Are dirty tricks in elections becoming more common? One has to admit that outright political chicanery is not unusual in a democratic society — especially if one looks at practices in Prohibition Era Chicago, Huey Long’s Louisiana or in any 19th Century North American election before the rise of the secret ballot. Hopefully these examples might be the nadir of otherwise decent electoral practices. One hopes that they are. It took a long time for democratic practices to finally be embedded in our society, and any stunt that cheapens the civic process endangers us all.
In the casual experience of a sporadic campaign volunteer and frequent observer, it does seem, however, that election behaviours are worsening in Canada. The 1995 Quebec referendum was loaded with dirty tricks (as described in the Institute’s October 1996 paper “Gilding the Fleur-de-lis”), but the problem may be more endemic.
In the 1997 Municipal Elections in Toronto, an incumbent city councillor, Peter Tabuns faced an usual problem. Tabuns, a leftist politician who currently heads Greenpeace Canada, found another challenger on the candidate’s list — one Larry Tabin. Strangely enough, it took considerable effort to find the whereabouts of Tabin. A technical resident of the ward, he placed his deposit then declined to actively campaign and spent most of the election living in another city. A little more digging turned up the fact that Larry Tabin was Larry Toben until shortly before the election. Tabin was obviously run as a spoiler by one of Tabuns’ many rivals. This shabby stunt cost him his seat by peeling off some 989 votes in a tight municipal race.
The recent provincial election in Ontario was unpleasant in many ways. First, the parties waded in with wholesale US-Style “Negative Advertising”. If the Tories led the way, they were no doubt motivated by the fact that the Public Sector Unions would (as they did) match them dollar for dollar on ads that dripped with insinuation and outright fabrication. When the National Citizens Coalition went to bat — repeatedly — to ensure the rights of outside groups to become involved in elections, they probably had not expected to see the Unions weigh in so heavily. What was worse was the huge number of Union staffers “on leave” during the election, working in various campaigns. Unpaid volunteers, indeed.
Among the numerous workers in an election campaign are the sign crews — separate and apart from the canvassers, literature droppers and HQ staff. These are the folks who plaster campaign signs on the lawns of supporters and wrestle with each other for key public vantage points. Routine vandalism of candidate signs is expected in any normal election. Experienced sign managers from a cross section of the major parties normally expect to lose some 5-10% of their signs in a normal campaign. Most of the people who destroy signs appear to be pin-headed slugs who are not connected to any other party and could not bother to actually work in a campaign – or sometimes even to vote.
However, in the Ontario election, organized and systematic theft of Tory election signs was witnessed on several occasions. The most blatant being a pick-up truck cruising some residential streets in daylight with a crew scooping up candidate’s signs and lobbing them in the back. The sign managers in several unioi1-targeted ridings believed that up to 60% of their signs had to be replaced during the campaign.
Character assassination seems to be more prevalent in recent years. The 1991 municipal campaign in Toronto was marked by the sudden sabotage of Jack Layton’s bid for mayor with an anonymous leak to the media that he and his wife lived in a taxpayer-subsidized co-op. While not exactly a dirty trick, it would have been more honest had one of the other candidates leveled this charge. A long time school board trustee was likewise hit with a last minute (and utterly false) anonymous allegation of fiscal irregularities. In the same ward in 1997, another conservatively-inclined incumbent was hit by another false allegation at the last minute. One suspects the authors of these techniques will repeat themselves later. No doubt, their success will mean that the practice will spread.
Then there are the governments that may deliberately misbehave. The embattled (and much hated) Glen Clark government in BC is alleged to have cooked the Province’s books on the eve of the last election, to make it look as if British Columbia was no longer running a deficit. The government had also embedded a recall mechanism for its MPPs during its first term, and at least three of their own members have been challenged by their constituents over allegations of fraud and misrepresentation. While it is normal for any government to put the best spin on its performances during an election, it may be that a new low has been reached.
None of these tactics or misbehaviours may seem particularly shocking, and that also represents a tragedy. While it might be too much to expect electioneering to be a high-minded undertaking, every shortcut and cheap trick represents a loss to our heritage of responsible government and individual freedom. Tradition and decorum, once sacrificed, can seldom be recovered and every new artifice demeans us further.