Ending voter apathy

Don’t forget the comments.


Posted on March 8/10 by Hilary Clark – The Agenda

Barely half of eligible Ontarians voted in the last province election. That looked respectable compared to turnout in Toronto’s last municipal race: just two out of five eligible Torontonians bothered make their mark in 2006. Sinking numbers at the ballot box seems to be hitting all levels of government in most establish western democracies. Should it be understood as apathy, alienation or, conversely, that people are so happy with the way things are they just don’t have anything to say? Tonight’s broadcast considers a different possibility. The nuts and bolts of elections matter to voter turnout – from who gets to cast a ballot, to where it’s cast and how it’s tabulated, to how many times a person can stand for office.

Dave Meslin and his band of merry municipal reformers at Better Ballots think it’s time to take a serious look at how cities in Ontario elect the people who do the heavy lifting on local issues. Behind their initiative – a city-wide series of public conversations aimed at widespread municipal electoral reform – lurks the key assumption that the way the system works counts for a big part of why people aren’t voting. They’re betting that new rules to help get fresh voices and innovative ideas into the mix will both bring in new voters and re-engage the disengaged.

Desmond Cole, who heads up I Vote Toronto, agrees that changing the rules could help change the game. The amendment he’s advocating seeks to give non-citizens the right to vote in municipal elections, and already has 67 local groups supporting of the move. In a city like Toronto, where over 50,000 newcomers settle every year, will adding more than 200,000 permanent residents to the voter rolls increase turnout or just turn out the same as usual? For some, it’s a controversial initiative that gets their true patriot love crying foul that such a move diminishes a core component of citizenship. But Cole argues that letting people wait several years to engage in the political process only trains future citizens to be disengaged.

While local enthusiasts battle for change at the municipal level, reform and rule changes are also the order of the day at the provincial level. Ontario’s chief electoral officer Greg Essensa put forward a number of recommendations that Queen’s Park will consider in the coming months. In the meantime, he says Elections Ontario will do all it can to get Ontarians out to vote, especially by ensuring a complete and accurate voters list. But ultimately, in his view, turnout is a shared responsibility – the system, the politicians, the media and the voters themselves – and all need to do their part. And neither he nor Laura Stephenson who spoke to the Agenda earlier this season, think there’s an appetite for big time reform of the sort put forward by the Citizen’s Assembly in 2007.

What do you think? Could electoral reform really help bolster voter turnout? If you don’t vote, why not? Do you do something else that makes you feel engaged in your community? Is there anything reformers could do to get you to the ballot box? Or do you think apathy rules the day, and there’s not much to be done about it… tell us what you think below.

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