Eye Weekly: Inconvenient vote

August 18th, 2010 by Chris Bilton - Eye Weekly

How do you get the half of Torontonians who don’t own property to actually vote?

There are over 250 candidates running for either mayoral or councillor positions in the municipal election, and yet we only really hear about a handful of prominent players (and far too much about Rob Ford). But this disproportionate coverage seems even more out of whack considering how little attention is paid to the upcoming election’s largest pool of players: the nearly 1.5 million voters.

In particular, tenants — and especially tenants in low-income housing — tend to get overlooked during election campaigns. Some tenants have even gone without having a reasonable place to cast their vote. This problem is more or less systemic, rooted in the fact that tenants are, by the very fact of their tenancy, one step removed from the political process — homeowners have a direct interest in voting during a municipal election since whomever wins will be determining financial realities like property taxes and utilities. Tenants, on the other hand, pay these same fees through a middleman: their landlord. That tenants have a disturbingly lower voter turnout than the rest of the city is almost secondary to the idea that they don’t really get a fair chance to vote.

But since approximately half of potential Toronto voters are tenants, the large problem is relatively simple to target. In the 2010 election, the city hopes to have 647 polling stations serving high-rise buildings (about 43 per cent of the total number of stations), some inside the buildings they serve and none more than 800 feet from them. The total number of stations, however, is actually down from previous years, due to a new accessibility requirement for voting locations (one that’s meant to eliminate barriers like stairs at entrances, etc.). Some groups think we need to do better.

Late last month, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Canada (ACORN Canada) was at City Hall calling for more polling stations in high-rise apartment buildings, citing Ontario voting regulations that state that any building with more than 100 units can have its own polling station. This is residual outrage from February’s provincial by-election, during which there were only three polling stations among the 18 buildings of St. James Town (serving around 10,000 potential voters). Combined with the nagging feeling of neglect that plagues low-income tenants during the municipal election season, this recent example of unfairness perfectly underlines ACORN’s year-old Tenants Vote 2010 campaign, which is raising awareness not only about how important it is for tenants to vote, but how much power a group comprised of half the city’s voters can actually wield.

Of course, the provincial regulation doesn’t apply to municipal elections. Instead, the similarly worded Toronto rulebook says that landlords must provide the space if the city clerk wants to put a polling station in their building. So why doesn’t the city clerk request polling stations in more high-rise buildings?

ACORN member Natalie Hundt, says that the elections office has a goal of adding more polling stations, but can’t do it right now, though they are not forthcoming with the information about what the current barriers are. “They said the funding was not available, but that they wouldn’t be able to share the information about why not — not until after the 2010 election,” she explains.

According to Janet Andrews at Elections Toronto, it’s not quite that simple. Since we are only about two months away from the election, even if they wanted to add more polling stations, there is no way to get more tabulation machines in time. What the department, and especially its newish outreach unit, has been doing instead is focusing on trying to make the election and information about the election more accessible. Over the past year, they, like ACORN, have been raising awareness in low-income areas: partnering with Toronto Community Housing to  go out and actively engage residents in the hows and whys of voting. They’ve made voter registration forms available in buildings and trained staff to help people fill and file them.

This grassroots effort to get tenants registered is essentially the first step forward after the two steps back in 1999, when door-to-door voter registration was scrapped and the whole process was handed off to the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation. They’ve been good at keeping homeowners on the voting list (they deal directly with anyone who buys a home), but terrible at ensuring tenants get the same attention. This is, of course, a painfully familiar tale of a big government organization taking over, whose ineffectiveness forces the city to create a new mini-organization to pick up their slack. At least the elections office is moving in the right direction, even partnering with ACORN to focus on more improvements for the 2014 election.

Supposing that the city is successful in encouraging more people to get involved in this municipal election and ensuring that they have a place to do so, it will only be a matter of time before voters — even tenant voters — will begin to reclaim the attention they deserve.

Original article at: http://www.eyeweekly.com/city/municipal%20affairs%20desk/article/99640--...