Elections: The LYAC Experience

This report details the meeting of the LYAC on August 27, 2015 at the London Boys and Girls Club. During the meeting, Matt Ross, the LYAC’s executive director, said that the LYAC has changed each year, but that its elections process hasn’t. He commented that the LYAC is about doing government differently, but the LYAC does not do elections differently. Matt asked the group about their experience during the elections and how we should change future elections. What emerged was a discussion about the meaning of being elected and what that in turn means for the LYAC as a social movement.

Who Should Read This?

  • People interested in the process of elections and electoral reform
  • People interested in the continued evolution of the LYAC

The LYAC researchers compiled briefs on online voting and ranked ballots for this discussion. You can read them to learn more and see what information shaped the councillors’ conversation.

The Road to LYAC: Candidate Experiences

The councillors discussed their experience of the candidate training session that was held before the election period. One councillor found that at the beginning of the session the group was a bit awkward, and that people were scoping out their competition. However, she said that the tense atmosphere broke down over the day. Another councillor suggested that orientation should be broken into smaller groups so the candidates can get to know each other better. He found that the training session made the LYAC seem stuffier than it was. One councillor explained that he came into the session not knowing what he needed to do to campaign, but he left with a much better idea of how to proceed. Kyle, the Western representative, said that he felt uncertain of what to expect from the LYAC after winning the Western rep position during the university election. Although he was nervous, he said attending a regular LYAC meetings put him at ease. Attending a regular meeting may be a way to give a fuller picture of the LYAC to candidates beyond attending the final meeting of the year, which was held in the City of London council chambers. Cedric, who was on council last year, commented that the last meeting felt inorganic because of being watched from above and having to be aware of the microphones and the delay they caused in conversation. Another councillor noticed that the conversation had a bad flow, and the council chamber format nearly scared her off. On the other hand, one councillor said that she could still sense people’s passion and friendship and she saw that the group came prepared for final meeting, which showed their investment in the LYAC.

The conversation then moved on to the experience of canvassing1 and the councillors’ thoughts on the electoral process. One councillor found that canvassing was a long and stressful process and from feedback she found that voting was a tedious process for the voters. Another councillor agreed that the online voting process was important but long, and he explained that most of his votes came from a prepared form he had filled out for voters so they had less to do. The councillors encountered some demographic surprises as well. One councillor found that she didn’t get a lot of youth votes. She often got sent to talk to parents because actual youth were not comfortable talking to her. Another councillor similarly found that his votes were from older people. One councillor found it challenging trying to make people enthusiastic when some people were not responsive or even suspicious as she would have to repeatedly explain that she was not selling anything. Matt mentioned how elections results were released each day so candidates could adjust their campaigns based on what was getting them more votes and what wasn’t. One councillor said that the early results felt like a political poll and it was an interesting experience. Kyle said that since his election for Western representative happened through the University Students Council election, he didn’t get to know his results, so it was very tense. However, he added that for the LYAC it makes sense to reveal results because the election is supposed to be a learning experience.

1 Reporter’s note: canvassing is when politicians go knock on doors to talk to community members about their thoughts on politics and how they as politicians can best represent constituents.

Avenues for Change

As councillors shared their experiences, the conversation shifted to discussing how LYAC elections should be changed in the future.

  • Hanein suggested making the voting ballot shorter as voters she spoke to were reluctant to fill it out.
  • Evan suggested using a standardized ballot form.
  • Ghadeir suggested including a factsheet about all of the candidates. When canvassing, she would get asked about the other candidates running against her and she would not have information to provide. This information was in the online ballot, but Hanein commented that people were put off by the several paragraphs of text that the ballot included.

One councillor found that she had a good experience using her elevator pitch during canvassing. She kept it to a general, broad overview of the LYAC and then if people wanted to ask more, she obliged. She stressed the need to get information out as fast as you can when canvassing.

Kyle offered a few issues that he had with the Western election, the most significant being that he was running at the same time as candidates for the University Students Council. Their elections policy is very strict, and he had nowhere near the same regulations. He suggested having future Western candidates adhere to similar policies so that there is less friction between LYAC and USC.

On the subject of ballots, the councillors discussed ranked ballots.2 One participant mentioned that ranked ballots assume that voters are fully informed about each candidate, but with LYAC that is not the case since the amount of information voters have about candidates depends on canvassing. However, one participant argued that ranked ballots would make people become informed. One councillor asked how the LYAC would determine which voting system works better. One participant suggested that ranked ballots are a better voting system, but only when you define better as the winner requiring a bigger percentage of the vote. She said that there is a higher turnout with first past the post because it is easier to understand, but a ranked ballot would be fairer. One councillor said that because a ranked ballot would mean that the voter has to be informed, there would be more pressure to have a clear and well-defined platform, and she argued that one of the important things about LYAC is that you do not need a political background. Putting pressure on the candidates to have strong platforms might scare off potential candidates.

