Sept 20th, Daniel Dale 2010 by Toronto Star
Mark Woodnutt stands outside a Toronto Community Housing building in St. James Town. As he speaks to a reporter, a man with an unkempt beard and a baseball cap watches him intently.
“Sometimes we really need to convince people that their vote counts,” says Woodnutt, a volunteer with the advocacy group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). “There’s a certain amount of apathy, and — “
“You here for the election?”
Woodnutt wheels to face the man who interrupted him. His name is Mohamed Gedi. As it turns out, he is not at all apathetic.
Gedi, a 31-year-old tenant, is wearing a “Global warming ain’t cool” T-shirt.
In the past, he has voted for Jack Layton in a federal election and George Smitherman in a provincial election.
He wants the local bus stop moved to a more convenient location, he says, and then, unprompted, criticizes controversial statements Rob Ford has made about gays and immigrants.
Then he has a question, which illustrates the lack of clarity about municipal elections in voters’ minds: “How,” he gently asks Woodnutt and two ACORN leaders, “is the mayor elected? Is it like a prime minister is elected — same system as provincial, federal? Everyone belongs to a party?”
Voter turnout in the 2008 federal election, 59 per cent, was a record low. So was turnout in the 2007 Ontario election, 53 per cent. Both of those figures prompted rounds of national and provincial hand-wringing. But turnout in the 2006 Toronto municipal election was much worse.
The official figure was 39 per cent. The true figure may well have been lower; about 250,000 foreign-born residents whose citizenship could not be confirmed were purged from the voters’ list two months before the election.
Politicians at all three levels face some of the same impediments to their get-out-the-vote efforts: cynicism, indifference, frustration. Municipal elections, however, pose unique challenges.
Campaign budgets are smaller, an average of $26,867 in 2006. Campaign volunteers are harder to recruit. The leaflet, not the television advertisement, is the primary advertising medium.
Perhaps more significantly, because incumbent councillors almost always win, it can be hard to convince constituents that voting is worth the effort. Denied the helpful shorthand of a party label, council candidates can also find it difficult to explain how they differ from their opponents.
A large number of voters, meanwhile, lack critical knowledge about the municipal political system. Many, says Mohamed Dhanani, who is challenging Councillor John Parker in Ward 26 (Don Valley West), do not understand that the mayor has the same one vote as every councillor. Many others, says Sharad Sharma, who is challenging Councillor Suzan Hall in Ward 1 (Etobicoke North), believe, as Gedi did, that municipal elections are explicitly partisan.
“Coming from India into the Canadian system,” says Sharma, a first-time candidate who immigrated in 2002, “I believed people would be more advanced, more knowledgeable, and the voter will be more informed. But, ironically, I found it entirely the opposite.”
That Sharma’s Ward 1 had the lowest turnout in the 2006 municipal election, 33 per cent, would not surprise political scientists. Eighty per cent of ward residents were visible minorities; 64 per cent were immigrants; average household income was $16,000 below the citywide average.
Much of Toronto’s voter turnout problem is thought to be the inescapable result of such demographic factors. Some groups, the conventional wisdom suggests, do not show up at the polls no matter what.
This notion is challenged by an unpublished statistical analysis of 2006 Toronto voting by Myer Siemiatycki, a politics professor at Ryerson University, and graduate student Sean Marshall.
They found only a tiny correlation between income and turnout. They also found that turnout in immigrant-heavy wards was significantly closer to turnout in wards with small immigrant populations than in 2003, when the percentage of immigrants in a ward was the key factor related to ward turnout.
The factor that most affected changes in ward turnout between 2003 and 2006 was the competitiveness of council races — suggesting that local dogfights can bring people to the polls no matter what their demographic characteristics.
Ward 26, which includes both the detached homes of leafy, wealthy Leaside and the cramped low-income apartments of Flemingdon Park and Thorncliffe Park, had the highest turnout in 2006. Its race was a no-incumbent free-for-all involving 15 candidates. Parker defeated Dhanani by only 214 votes.
“I think what these results say to candidates is don’t take any voters for granted, and don’t presume there is any group in Toronto that cannot be mobilized to turn out and vote if they perceive there are issues and candidates that are speaking to their concerns,” says Siemiatycki.
“There is volatility to voter turnout and participation. Gone are the days where you could predictably generalize about which groups will vote, what the correlations might be between demographics and voting. They are susceptible to contextual influence; they are not systemic and inherent.”
It is not clear, however, whether turnout differences between areas with few immigrants and many immigrants, and between areas with low income and high income, shrunk in 2006 because immigrants and the poor started voting in greater numbers or because non-immigrants and the rich neglected to participate given that the mayoral outcome was certain.
The traditional disparities, Siemiatycki says, may reappear this year. And given that the mayoral campaign has centred on issues of spending and taxes, he says, home ownership may reassert itself as a key factor. In 2006, he found, areas with high tenant populations managed to slightly outvote areas with high ownership rates — a reversal from the historical norm.
Regardless, he says, “Total voter turnout remains pathetic.”
Better Ballots, a local advocacy group, has drafted 14 changes to the municipal election system, partly in an effort to boost turnout. These include holding the election on a weekend, adding term limits for councillors and introducing municipal parties. If electoral changes are made, says project lead Rob Newman, “then maybe people would feel that their vote would count, and they would come out.”
Leaside is the highest-turnout part of Parker and Dhanani’s highest-turnout ward. Many of its residents do not need to be told their voices are important; in sidewalk interviews this week they described a community of politically savvy professionals highly concerned about their city and their neighbourhood.
“It’s a really involved neighbourhood in every aspect,” says Merzana Martinakis. “Schools, safety; parents are always volunteering, they’re on every single board. . . .”
“We’ll be away, so we’ll go to the early poll,” says Lynne Cook, 57. “That’s how important voting is to us.”
In St. James Town earlier the same afternoon, ACORN’s Edward Lantz slowly attempted to persuade tenant Kim Nguyen, 55, to support candidates who support tenant rights. But when Lantz directly urged her to vote, Nguyen, an immigrant from Asia, said, “Me? I’m too small. . . ”