Ode to the Demise of the Political Pledge: Analysis of The “Better Ballot” Campaign

Political pledges have been around for decades. A pledge is a set of values and positions created by a special interest group. They ask candidates to sign these, to support their views. Interest groups are any association of individuals or groups who have a common interest. They work collaboratively to promote their platform and influence public policy in their favor with the end goal to affect government policy. Pledging has escalated in political campaigns, with candidates and voters approached to sign up to entities that lock their influence, so they cannot act independently.

Stronger Candidates

Despite this rise, there has been a trend to more candidates rejecting pledges. Many stronger candidates are refusing to sign a pledge, to avoid special interest groups or political ideologies defining their campaign, and their candidacy. It is a positive trend occurring in North America. We are seeing this rising trend in the 2018 Guelph municipal election.

Inference erroneously connecting pledgers of the Better Ballot Campaign to be the candidates running clean, civil campaigns is misleading and incorrect. The Better Ballot group organized with former Mayor Karen Farbridge and supporters to have candidates and public sign a pledge to run a campaign on issues, not personal attacks.

An innovative idea in theory yet not in practice with the Better Ballot having no oversight nor enforcement. It is a tactic that restricts democracy. Signing the BB pledge has strong implications that need discussing for constituents to have the complete picture when casting their vote on October 22nd.

Being Respectiful without a ‘Pledge’

Mayor Cam Guthrie did not sign the Better Ballot pledge. He states, “As a candidate for Mayor, and as Mayor, I have and will always be respectful.” In response to the Guelph Today article about candidates harassed, he had “nothing more to add to the Guelph Today article as my wife Rachel has said it perfectly.” Rachel Guthrie responded eloquently to the article on Guelph Today in the comments section, on Facebook and on Twitter.

Ward 6 incumbent Mark MacKinnon understands why the Better Ballot came out of the Guelph-Wellington Women’s Campaign School Initiative. He did not sign it. His guiding principal dictates civility is demanded, and that harassment is completely unacceptable. Mark said that “I do not take great exception to any of their four pledge statements. That said, I pride myself on always conducting my behavior honorably and ethically and I think my actions speak for themselves. As a general principal, I do not sign onto any such pledges because they are unnecessary to guide my behavior. Furthermore, the exact wording of pledges may be interpreted in many ways by different individuals and I do not want to be debating the definitions of pledge words when instead I have residents to meet and a campaign to run. I believe in leading by example, and my council and candidate behavior reflects this stance.”

Jason Dodge council candidate for Ward 3 did not sign for several reasons. He believes “primarily, treating people respectfully. I don’t need to sign a pledge for that. My values, ethics, and upbringing already cover it. He admits it is difficult at time to take the high road and has attacks for his religious belief and his special needs son. Jason stated that “politics can get ugly, and I knew that going in. I think it has important to recognize that many of the candidates have verbal attacks, criticized, bullied, and even threatened by people in the community. And it is not happening just to people of a certain gender or race.”

“Candidates having issues with signs, vandalized or stolen is not a new phenomenon. Many candidates have complained about their signs destroyed, not just certain races or genders. Jason had nine of his signs “damaged or destroyed this weekend alone! Candidates should not assume it’s a personal attack.”

“Being respectful does not require a signature.”

Constituents can be passionate and protective about their chosen candidate. Jason states that “the pledge does not protect us while canvassing. I truly sympathize with any candidates who have been subject to verbal attacks and derogatory comments at the door steps. It is not a pleasant experience, and does not happen often, but it does happen to us. When it does, we can just simply walk away. If it escalates, at least we know the offender’s address when we phone the police.” Simply said, he does not need to sign a pledge to rise above all this drama. “Being respectful does not require a signature.”

Interest Group Pledges Interferes with Democracy

Critics contend that interest group pledges interfere with democracy, as benefits are for minorities rather than for the greater good of the majority. With a one-track mind, subjective opinions are at the forefront. Some groups have the best intentions at heart, like getting their candidate into office. However, some groups form simply to see another candidate does not win. Often pledges are partisan in concept, further eroding democracy.

Brendan Clark, candidate in Ward 4 points out that accountability is important on council, and the wording of this pledge “makes it seem like we can only campaign about ourselves and must disregard holding incumbents accountable for their actions.”

“makes it seem like we can only campaign about ourselves and must disregard holding incumbents accountable for their actions.”

Most pledges do not represent the majority’s thought. Signing pledges shuts down the dialogue and prevents progress for solutions to our community issues. The straight jacket imposed on candidates by these pledges does not allow for discourse or compromise. It dilutes democracy and favors the minority rather than all citizens.

Alex Green, Ward 5 candidate stressing that his comments are not personal nor political, felt the involvement of former mayor Karen Farbridge, feels, “With all the hullabaloo around slates, I didn’t want to even give the appearance that I was part of one. She is no longer in politics, but I think it is still too soon to think of her involvement in anything as utterly non-partisan.”

