Inside Toronto: ACORN members call for more apartment polling stations

July 15th, 2010 by Mike Adler - Inside Toronto

For those who find it hard to walk or hard to care, two or three blocks to a polling station is one more reason not to vote.

The City of Toronto can change that by putting a poll in every building with 100 apartments or more this fall, the advocacy group ACORN told municipal election officials Thursday, July 15.

Edward Lantz, a St. Jamestown tenant, handed a letter with that request to staff at the city's election services office and asked for a meeting with City Clerk Ulli Watkis, responsible for poll placement.

Municipal election turnout is low, particularly for tenants, read Lantz. "In the name of democracy, we hope you take this request seriously."

Outside in Nathan Phillips Square, red-shirted members of ACORN - Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now - said tenants with disabilities, seniors and busy single mothers can find even a short walk to a polling station too long.

"There's handicapped people who can't get around and they don't want to go all the way to a school to vote," said Marion Callow, a Weston woman. "There's people that are scared to get around."

ACORN member Mary Blakelock of Scarborough uses a cane and has called candidates for a lift on election day, but said not everyone knows they can do that.

Bonita Pietrangelo, the city's director of elections, said having a poll in every large apartment building would be impossible for this October, given the number of vote tabulators the city has.

The city must have polling stations in retirement homes with 50 or more occupied beds and in institutions for the disabled or chronically ill with 20 beds or more, she said this week.

But for the first time, the city must also ensure all its voting locations are accessible to the disabled, so Pietrangelo said her department is reviewing each one before the election.

Tenants in the demonstration said they will work on removing other barriers to participation, which include, some said, widespread apathy toward politicians who never seem to listen.

If votes from tenants are scarce, "that's because they haven't been heard for a long time," said Lucy Fukushima of Riverdale.

"Once you get people thinking that the system works with them, not against them, they'll come out to vote."

More polling stations will make it more likely tenants will vote, but if the city makes no changes to encourage participation, tenants won't turn out, Fukushima said.

Not voting means tenant concerns, such as fair rent and better community centres, won't be heard by candidates, she added.

Olivia Etienne, whose building in Etobicoke has a polling station, said some of her neighbours need to be enlightened about the benefits of voting. They may have the impression their city councillor doesn't care about their problems, but that will change if more building residents vote, she said.

Even the condition of the highrise they live in may affect voting behaviour, said Victoria Manful Yankey, who lives in North York.

If the building is well kept, "people feel comfortable to vote," but if it has bedbugs and cockroaches, like hers, fewer people will cast ballots, said Yankey, who added she votes, "in every election, no matter the distance."

As part of its Tenants Vote 2010, which seeks to raise municipal voter turnout, ACORN plans to target wards with high concentrations of low-income voters in apartment buildings and will release a report card before this fall on how mayoral candidates stand on tenant issues.