Written by Erin Tolley
Municipal politics are often touted as the level of government “closest to the people,” the arena where the rubber hits the proverbial (potholed) road. So why then don’t more people get involved in municipal politics? In a recent Nanos survey, one-third of Ontario voters said they weren’t even aware that the province is in the midst of a municipal election campaign.
In 2014, voter turnout in municipal elections across Ontario averaged 43%, a figure that falls short of turnout in recent provincial or federal elections. Turnout can vary widely, however. The highest municipal voter turnout in Ontario in 2014 was reported by the town of Latchford, where 87% of eligible voters cast ballots; that compares to just 16% of Petawawa’s voters. The city of Toronto, meanwhile, saw voter turnout rise significantly in 2014, an increase that some suggested was spurred by the tumultuous tenure of mayor Rob Ford.
Next door, in Mississauga, the 2014 retirement of long-time mayor Hazel McCallion meant that the race for the city’s top job was wide open. Even so, just 37% of the city’s eligible voters turned out to vote, with the winning candidate, Bonnie Crombie, garnering 63% of ballots cast. This time around, the incumbent faces seven challengers. It’s a broad field, but thus far, the only facet of the city’s election that has garnered any sustained attention is an ongoing court case involving a mayoral candidate charged with the willful promotion of hate.
Across the province, when respondents to the Nanos survey were asked why they likely won’t vote in the coming municipal election, the most common reason they gave is that they don’t follow politics or don’t know enough (30%). A further 19% said they aren’t interested or never vote, while a further 12% said they don’t like political parties or politicians. Reasons related to voting ineligibility (11%) and inaccessibility (10%) were lower on the list, as was the notion that voting wouldn’t make a difference (9%). Many of these findings mirror the explanations unearthed in academic research on low voter turnout. Political scientists also point to socio-economic factors that are correlated with voting, such as age, educational attainment, and income, as well as institutional features, including the electoral system and ballot structure that are associated with higher voter turnout.
Voter turnout is but one metric that scholars use to track democratic health, but low voter turnout is a sign that voters feel disconnected from their governments or disinterested in civic life. Low voter turnout is a threat to political legitimacy and may ultimately undermine the mandate given to elected officials.
In the Nanos survey, of those who said that they are likely to vote in the 2018 municipal election, fully two-thirds were motivated by their sense of civic responsibility. These citizens vote because they feel that they should. Only 35% said they vote because they want a say on a particular policy issue. Maybe this is good news in a city like Mississauga, where the election campaign has thus far been relatively lackluster. With an incumbent mayor who is favoured to win and no clear galvanizing issue, voter turnout may be driven by those who aren’t necessarily excited about their duty but simply feel an obligation exercise it.
Erin Tolley is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto and a co-investigator on the Canadian Municipal Election Study.