The Main — August 3: Why Incumbents Win So Often in Municipal Politics

And why it isn't good for our city governments

And what a summer it was. A summer of smoke, speculation and intrigue. A summer spent arguing about pickup trucks or worrying about people under the age of 12, who still have no vaccination protection. A summer that, despite it all, will be the best summer ever, according to some.

This half of Rage is currently vacationing in an undisclosed location in the smokey mountains of British Columbia, although Alberta and its summer before the October municipal elections still weighs on my mind. Before I get to writing about what interests me this week, which is incumbency, though, let’s take a brief look-back at July, which flew by faster than a positive-test quarantine period now does in the new Alberta.


Our most popular story for the free subscribers was about provincial downloading onto municipalities. More of you read that one in July than any other story. And we got comments on it, too. After reading our look at the mismatch between action and political consequence when it comes to provincial downloading, one reader wrote:

“This on top of the UCP government allowing oil companies the ability not to pay their property taxes in these rural communities could cause some of these places to go bankrupt or to increase property taxes so high that people have to start walking away from their homes. This government needs to go.”

An interesting take.

When it comes to the paid subscribers, by far the most interesting of stories seemed to be co-editor Danielle Paradis’ profile of Edmonton mayoral candidate Michael Oshry. That one, too, generated reader responses. Writes reader Stephen Raitz of Oshry’s discussion of climate change in Paradis’ article (first quoting Oshry):

"Municipal governments have a mandate of what municipal governments can do... So why are we talking about [climate change] ad naseum?" Last time I checked, municipal governments have the largest stake in determining how we grow and build our transportation systems, which is a major determinant of local contributions to the causes of climate change. Methinks Oshry should re-evaluate that take a little bit.

Why Does Incumbency Matter So Much At The Ballot Box?

You hear it often that incumbents have an advantage in municipal politics. But how much of an advantage? Well, according to one research paper published by Cambridge University Press, “the rate of municipal incumbent re-election in [Canada] is regularly above 90 per cent.”

That’s quite an advantage. This almost insurmountable advantage could be partly why a municipal politician like Hazel McCallion in Mississauga was re-elected 12 consecutive times, or in Alberta, how several current city councillors in Calgary have been around for multiple terms.

It’s also why those who emerge victorious in municipal races taking on incumbents gain an almost mythical quality. Several councillors in Edmonton have done it in recent times.

What does the advantage boil down to for incumbent councillors? Name recognition is the biggie. As the Cambridge paper authors write in their literature review (apologies for the obtuse academic writing quoted here, by the way, but it makes a point):

As Kushner et al. (1997: 543) suggest, when there is no party affiliation on the ballot, as is the case in most Canadian municipal elections, “having a well-known name can be particularly helpful.” Spicer et al. (2017) make a similar argument, noting that without political parties to structure the vote, citizens often use incumbency as a heuristic when casting their ballot, and Taylor and McEleney (2017: 213) write that “the absence of party names on the ballot increases the cost to the voter of acquiring political information, increasing reliance on the name recognition heuristic.

Another reason an incumbent has an advantage is they’ve built up the networks for winning the job while doing said job. And in many cases incumbents are prominent within their wards in periods leading up to elections, cutting ribbons, grabbing news headlines and making speeches as the local representative, re-affirming their connection to the job in the eyes of voters who are often less informed than we might hope or expect.

Why should we care? As the same literature review gets to, enabling incumbents in municipal politics in effect disables others:

The incumbency advantage has consequences for the health and functioning of representative democracy. Many argue that the high rates of re-election for incumbents pose serious obstacles for women and ethnic minority candidates, both municipally and at other levels (Palmer and Simon, 2001; but see Spicer et al., 2017, for competing evidence). At the very least, the incumbency advantage slows turnover and reduces the ability for marginalized groups to make considerable electoral breakthroughs from one election to the next (Carbert, 2012). 

The paper explores a specific scenario in Mississauga and comes to rather discouraging findings about incumbency and its enduring power. Read more here.

Top photo: Canva