The Death of Local Democracy?


Too lazy to vote?Thirty nine per cent. That was the risible turnout of voters for the local municipal election here in Collingwood. Significantly fewer than half of our eligible voters made the effort to participate in our democracy, even though they could vote in person or on the internet for three weeks.

It was never easier to cast a ballot, never been more convenient, never took less time, yet 61% of local voters chose not to.

Why? That’s a question that keeps me awake at night. It’s as though the majority of people here simply didn’t care enough about local government to spend a few minutes voting, and didn’t give a damn about Collingwood or its future. This is how democracy dies: not with a bang, but with a shrug of the shoulders.

BoredomWere voters just too lazy to vote? Too preoccupied with their mobile devices to learn about their choices or make the effort to make a selection? Simply uninterested in the process or the candidates?

Why would anyone want to live in a town they didn’t care about? Why wouldn’t people want to be part of what happens in the town they live in?

Collingwood’s low turnout was somewhat better than the much lower turnout in Barrie, where only 30% chose to vote. And it was better than the city of Waterloo, which saw a mere 27% turnout. Same turnout as Brantford. and better than Ajax at 22%. Or Brampton at 24%. Burlington at 27%. Orillia was 32%. Nearby Clearview was almost 32%, Town of the Blue Mountains was 29%. Toronto also had a 29% turnout, Peel Region 22%, Vaughan 27%, Hamilton 35%, Mississauga 22%, Aurora 26%, Newmarket 25%, and Innisfil 24%.

Ottawa was high at 44%. The politically active Wasaga Beach reached an impressive 48%, but that’s still fewer than half the eligible voters.

Overall, the voter turnout in Ontario in recent municipal elections was a mere 36.30%; an embarrassing, shameful turnout, and down from the abysmal 38% in the 2018 election. Across the province, in 2022 only a few more than one in three people voted for their local, municipal council.

Equally sad is the number of municipalities where no one came forward to challenge incumbents or other candidates. According to the AMO (Association of Municipalities of Ontario) website, 548 candidates (163 female) were acclaimed in 2022 out of 6,306 running (the number running was down from 6,658 in 2018); 139 heads of council (37 female) were acclaimed, and a full 32 councils were entirely acclaimed in 2022 (up from 26 in 2018). Overall, 179 councils out of Ontario’s 444 municipalities had one or more positions acclaimed.*

Since the early 1980s, when province-wide turnout for municipal elections was at 48%, the voter turnout has generally been falling. It reached 40% in 1997, and in 2010, it shot up to over 44%, but that seems to have been an anomaly and the numbers continued to fall.

VotingMunicipal governments are those closest to the voters: municipalities deal with the everyday issues of infrastructure, sidewalks, roads, water, electricity, parks, recreation, libraries, downtowns, snow clearing, garbage pickup, parking, farmers’ markets, property standards, property taxes, neighbourhoods, planning, fire and police… These are all things that affect every one of us intimately, every day. Yet although people complain loudly when these things go wrong or are broken, far too many voters treat municipal elections with disdain, refusing to participate. It’s a slap in the face of those who care.

Local councils are the lens through which our community makes its decisions about how it will develop, proceed, grow, or break. Every vote matters, at least to those who care about our town. And even better: municipal elections are non-partisan (or at least supposed to be). they don’t depend on the divisive party politics that affect our other levels of government. Local officials are those most able to be contacted, to be held accountable. But to do so, you need to vote.

As John Beebe, director of the Democratic Engagement Exchange at Toronto Metropolitan University, told the CBC, the low municipal election turnout should serve as a “wake-up call about the state of democracy and democratic engagement…This was abysmal and very worrying.”

Putting it in the context of Collingwood, there were more than 22,000 eligible voters. The new mayor was elected with 3,469, or about 15% of the electorate. About one in seven of the eligible voters. She received 2,399 votes fewer than the winning deputy mayor candidate, and had she been running for council, she would have just managed to place last out of seven councillors. Even based on the turnout, she won with less than 50% of the number of votes cast. How is that democracy? No government should be elected by a tiny minority of the electorate.**

This low turnout is not democracy in action: it is the avoidance of democracy. It is the avoidance of social responsibility for everyone who lives in an open, free society. And it both frightens and embarrasses me to see how many people simply ignore it.

We cannot maintain our democracy, we cannot make any demands of government openness or accountability without participation from the electorate. And voting is the easiest way to participate. In fact, it is for most of us the ONLY way we can maintain our democracy and have our say in government.

