Local politicians open to change to boost election turnout
Ontario’s 2022 municipal elections saw astoundingly poor turnouts in most centres. In Kawartha Lakes only one in three registered voters chose to cast a ballot last October. In Burlington, Niagara Falls and St. Catharines the turnout was closer to one in four.
The Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) has been collecting data on municipal votes since the early 1960s, and reports that over the last 40 years the average municipal voter turnout in Ontario has never risen above 40 per cent.
While Canadians continue to vote in far larger numbers for federal and provincial candidates, half of all municipal races in 2022 ended with a winner acclaimed on election day.
Why is turnout during municipal elections as much as 25 per cent lower than federal and provincial races? What are municipalities trying to do about this disturbing trend? Has any municipal jurisdiction found strategies that can be shared beyond its municipal borders? What solutions might be found right here in Kawartha Lakes to improve civic engagement?
The Advocate asked Kawartha Lakes mayor Doug Elmslie, clerk Cathie Ritchie and all eight councillors for their insights. They suggested a range of potential electoral reforms from the implementation of mandatory voting to a return to one-day-only elections featuring the option of paper ballots.
Why don’t people vote?
While there hasn’t been time for significant statistical analysis or white papers on municipal electoral reform since the October 2022 vote, much anecdotal evidence has been gathered through exit interviews with those who did choose to vote and discussions with municipal politicians. The AMO has also produced significant information on the disappointing impact that internet voting has had on voter turnout in municipalities that have used it.
Jordan Omstead of the Canadian Press reported in October 2022 that several issues were conspiring to drive down municipal turnout including election fatigue from three campaigns in one year, lack of municipal election advertising and poor promotion by municipalities.
“Party-less local elections lack the millions spent on advertising to stir up election interest,” Omstead wrote, adding “municipalities also do a poor job of promoting the nomination period, and explaining what the election is about and what your options are.”
“The wards are too big for underfunded municipal campaigns to reach the majority of voters,” Omstead said. “Civic outreach groups (who often assist in that work) are exhausted after three elections.”
Omstead also said that the pandemic has affected the number of volunteers willing to knock on doors for the candidate of their choice. Together, all of these factors left many voters feeling they did not have enough information to cast an intelligent vote.
Caro Loutfi, executive director of Apathy is Boring, whose goal is to get youth involved in municipal government in the Montreal area, told CBC that youth are not engaged in municipal politics for several reasons.
“This is a vicious cycle,” Loutfi said. “Politicians don’t reach out to young people because young people don’t vote, and young people don’t vote because they feel ignored.”
What Loutfi suggests is clearly present in Kawartha Lakes, where city clerk Ritchie reported that only 20 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted in 2022. As low as that number might appear, in the 30- to 39-year-old age cohort the turnout was even lower with only 19 percent exercising their democratic right.
The age of most municipal candidates could be causing the disconnect with potential youth voters. The current Kawartha lakes municipal council features no members under 50 and an octogenarian mayor.
Ritchie also compiled data that indicates only 18 per cent of non-residents (typically cottage owners) chose to vote in the Kawartha Lakes election.
‘‘We regularly hear from seasonal electors that they did not realize they could vote in Kawartha Lakes when they own a cottage here, but live elsewhere,” Ritchie said.
It is also painfully clear that internet and telephone voting is not the panacea to poor voter turnout that so many hoped it would be.
The AMO told Waqas Chughtai of CBC News in November 2022 that “technology has not had a significant impact on voter turnout” and that after a slight bump in the numbers because of the novelty of the system, numbers have steadily declined in Peterborough and Markham. Brantford, Pickering, Kawartha Lakes and Newmarket have only seen declines in turnout since online voting was introduced.
In 2018, the average municipal voter turnout in Ontario was 38 per cent according to the AMO, with that number dropping to 33 per cent in 2022 despite more than half of the municipalities in the province moving to internet and telephone voting.
Chugntai’s article concluded that, in the eyes of academics studying the subject, internet voting “was a great opportunity for people who are already committed to vote” but that “we cannot fix voter turnout with technology alone.”
