Voters in Toronto will be going to the polls in two months for a mayoral by-election that will be, in typical Toronto fashion, an underwhelming event.
Made necessary by the inglorious departure of ex-mayor John Tory in February, the June 26 by-election will feature all that is wrong with the way Toronto elects its mayors.
It could, though, also be the moment when the flaws in the system become so apparent that Canada’s most populous city gets the electoral makeover that it needs. Which is to say, the creation of political parties at the municipal level.
The problem starts with the ludicrously low bar for becoming a mayoral candidate. All that’s required is a $200 fee and 25 signatures. There is something quaint about making it so easy to run for mayor, but the result is not optimal.
Voters in June will once again be faced with a phone book-like ballot with at least 50 candidates on it organized alphabetically by last name. This undifferentiated list includes candidates that range from runners-up in previous mayoral contests, a few sitting and former councillors and provincial legislators, a former Liberal MP, a former Toronto police chief, dozens of grassroots activists, a gaggle of perennial no-hopers who’ve never received more than 0.5 per cent of the vote, and a man who once advocated for the colonization of the ozone layer.
Turnout will likely be atrocious. It was less than 30 per cent in the city’s general municipal election last fall. By-elections generally produce lower turnouts, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that fewer than one in four Torontonians will bother to have a say in who their next mayor is.
Given that the vote will likely be divided among four or five leading candidates, the winner could be someone that only one in 10 eligible voters actually chooses.
The new wrinkle is that this person will be endowed with the “strong mayor” powers that the Ontario government granted the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa last year.
Which means the next Toronto mayor will be able to veto bylaws related to the housing crisis or to the building of infrastructure, and introduce budgets and veto proposed amendments to them. The veto can only be overturned by a two-thirds majority on council.
As well, the mayor will be able to create or dissolve council committees, and hire or dismiss city department heads (excluding the chief of police and auditor-general).
In other words, the next mayor, who may well have one of the weakest mandates in recent history, will also have unprecedented powers that are grossly undemocratic. It’s quite something to imagine that a person who only one in 10 Torontonians voted for could hold so much unilateral sway over their lives.
Creating political parties in Toronto could change all of this. It would be far from unprecedented: Municipal parties have long existed in Montreal and Vancouver. And their benefits are many, especially in the context of Toronto’s electoral lethargy.
Adding partisan colours to municipal campaigns would raise turnout. Parties have an interest in getting out the vote, and in getting people to pay attention to the issues.
They also serve to differentiate between candidates, whether for council or the mayor’s seat, by aligning them with competing ideologies and visions. The name of a candidate on a list of 50 might be vaguely recognizable to a voter; their affiliation to a registered party with a published platform could fill in the blanks.
Perhaps above all, parties could create a counterweight to the province’s strong-mayor boondoggle. It would likely be harder for a mayor to act unilaterally. More likely, they wouldn’t have to, because they would already have the support of council, and a broad mandate from voters.
This is a debate Toronto needs to have. The city is coming out of decades of inaction on the key issues of housing and transit. Long-overdue transit lines are getting built, and the provincial government has put an emphasis on increasing housing density along those corridors.
As well, just last week, Toronto’s chief planner recommended allowing multiplex dwellings in the vast swaths of the city that are anachronistically zoned for single-family homes only.
Positive things are happening. This is the moment to revitalize Toronto’s moribund elections. A city of its size and complexity deserves a higher grade of politics.