The Citizens Handbook
How to Use Voting Records

Charles Dobson

Most people don't pay much attention to what is happening at City Hall. A few might read an occasional newspaper article that touches on a particular issue. At the polls, some base their vote on party affiliation or name recognition, many choose not to vote at all. The lack of any substantive basis for choosing one candidate over another ruins the electoral process.

Most people prefer to base their vote on performance. A survey of how City Councillors have voted on key issues helps people evaluate the performance of incumbents who are running again. Incumbents have a great advantage over challengers because of name recognition, even when they have performed poorly. A survey of key votes can prevent incumbents who have performed poorly from being re-elected.

A great example of a voting record survey (pdf) comes from The City of Guelph, Ontario. Citizens used voting records to take over City Council in November 2006 elections.

One of the people who was central to the campaign explained how The Guelph Civic League made sure voters saw the survey results:

"We printed the pdf and distributed them at mayoral forums and at All Candidates Meetings tailored for each ward event.

"We connected with the Central Students Association at the University and distributed them there, along with funding a campus-oriented campaign. Student vote increased 120%.

"A local rep theatre printed them in their publication that goes to 35,000 homes and we promoted the website version through our biweekly e-bulletin with a readership of approximately 4000.

"We provided media releases to the two local papers. And the records ended up being referenced in articles throughout the final two weeks of the election.

"In the days prior to the election we were still receiving calls from people wanting to deliver them, 200-300 at a time, in their neighbourhood.

"The voting records stand out as the item that informed people in a way they'd never experienced. Our e-bulletin detailing issues in common language was a big hit."

A survey of voting records will only affect the outcome of an election if the organization behind it is trusted. A trusted organization will be active between elections; it will act in the public interest rather than in the narrow interest of its members; and it will include trusted "public citizens" as visible participants.

A trusted organization will also be one that takes the time to understand the complexities around each vote that it includes in its survey. What may seem to be a untenable position at first blush, may turn out to be common sense with more understanding of the situation.

See also Rating People for Public Office

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The Troublemaker's Teaparty is a print version of The Citizen's Handbook published in 2003. It contains all of The Handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots rot, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from bookstores, Amazon or New Society Publishers.