No Definition or Enforcement

Alex aptly pointed out there is no means of enforcement, and no definition of what would constitute a personal attack. He is “trying to be a leader, not a follower. I run a clean campaign because it is the right thing to do, not because anyone told me to. Honestly, we are not 12-year-olds, we should know how to comport ourselves during a political campaign.” He believes certain personal details of a candidate’s life is open for discussion like credible accusations of (or convictions for) serious criminal or unethical behaviour, adding that this would not include any reference to race, gender and other off the table questions.

Mark Gernon, Ward 1 candidate, did not refuse to sign the Better Ballot. He believes “it is (not) necessary to sign, if that is something that I already agree with”. During the campaign Mark has seen those who signed the pledge not act in the spirit of what they promised. He finds it “disheartening to see a candidate agree to sign onto these promotions,and yet when their colleagues, advisors or friends post some of the most
profane, false and derogatory claims and statements about candidates or their families without any repercussions, and without any abomination from candidates that does not sit well with me.”

“It is one thing to sign onto these promotions – but not to hide behind them while knowing that there is a “shadow” campaign occurring that does not subscribe to the Better Ballot Agenda.”

“There is uncomfortable fact that pledges to the Better Ballot are not denouncing blogs nor distancing themselves when their supporters are attacking candidates and others in their favour, and the Better Ballot team are not holding these negative forces to account.”

Mark further stated that “I entered to run for Council to advocate for Ward 1, and the City to serve.”

“Since entering this process, I have been subjected to hundreds of automated e-mails; to some very nasty and mean e-mails (from people I have never met and probably will not meet) – have been attacked because my signs look similar to another candidate’s signs ( we used the same company to print our signs ); I have been asked if I go to Church and where I go to Church. I have been asked to affirm to things that are just not proper.”

Bias Surveys

Several surveys sent to Mark that are designed to illicit answers that are beneficial to one specific group or agenda and not considering all the Ward 1 or the City. He further says that “I have been roped into being on a “team” by a blogger who has absolutely nothing good to say about anything.” The Better Ballot team does not enforce, oversee nor silence. To run true to the pledge this blogger and supporters should have silenced, given that most of them are part of this pledge tactic.

Mark has had many positive experiences and the best of the people in Guelph, so not all his experiences have been negative. He sees engagement and that they “want a Council that is effective, responsive, and collegial. I have seen blogs that bring forward issues and positive debate. I have received many positive e-mails – questions – perspectives – willingness to share and make suggestions. That is where I am. And that is where I want to be – positive, responsive, accountable..”

Ward 3 candidate Patrick Sheridan has “made it my position not to sign 3rd party petitions. My focus is on the needs of the constituents of Ward 3 and the city. By endorsing these petitions and pledges I would lose freedom down the road to represent the best interests of all constituents.”

Karen Farbridge & Associates

He had concerns who the Better Ballot was. He looked at the Better Ballot website, which “indicates that the former Mayor’s business “Karen Farbridge & Associates” is involved in the project. This seems odd at best and calls into question the impartiality of “The Better Ballot”. Though I can appreciate the former mayor is a private citizen now, the appearance of sour grapes and perhaps even impropriety in her organization meddling in the current election made me quite wary of signing the organizations pledge.”

Patrick attended the Better Ballot launch of September 11th, 2018 and found “there to be a strong political bias in the candidates attending. This may not have been surprising, with the substantial involvement of the former Mayor but it made me skeptical of the enterprise. I left wondering what mandate the group has or ability or charter or community endorsement the group must be presuming to assume the mantle of democratic authority? There are only organizations listed on the website. There is no board of directors, nor any names of the cast directing the enterprise.”

You Can Only Talk About Yourself

He shared his concerns at the Ward 3 Forum hosted by St. Andrew’s Church, “that “The Better Ballot” was a mechanism to stifle debate and deflect from discussing city councilors records and was told this was not the case. However, when I tried to bring forward the incumbent councilors records during the discussion (heckling) by partisan members of the audience ensued, and instead of calling for decorum from the audience members, the moderator told me “You can only talk about yourself”. At that moment, my intuition confirmed, “The Better Ballot” is supporting the former Mayor’s candidates.”

Patrick states that “the “Better Ballot” has, at least in my experience, has not demonstrated. So, with little evidence to corroborate the impartiality of the project, I left with little confidence in the advertised goals of the group and chose not to endorse the project. With more work, a formalized leadership structure, transparency, and accountability the organization could add to the democratic discourse but at this point it has some work ahead to develop a credible reputation.”

Several of the candidates pointed out the danger to a healthy democracy, and that this dictates a comprehensive discussion of the issues, incumbent’s records, candidates’ qualifications, and full transparency.

Pledges Are Tactics

It is disappointing when candidates succumb to the political heaviness to conform. Pledges are tactics. Their distorted messages often with a partisan flavor to the wording. Signing one is comparable of voluntarily putting on a straitjacket, denying candidates the flexibility needed to meet unexpected challenges that will be present when developing policy.

Denying the political pressure of a pledge projects strength. Many second-tier candidates sign these readily as a way to toady up with these groups and their supporters. Often, pledges are signed by first time candidates who do not have a record to run with. Throwing a wide net, they capture the attention of voters. It weakens campaigns. It weakens the democratic process.

Know your vote and vote with knowledge.


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