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A voter enters a poling station to cast their ballot in Toronto's Spadina-Fort York district on Sept. 20.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Voter turnout has sagged to new lows in this fall’s Ontario municipal elections, as residents in cities across the southernmost region shrugged at the candidates on offer and stayed away from the polls in large numbers.

Even in the races on Monday that featured high-profile people vying for a new role – former provincial party leaders Andrea Horwath and Steven Del Duca ran for mayor of Hamilton and Vaughan – a strong majority of voters tended not to bother coming out.

There has been a long-term trend of residents in many Canadian cities skipping municipal elections. And in some southern Ontario cities that tried online voting, it’s not obvious this moved the dial.

Barrie went fully virtual with its ballots this election and had about the same turnout as in 2018. Vaughan was online for advance voting and in-person for election day, and also saw no overall bump.

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But Vaughan’s city clerk, Todd Coles, called the shift a success, noting that the number of people using advance polls leapt from 4.5 per cent of eligible voters in 2018 to 16.2 per cent this election.

“At the end of the day, fully 60 per cent of all ballots cast for this election for us were cast online,” he said. “What we saw was a shift in the way people were voting. They definitely took advantage of the online option.”

It’s not clear whether the boost in advance voting staved off an overall drop in turnout, as seen elsewhere. Mr. Coles would not speculate, saying only that multiple factors can affect participation.

Alan Broadbent, the chair and founder of the anti-poverty foundation, Maytree, worries that low voter engagement prevents new viewpoints coming to the fore at a time of significant challenges.

“It’s one of those things that leads to that high level of incumbency in municipal elections,” he said.

“So if you get a big thing that maybe didn’t used to be a big thing … in my mind a pretty clear housing crisis, you don’t get people who are going to look at how to deal with that crisis differently than the people we had before.

Various theories suggest voter disinterest is rooted in the lack of political parties locally, a limited understanding by voters of what city governments do and the gradual rise of tenant populations, which tend to vote less.

But Nelson Wiseman, professor emeritus in the department of political science at the University of Toronto, said another factor in his city’s election could be as simple as the candidates on offer. He pointed to the 2014 election, when John Tory ran against Olivia Chow and Doug Ford, the brother of scandal-plagued former mayor Rob Ford, and turnout was over 50 per cent.

But in Monday’s election, Mr. Wiseman said the contrast between those running for office was less stark.

“People were saying, gee, the issues are housing and transportation, safety, traffic,” he said. “And I’m thinking, yeah, okay, well, who’s against housing? I don’t see any product differentiation here.”

The number of registered voters casting a ballot in Toronto fell from 41 per cent in 2018 to about 30 per cent this year, according to unofficial figures.

That is on the high side for the region. In Hamilton, where Ms. Horwath won, turnout was about 35 per cent. Mississauga had 28.1 per cent and Brampton, where Diwali celebrations may have affected turnout, registered 24 per cent. (After Toronto and Ottawa, these are the biggest cities in the province.)

Renan Levine, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, argues the numbers are a cause for concern.

“Certain demographics/interests are always more likely to vote – leaving other voices/interests less represented,” he wrote in an e-mail exchange.

“Voting can be a habit. Once established, people tend to vote and vote and vote. This is important when they become especially dissatisfied – they know what to do with that opinion.”