With the incumbent mayor re-elected and no great upheaval on city council, the big news out of Monday’s Toronto election was the voter turnout – and the news was particularly bad. Just 29 per cent of eligible voters managed to cast a ballot, the lowest figure since Toronto took on its current shape as an amalgamated city a quarter century ago.
That is a significant decline from the figure four years back (41 per cent), and an even bigger drop from the elections of 2014 (55 per cent) and 2010 (51 per cent). Across Ontario, turnout in local elections went down to 33 per cent, a five point decrease since 2018. In the 20 years before 2018, it hovered between 40 and 45 per cent.
Some cities posted even worse numbers than Toronto’s dismal 29. Turnout in Kitchener was 20 per cent, in Mississauga 21, in London 25 and in Brantford 27.
None of this says good things about the health of local democracy. Who is at fault?
Some blame the politicians, especially those who stay on too long. In Toronto, the election for mayor pitted a two-term incumbent against … well, against no one anybody had really heard of. His only serious opponent was an earnest and energetic urban consultant, Gil Penalosa.
At the ward level, several of the 25 sitting councillors chose not to run again, opening up a few seats for newcomers, but many cobwebbed veterans hung grimly on, trusting in simple name recognition to carry them through.
The result was the dullest election campaign since amalgamation. But the fact that this was a snoozer doesn’t excuse or fully explain the absence of so many voters on election day. Even in Hamilton, where former Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath just narrowly beat Keanin Loomis, former head of the local chamber of commerce, only 35 per cent of voters turned out.
Others blame the low turnout on the election system, claiming there are still too many barriers to voting. They must be kidding. Voting has never been simpler. People in Toronto just had to show up at their local polling stations between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m., show some form of identification and follow the clear instructions for filling out their ballots.
Those who couldn’t make it out on Monday could have voted in early polls, filled out mail-in ballots or, in many municipalities, even voted online or by phone. So voting is not only a basic civic duty, it’s easy as pie.
Still, others blame a lack of information about who was running and what they stood for. That is a stretch, too. Even in an age when media resources are less bountiful than they once were, it was not hard in a place like Toronto to find profiles of the main mayoral candidates and articles on the big issues. A host of blogs, websites, newsletters and other platforms have appeared in recent years to track municipal politics.
Doing a little research of your own was simple, too. Anyone with an interest could easily have watched one of their city’s election debates or forums or all-candidates meetings. If they were too busy for that, they could have found the candidates’ own websites and pronouncements with a click or a screen tap.
No, blaming others for the problem of low turnout just won’t do. To find who is really responsible, we should take a hard look in the mirror instead.
Modern voters are distracted, disengaged and frustrated. They have had it up to their eyeballs with politicians who speak in canned talking points and engage in meaningless slanging matches with each other. Skepticism is curdling into cynicism.
But staying home on election day won’t solve anything. If residents are frustrated with seeing the same old faces on city council year-after-year, the solution is simple: send them packing on election day.
Instead of throwing up their hands and opting out of the whole business, they should try paying a little attention. They should try giving a damn. They should try voting.