Despite what despotic gaslighters like Poilievre say, we live in one of the most open, free nations on the planet. According to numerous ranking agencies, Canada is rated in the top five nations based on our democratic principles and legislation. Freedom House, for example, gave Canada a rating of 87 out of 100 for 2021, placing us at number five in the world, after New Zealand, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. So why would people NOT participate in the process that sustains our nation?

In fact, the only way to keep us free and democratic, and to prevent the takeover of our governments by totalitarian, libertarian, and fascist ideologies is to vote for parties and individuals which oppose them. While municipalities are, at least in theory, non-partisan, we can still vote for candidates who offer alternatives to those repressive ideologies, who have a vision that benefits the greater good. At the very least, we should all vote.

An opinion piece in The National noted,

Many opt out of voting because they claim they’re too busy, have limited information on the candidates, or simply just don’t care. In the age of information, it seems rather shocking that people don’t know where to read about the candidates they are voting for. Does that say something about the lack of accessibility related to municipal election information?

While this is a bigger issue than any one municipality, in part, I blame the low turnout here on the inadequacies of both the local media and our lax municipal communications policy. Both, to be polite, have failed miserably to meet their responsibility to inform and educate the residents.

A lot of people I met on the campaign trail said the same thing: they didn’t know who was running, nor how to find out about them, or what the issues were. Many weren’t even aware they could vote online. A few didn’t even know where or when to vote.

And the municipality provided only the barest of information online, without linking to any local media where voters might go to learn more.

There is no local news coverage on either radio or TV, both the most popular forms of media for information. Neither of the two local radio stations have reporters who provide any local news coverage. Rogers TV broadcasts council meetings, but that’s only watchable if you have an account with Rogers, not Bell. And watching a council meeting does not offer any analysis or opinion about events, issues, or decisions. Nor will it inform viewers about candidates, their platforms, their issues. And some residents (us included) don’t even have any TV service.

As a recent CBC story noted, University of Windsor political scientist Lydia Miljan said:

The decline in local journalism also makes it difficult for voters to follow municipal races closely, she added. Local media outlets might lack the resources to cover city politics with the same scrutiny that provincial or federal politics receive, she said, leaving it up to voters to research candidates on their own.
“I think that the burden is much greater on the voter for a municipal race than a federal provincial race,” she said.

There is a single local print media here (the Connection, aka the flyer-wrapper) with limited space for actual news (they have an 85% advertising-to-other content model; the other content includes photos, editorial cartoon, opinion column, masthead, submitted lifestyle columns, social media quotes, and a little news). Additional news is often buried in the local news section of their regional website, requiring users to make menu choices to find it.

And that print media is even more localized and insular than the previous newspaper was (the former Enterprise-Bulletin, at its peak, covered councils, elections, and news from all neighbouring municipalities, not merely Collingwood). I can’t recall the last time the Connection published an editorial comment about local issues. It’s been many, many years, it seems.

No media provides any compelling editorial analysis, assessment, or opinion about council activities. No media asks tough questions, holds politicians accountable, puts their feet to the fire over failures and screw-ups. Too often all that gets published is an uncritical repeat of official releases or a desiccated description of how council voted without explanation of the issues or implications of decisions. Far too many times, reporters never ask “why?” That’s simply lazy.

The municipality does not send out any regular, printed material to inform residents of activities, events, legislation, or policies. The town uses a passive communications strategy that relies on residents looking for material online themselves. This means either finding municipal information on social media (requiring accounts on Facebook or Twitter) or going to the town’s website and attempting to find information through its user-hostile, ineffective search engine. But if you don’t know something is happening, how do you know to look for it? It’s almost as if the website and the communications policy were designed to discourage people seeking information.***

Collingwood isn’t alone among municipalities in sloughing off its responsibility to keep residents informed. Far too many municipalities have downloaded that responsibility onto the residents instead of making the effort to inform them actively and directly. They’ve abandoned the obligation of communicating directly with residents, requiring them to have computers and internet connections, as well as accounts on social media sites, and to spend hours trying to keep up to date or miss content flying by.

This not only disenfranchises many seniors and people on fixed incomes, it ignores the essential mechanics of social media feeds and timelines. Posts often don’t show up on every site (depending on what the site’s algorithm decides) or disappear in the ever-cascading stream of content (not to mention subscribers have to follow or friend or subscribe to those feeds individually).

To be sure they see something from any source, users need to be online and checking feeds constantly, for many hours every day, otherwise they may miss important messages. Nowhere was this more evident than when the town’s voting system suffered two outages on voting day. The town used social media only once, during what is for many the dinner period, to inform potential voters and offer alternatives.

