you’ve made a big impact. You make a bigger impact by shifting fewer votes at the municipal level than you would the provincial or federal level,” he said. “So the effects of targeted messaging via social media and other means can be greater at a municipal level than it can be when you have a larger electorate.”  

This is one of the reasons why Langevin announced his candidacy for Saanich council so early. As a newcomer to municipal politics, he wanted to ensure he had time to get his name out there, but also time to really start discussions about what he sees as the most pressing local issues—like housing affordability and safer streets. Without knowing what the next months might hold, Langevin timed his late February campaign announcement with the downward trend of COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations. 

Overall, he has a fairly traditional campaign planned—utilizing masked door knocking, social media, and gatherings in parks—but his strategies are “still up in the air.” He has spent a lot of time looking at how candidates in other jurisdictions have adapted, and plans to adjust as he goes along and learn what works and what doesn’t.

Dave Thompson, a newcomer to the Victoria council race, has a similar strategy. 

In early January, he was planning to start door knocking on weekends, but with skyrocketing case counts, he held off until March. Incumbents, he said, certainly have an advantage in pandemic campaigning. 

“Somebody like me who’s coming in without, you know, sort of a recognized politician name, is probably going to have to be more creative and work harder in different ways if we do have another resurgence of the pandemic,” he said. 

Thompson has been active on Twitter and said social media is one of the big ways he’s planning to campaign this year, but also mused that it can be an unpleasant place to have a real dialogue. People are not as respectful online as they are in real life, he said, and it certainly isn’t a substitute for a face-to-face conversation.

Low voter turnouts in municipal elections, engaging younger voters, and coming up with unique ways of campaigning are all topics that the candidates are mulling. There is still time until campaigning really picks up steam for the candidates, but one thing they’re certain of is the need to stay adaptable. 

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How Greater Victoria candidates are preparing for another pandemic election
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