Globe and Mail: Councillors move to get renters to the polls

July 16th, 2010 by Kelly Grant - Globe and Mail

For council speaker Sandra Bussin, the scale of tenant disenfranchisement in Toronto hit home at Hanson House, a seniors complex near Coxwell Avenue and Hanson Street.

The entire building was accidentally dropped from the rolls a few elections back, she said.

The situation wasn’t much better at the Alexandra Park public-housing complex in Councillor Adam Vaughan’s downtown ward in 2006.

“When the polls opened three hours late on election day,” he said, “there were four names on the list.”

Toronto City Council and local election officials are determined not to leave renters out of the 2010 election. But they face an uphill battle adding tenants to a voters list riddled with errors and omissions.

“Right now, the likelihood that a tenant is on the list is virtually zero,” said Ms. Bussin, councillor for Ward 32 Beaches-East York.

Council voted last week to direct the city manager’s office to launch an aggressive outreach campaign in apartments and condos.

Achieving that proved difficult – the city clerk’s office, which oversees municipal elections, presented an outside legal opinion that concluded council couldn’t tell the clerk what to do on an election matter.

After hours of passionate debate, council found a loophole and asked the city manager’s office to build on the efforts of the clerk’s office, which is already working with tenant groups and the Toronto Community Housing Corporation to pump voter turnout beyond a dismal 38.9 per cent in 2003 and 39.3 per cent in 2006.

“What the clerk’s department said was for us to advocate on behalf of tenants is for politicians to interfere with the electoral process and that that would put the entire election in jeopardy,” Mr. Vaughan said. “If someone wants to overturn the results of the election because we made an extra effort to enumerate tenants, we think there’s not a judge in the country that would buy that.”

Renters have tumbled through gaps in the system since 1999, when Queen’s Park farmed enumeration out to the newly created Municipal Property Assessment Corporation and killed the old-fashioned, door-to-door voter registration drive.

Mistakes plague MPAC’s preliminary voters lists across the province, but the problem is especially acute in Toronto, where half of all residents rent and many don’t speak enough English to fill out the paperwork properly.

Whereas owners are added to the voters’ list when they buy a home or business, renters have to rely on the owner of their building to send their names to MPAC.

Assuming that list is correct, MPAC mails an occupancy form to the tenant. Owners receive the same form when they buy. Fifty per cent of homeowners return the form; only 20 per cent of tenants do, said Janet Andrews, Toronto’s manger of elections and registry services.

Like all eligible voters, tenants can still cast a ballot by presenting valid identification and proof of address at a polling place – assuming they can find the correct station.

That’s why ACORN, the controversial activist group, is pushing for Toronto to put polling stations in every building with more than 100 units. “It’s more convenient for people to go into their lobbies,” said Edward Lantz, an ACORN board member and chair of the St. Jamestown chapter, one of seven in Toronto. “We don’t want anybody to get left behind.”

Ms. Andrews called that idea cost-prohibitive in a city with 5,000 residential buildings five storeys or taller. Extra polling stations cost about $8,500 a pop: $8,000 for a new vote-tabulating machine and a minimum of $500 for staff.

Using census data and poll-by-poll counts, Ryerson University professor Myer Siemiatycki found that the percentage of tenants had no impact on voter turnout in 2003 and a slightly positive effect on turnout in 2006. In other words, places with a high concentration of renters actually boasted a voter turnout slightly higher than the average in the last election.

“Until very recently, one of the stock assumptions in the municipal arena was tenants vote at a much lower rate than homeowners,” he said. “The data over the last couple of elections shows that’s a myth. Tenants do vote and they need to be enumerated.”