Municipalities try to boost vote
Several municipal governments, including Hamilton and Sault Ste. Marie, looked at their 2018 turnout and decided to set money aside in hopes of make voting easier and boosting turnout in 2022. They met with disappointing results.
Hamilton devoted $3 million to improving the democratic experience for the citizens of Hamilton. Chief clerk Andrea Holland and her staff tried many different approaches to give voters options they hadn’t had before.
“Holland began outreach with Indigenous and immigrant communities trying to identify barriers to voting,” Ibrahim Daair reported in Municipal World magazine last fall.
Hamilton allowed mail-in ballots for the first time in 2022, university and college students from Hamilton could vote on campus wherever they were going to school, and voting stations were set up at long-term care centres, the local Indigenous Friendship Centre and homeless shelters with one poll focusing exclusively on homeless women and those who identify as transgendered.
“We want to make voting more accessible to everyone,” Daair quoted Holland as saying. “It is very important that everyone who is eligible to vote can vote.”
Despite a very competitive election featuring former Ontario NDP leader Andrea Howath running for mayor, turnout in Hamilton dropped from 38 per cent in 2018 to 35 per cent in 2022.
Elaine Della-Mattia of Post Media reported in April 2022 on the efforts of Sault Ste. Marie city clerk Rachel Tyczinski, with a much humbler budget of $15,000, to increase turnout .
There was hope with a full field of candidates for 2022 that voter interest would be piqued. The city had previously rejected internet voting because “of system flaws” and was looking for other options for increasing voter turnout.
Della-Mattia reported that Tyczinski settled on new options for voters that began with educational packages being sent out to schools “hoping that students would encourage parents to vote.”
The city also used social media, the municipal website and traditional media to show voters how to get on the voters’ list and how “quick and easy” voting was.
In 2022, voters in Sault Ste. Marie could vote at home and have the ballot picked up by city election staff, have an authenticated proxy vote, or vote by mail.
Last, free transit was available on election day so people could make it to the polls with a minimum of fuss and bother. All voters needed to do was present their voter’s card to the driver for a ride to the bus stop closest to the poll of their choice.
Despite these widespread changes to traditional voting, turnout in Sault Ste. Marie actually dropped from 40 per cent in 2018 to 38 per cent in 2022.
Is it the voter or the system that is the problem?
“I am not sure anyone has an answer to voter apathy,” Mayor Doug Elmslie said. “It was an important election because of the large change (in council members) but that did not resonate with voters.”
Ward One councillor Emmett Yeo also focused on the voter rather than the systems in place for voting. “In an effort to change poor turnouts in municipal elections I believe we first have to understand the reasons for this pattern, and I think it’s more than just the process. I feel some people are apathetic and feel disenchanted with governing bodies. Maybe they don’t see outcomes, or feel they don’t have a voice.”
For anyone who feels this way, Yeo suggested that making an effort to be informed pays off. “I strongly encourage people to get involved, know the issues and join a community group. Some people are simply not interested in voting, never have, never will. These people are just too preoccupied with other aspects of their lives and have no desire to vote.
“Sadly I think there is a growing sector who have learned a severe distrust and even hatred of government at all levels. This is dangerous and a threat to our democratic way of life.”
Ward Three councillor Mike Perry agreed. “We certainly need more kindness and respect when discussing politics. A lack of civility turns people off the whole political system, from not putting their names forward as candidates to not voting at all.”
Deputy mayor Tracy Richardson, who represents Ward Eight, believes that council has to engage voters in all four years of its term if it wants to increase turnout.
“(It is important) that residents pay attention to budgets, how money is being spent and how we need to financially plan for the future. The past term (the city) has been more responsive putting out communications regarding council meetings and with the Jump In platform getting more engagement on our city projects.”
Noting that almost every municipality is struggling with the same question, Richardson said “It is a subconscious decision that a voter makes on their own whether you vote or not. The critical key is understanding what motivates voters to vote.”
She and Ritchie agree that there is a need for more information about candidates before the vote.“(I think) there needs to be a one-stop shop,” Richardson said. “One portal that allows residents to find all the candidates running and pertinent information (about their platforms).”