That was, in effect, like spitting into a hurricane when everyone was hiding inside and expecting it to hit a particular target (and local media colluded by not publishing a word about the outage since the election, failing to even ask the municipality the cause). What should have been a front-page story has been just… silence.

CollingwoodToday, a solely online media, provides more online news and general content media than the Connection, but again residents have to go online and check it. At least this outlet has an email blast to subscribers that lists recent news and feature articles on the site. It did a modestly better job at informing its readers about the municipal candidates than the Connection, although local stories may often be ignored by reporters for no apparent reason (like this one about Trebor).

The combination of flaccid local media, inadequate town communications, and an uninformed electorate struggling to even identify candidates helped make this one of the lowest turnouts in Collingwood’s (and Ontario’s) history.

I’ve heard people try to excuse the voter ennui on such things as having no triggering issue to engage voters, or lack of public access to candidates (limited public events to hear and see them), a feeling the election was “already decided” so why bother, and even the vague ‘voter fatigue.’ But these alone are not sufficient to account for the low turnout.

I will argue that both the media and the municipality have a responsibility to engage the public more actively, more fully and both have failed to do so.

Collingwood, and Ontario, deserve better.

Other levels of government

The last provincial election, held in June 2022, saw the lowest voter turnout in Ontario’s history: about 42%, down a whopping 15.5 points from the turnout in the 2018 election. And the PCs won less than 41% of the votes cast — receiving about 1.9 million votes out of 10.7 million eligible voters — but it was enough to make them the ruling party.

Voter turnout in 2002 in our Simcoe-Grey riding was only 43%, and the PC candidate, won with only 22% of the eligible voters, barely one in five. That’s not democracy.

Federally, voter turnout is much better, but still far from what it should be. According to Elections Canada, the highest voter turnouts in federal elections were in 1958, 1962 and 1963, when voter turnout was over 79%. But in 2008 voter turnout was only 58.8%. It rose in 2015 to 66%, and a little more again in 2019 to 67.0%.

Canada should consider implementing a law similar to that in Australia where voters have to cast a ballot or be fined. The legislation has been in effect for the past century, and since then 31 other countries have introduced compulsory voting. See here for details. That site notes (emphasis added),

The turnout at Australian elections has never fallen below 90% since the introduction of compulsory voting in 1924…
Proponents of compulsory voting argue that voting is a civic duty comparable to other duties citizens perform, such as taxation, compulsory education and jury duty…
The legitimacy of a government formed by a voluntary turnout could also be questioned
Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, however, states that “rights and freedoms” are subject to “duties to the community”, including the “just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society”.

Canada deserves this, too.

* While there are 444 municipalities, some are upper tier and don’t hold direct elections. Only 417 of Ontario’s municipalities have elections. See AMO’s site here, which adds:

6,306 candidates compete for the 2,860 elected positions up for grabs. 406 of the 2,860 elected officials also sit on the upper tier, for a total of 3,266 seats. In 2022, 692 incumbents did not run compared to 607 in 2018.

** Hamlin invitationOur mayor-elect also promoted a slate to fill all seven council seats with her chosen candidates during the election campaign. She was able to fill five of them with her favourites. This is the same undemocratic tactic our former mayor took when he campaigned in 2018.
A slate is NOT a council: it’s a politburo. This was another attack on local democracy: the public was being told how to vote, not being encouraged to make their own choices. That’s a very Stalinist tactic and bodes ill for the future.

*** Ironically, the more engaged you are on social media, the less likely you are to see a particular post or tweet. The more followers/friends you have and the more you follow or friend (or join groups, subscribe to pages, etc.) all mean more content flowing through your timeline. And the more active you are in posting, commenting, or tweeting, the more active the site’s algorithms are in connecting you to ads, sponsored material, and what they see as related content. All of this activity adds more and more content to your already busy stream, and the algorithms can delete or hide what may otherwise be important, such as a town notice that voting has been extended. Social media is an ineffective platform for communication.

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  1. Susan

    I too was out canvassing for a candidate this past election. I noticed much of the same as you did. There was a need at the doors, more often than not, to provide the details on where to find information on the individual candidates, the date of the election, the processes available for voting and the two meet the candidates meetings at the legion. No one seemed to know that all Collingwood council/committee meetings can be watched ( live or taped ) on Collingwood YouTube channel. I am not making excuses just sharing facts. Communication is sorely missing.

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