The councillors also discussed the organizational structure of the LYAC. Matt explained that the LYAC used to be an at-large system; 14 councillors were elected from anywhere in the city. He asked the councillors if the LYAC should change back to at-large voting. One councillor preferred the ward system, explaining that canvassing in a specific ward is important political training. He found that it was a valuable experience getting to know the ward, walking the neighbourhoods, and feeling like he was representing people. Another councillor said that he would never go back to at-large system because the current system brings together 14 people from different areas of city. The wards have very different issues to be addressed, and it is in the best interest of the city to represent all the wards. He did note that the wards can be troublesome because some wards have rural London in them, and the rural areas have different issues than urban London. Similarly, one councillor suggested that the only thing wrong with the Ward system is that the ward is often defined by a small area. For example, Ward 14 is thought of collectively as Westminister, but it has other areas that other people may not associate with being Ward 14. This could a reason to use a community system over a ward system. Also, one participant noted that in other cities there are prominent neighbourhood associations, but in London there are a lot of neighbourhoods that don’t have them or have ones with limited authority. One councillor quipped that some associations only show up when they want to fight a planning application. Another participant commented that communities are defined by adults and questioned whether those definitions are the same as those of young people. One councillor explained that ward map means nothing to some people. She suggested that having a map where you can see the neighbourhoods with the wards would be a good tool to give to people or to put on the LYAC site to help people be more informed.

The councillors also discussed the current term length. One councillor found that the beginning of term is a huge learning curve and it is hard to accomplish a lot in a short term. Another explained that she is an advocate of the one year term because it is important to shuffle through the council frequently when only 15 out of all of London’s youth have this voice. She added that even if the one year is mainly just a learning experience, it provides ideas and connections to build upon. Another councillor said that he felt one year terms work because a lot of people are students.

2 Reporter’s note: ranked ballots can be a bit confusing. If you’re curious to learn more, here’s a great video about them.

The LYAC: A Movement or a Program?

As the discussion wove through different formats for elections and demographics to elect by, the LYAC began to discuss the nature of elections themselves. The councillors began to discuss if elections produce the best leaders and representatives or just the people who are the best at getting votes. One councillor felt that the people who got the most votes deserve their positions because they have proven they know how to interact with people. In order to define what being a good leader in the LYAC entails, the councillors shared their points of view on the LYAC and what its purpose is.

  • Ghadeir joined LYAC because she wants to help her community and to bring change.
  • Hanein ran to fight youth stigma.
  • Evan explained that for him what makes the LYAC unique is that it is linked to people in political leadership.
  • Jana offered that every councillor will have a different view of what the LYAC is and what it means to them.
  • Brandon argued that he doesn’t like assigning a role to the LYAC and then trying to make his experience fit into it because the LYAC is dynamic.
  • Cedric added that the LYAC should be thought of as an organic experience.
  • Kyle feels that the LYAC is about having a voice, whether by discussion internally at meetings or externally out in the wards.

One participants commented that Kyle was speaking to the LYAC as a movement rather than a program. Matt mentioned that the LYAC was conceived as a movement, but writing grants and trying to acquire funds for the organization meant writing in a way that was more structured and indicate of the LYAC being a program. He said that he wants the LYAC to remain a movement about youth having voices.

How do elections shape the role of a councillor? One participant asked the councillors if they felt more accountable because they were elected rather than appointed.

  • Jana said she did because she had to put in work and effort to gain her position.
  • Brandon explained that campaigning helped him feel connected because he told people what he intended to do, and so he now feels accountable to them.
  • Kyle said that people know about him and the LYAC because of his campaigning on Western.

The councillors also discussed how to engage with candidates who did not win, and if it’s possible to do that without lessening the experience for the councillors. One councillor said that he doesn’t see how it could lessen the experience but he wondered how it might feel for people who lost. He said that some people might be less inclined to work “below” the people who beat them, though if they think that way, maybe they would not be a good fit for the LYAC. Another councillor argued that it is important for the council to form its identity and to have some separation from the people who lost. One participant noted that volunteers have often joined because their strengths or interests do not involve canvassing or campaigning.

As the meeting came to a close, the councillors asked if formal politics could function like the LYAC does. One councillor said they could, but another disagreed. She thought the LYAC format would only work with a small group of people; it would take too long to have such discussions with a larger group. One participant wondered if a longer conversation might be worth the time it takes if it yields a better result.

Personal Stories

Evan shared a canvassing experience that shows the challenge of explaining the LYAC as a political body. He explained was that one voter told him that they wouldn’t vote for him unless they knew his political leanings. Evan commented that while the LYAC elections should be taken seriously, some people were conflating municipal issues with provincial or federal politics. This can be a greater issue having to do with a general conception of politics.

Big Questions

  • What is the best way to guarantee strong representation? Is the ward system the best system we can use?
  • Why do we expect politics to adhere to formal regulations?
  • How do we effectively communicate what the LYAC experience is to interested youth and the London population as a whole?

Reporter’s Notes

The LYAC is a movement constantly in evolution, as evidenced by this meeting, and from the experiences the councillors had when canvassing and even from their own early experiences, it is difficult to effectively communicate the experience to new people. Matt noted this challenge when he spoke about the side of the LYAC that involves creating outcomes and quantifying experiences in order to build partnerships and achieve grants. Program language does not cover the intangible atmosphere of the LYAC, the energy of the councillors at a meeting as they debate passionately and the inspiration stirred by the fact that these debates are occurring are difficult elements to communicate in a brochure or even to a potential candidate.

Perhaps it is because the LYAC is such a dynamic experience that it can be difficult to imagine the movement applying to larger government, which is typically characterized by rigid formality. However, it is important to remember that the LYAC evolved from a formal approach as well. Maybe it is the members of the LYAC who will bring about the evolution of larger governments.

Things We Still Need to Learn

  • What are some possible ways to combat the lower voter turnouts that occur with ranked ballots? In other words, what are some ways to engage people enough to seek out their own information?
  • What are some examples of alternative election systems we can find? What are their strengths and shortcomings?

Things We Missed the First Time

  • Skylar was not at this meeting, but likes the idea of trying out ranked ballots. Since a lot of Canadians are calling for electoral reform, it would be awesome to demonstrate how an alternative would look.