Ritchie likewise said she wished that information about candidates and their platforms were easier to access.
“We heard consistently from voters that they did not or weren’t sure if they would vote because they did not know who was running or what they stood for. They hadn’t received a flyer, hadn’t heard from a candidate at the door, didn’t know of a local debate, or hadn’t read about the issues in the local media. We regularly heard from electors that they wanted more debates, roundtable discussions, pamphlets and door knocking.”
By provincial legislation, however, the city cannot provide that information. Provincial regulations state the city can only host a list of certified candidates and their contact information on the city website.
“When voters are aware of the candidates and feel a connection to the issues of the day,” Ritchie said, “voter turnout increases. In this past election, where there were urgent local issues the turnout was by far the highest. The turnout was in fact higher than in 2018.”
Ward Two councillor Pat Warren wondered if making voting compulsory, as a nations such as Australia and Brazil do, might be worthy of study.
In Australia, where voting has been compulsory since 1924, turnout in the last round of federal elections was almost 95 per cent. Australian voters may select “none of the above” or even submit a blank ballot. Regardless, they have to attend a polling station in person or pay a fine equivalent to $20 Canadian for a first-time offence.
All elections in Australia are on Saturdays, and election days are national holidays. Children are encouraged to come to the poll with their parents, and many polling stations in larger urban areas feature playground equipment, pony rides and local food vendors on election days.
Australian voters also have the option of voting at any polling station, not just the one closest to their primary dwelling.
Perry and Ward Four councillor Dan Joyce say they want to increase youth engagement in municipal politics.
“We need to find a way to nudge this demographic the right way to participate in the election process,” Joyce said.
Perry said he will have an intern assist him (at the councillor’s own expense) in his work as councillor. He also plans to start a youth community service award in Ward Three this spring to encourage youth to become involved in their towns and villages.
Ward Six councillor Ron Ashmore, long an advocate for paper ballots and voting at a polling station to increase turnout, particularly among those who might lack confidence or comfort with technology, has several allies on council this term. Elmslie, Perry, Joyce and Ward Five councillor Eric Smeaton also say that they are in favour of looking at the return of paper ballots as part of some kind of hybrid voting model.
Smeaton offered an even more radical solution to increasing voter turnout. “I wonder if a 10-day stretch,” Smeaton said, “with all the right intentions, may in fact create a lessening of interest?”
Instead, he suggested, a return to a fixed voting day might increase a sense of “electricity”. “I think that one day of voting creates a surge of ‘Today is the day I vote, a day I decide something very important.’”
Joyce suggested that each ward should have multiple places to vote in person, even if they are not accessible, to give people more choices of locations to cast their ballot. “In Ward Four the only in-person voter location was in Woodville, which in my mind is unacceptable for residents who live in Valentia for example. We should (also) have had in-person voting alternatives in Little Britain, Oakwood and Manilla.”
Ritchie said she would also like to see increased voter turnout among seasonal residents.
“These voters vote almost 50 per cent less often than resident electors. This is why municipal election turnouts are often lower than their federal and provincial counterparts,” although it’s not for a lack of effort on the city’s part. ”Communication efforts to reach seasonal residents begin the first of the year with information on every tax bill and continues through the election period.”
Ritchie and Joyce both said that voter lists need to be updated well in advance of an election so that everyone has a chance to vote and no one is deprived of the vote because the paperwork to get on the list appears to be overwhelming.
Joyce also noted that up to date lists protect the system’s integrity.
“My door knocking revealed that some households received voter cards for their adult children who no longer reside with their parents. What is to stop a parent from using their child’s voter card to pad their vote? Having an accurate voter list is paramount.”
Elections Ontario will take over the creation and maintenance of municipal voter lists, which were previously overseen by the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, or MPAC.
“Elections Ontario are the experts in running elections,” Ritchie said, “and should have better tools, technology and resources to ensure voter lists are up to date. The municipality spends significant time and resources educating the public on how to check if they are on the voters list before the voting period opens, and even more time during the voting period assisting those who are not on the list. . . . This is stressful for voters and ideally will be minimized in the next election.”