On June 26th, Torontonians will elect a new Mayor of Toronto in a by-election — but it is an open question how many Torontonians will be doing the electing.
When Toronto went to the polls just eight months ago, only 29% of eligible voters cast a ballot. In response to this remarkably low turnout, some voters expressed disappointment, and in some cases, shamed fellow Torontonians who did not exercise their right to vote.
The impulse to blame non-voters may provide a sense of superiority, but it does little to meaningfully increase civic engagement. A more productive path lies in examining the design of local democracy, the policies and the culture that result in people feeling more estranged than engaged. When it comes to safeguarding local democracy, how are our policies around elections limiting voter engagement — and what do we need from policymakers in order to make things better?
Perhaps voters may not take local democracy seriously, but do policymakers?
This problem begins with election administration. Municipalities are increasingly unprepared to deliver and improve elections. The burden of carrying out elections is significant — it’s why the federal government and provinces have dedicated elections administrators like Elections Canada and Elections Ontario, respectively. Cities, however, are required to administer elections themselves via the municipal clerk’s office.
The challenges with this approach have worsened in recent years, as cities have struggled to manage the budgetary impacts of the pandemic while facing an imminent recession that further threatens city revenues. Cities barely have enough staff to administer elections, let alone to engage in the necessary research between elections to learn about and address barriers to voting, improve and modernize election delivery, and devote time and money to robust voter outreach.
When elections are facilitated by the same local council authorities who are also responsible for the provision of social services, safety, and infrastructure, serious democratic fumbles can result.
Over the years, Ontario municipalities have expressed concern over the provincial government downloading more costs onto them, leaving them cash strapped. This is particularly concerning given that municipalities cannot run deficits. The result is often service cuts.
The tension between Ontario cities and the Province has only grown over the years. In 2018, Premier Ford cut the number of Toronto wards nearly in half, inflating the size of local constituencies and watering down representation overnight. The Province also scrapped plans to experiment with ranked ballots among select Ontario municipalities, which had been a glimmer of hope for those advocating for widespread electoral reform.
In some respects, the Province of Ontario has ignored or outright obstructed reforms to local democracy that could improve civic engagement.
There is one major improvement to the next slate of municipal elections in Ontario. Up until the 2022 election period, the voter lists for municipal elections depended on the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC), an organization that assesses property values. MPAC was responsible for providing a preliminary list of electors (PLE) for municipalities to create municipal voting lists.
Starting in 2024, however, Elections Ontario will be taking over voter list creation using a single permanent register of electors. This is a no-brainer efficiency move, establishing consistency between municipal and provincial voter lists. This is a good starting point for improving local democracy.
There are plenty of other avenues to reform local democracy: municipal clerks should receive consistent budgets so they can reliably allocate funding for election delivery and voter outreach. If municipalities are cash-strapped, the Province could commit to uploading services to relieve local taxpayers, so that municipal clerks have the necessary cash to improve electoral management. Alternatively, the federal government could step in to provide funding to municipalities for local democracy given the contentious relationship between municipalities and the Province. Or perhaps municipalities deserve a centralized election administrator altogether.
Certainly, municipal affairs should be more deeply embedded into civic education — currently, the only civics course in the Ontario high school curriculum is the Grade 10 Civics and Citizenship course, a half-credit course that covers all Canadian and Indigenous governance systems, as well as civic theories in half a semester.
The Samara Centre for Democracy has previously published on the importance of civic education (which should include media and digital literacy training) in fostering a citizenry who is more likely to vote, and of providing tools to support young people to engage at the local level. Investing in youth civic education can foster lifelong, habitual civic engagement, which could positively impact participation in municipal politics for years to come.
Blaming individuals for low voter turnout is a dead end. It’s a problem with our democratic culture which we all build together. It is easy to lay the blame on disengaged voters, it’s a lot more difficult to compel policymakers to seriously consider what they can do to engage them. As cities grow and councilors and mayors face new challenges with larger constituencies, provincial and federal policymakers should think carefully about how to help municipalities succeed instead of watching them fail.
Democracy falls fastest when its foundations fall first.