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As cities continue to grow, so too must democratic engagement

City hall in Toronto, Ontario

Of any vote cast in Canada, perhaps the most important is one for a city councillor or a mayor. About 97 per cent of all Canadian politicians are working at the city level and local politics have a powerful impact on our daily lives.

Social housing, policing, transit, garbage collection and many other day-to-day services are provided by municipalities in Canada, yet despite their importance, voter turnout is usually only around 40 per cent in cities in Ontario.

"In general, local politicians are more responsive to you ... [they] know that every vote matters," says Department of Politics and Public Administration professor Michael McGregor.

When eligible voters stay home, their voices are silenced at a time when politicians are making important decisions on big issues related to climate change, taxes and spending, and public services. Ryerson University researchers are working hard to get people engaged and to polls on election day.

Ontario voting sign

Stronger local elections

One of the biggest factors in voter turnout is the competitiveness of the election, says McGregor. "If your vote is not going to matter, or the likelihood your vote is going to matter is very low, then people are less likely to come out," he says.

People often stay home when a candidate has a large lead in the polls or when there is a perception among the public the vote will not be close.

In the last Toronto mayoral election, for example, the eventual winner John Tory enjoyed a commanding lead from the start over his main rival, Jennifer Keesmaat, leading to fewer people turning up on election day.

"You see this in the United States with the presidential elections where they have the Electoral College and turnout in the blowout states, all other things equal, is generally lower because it again doesn't matter," says McGregor.

"If I'm a Democrat in California, I don't need to vote because enough other Democrats are going to vote. That's a significant issue."

There are several ways to make Canadian municipal elections of the future more competitive. Term limits for incumbent leaders, for example. The introduction of a party system would make it clear to voters where a candidate stands politically, says McGregor.

Increasingly, municipalities are making changes to their local elections. In 2018, London, Ont. became the first city in Canada to use a ranked ballot system, which delivered a city council that more closely matched the way people voted. Several small towns allowed online voting for the first time.

These changes at the local level could eventually go provincial or national, given time and success. "Local elections really are the laboratories of electoral reform in this country," says McGregor.

"We've got ranked ballots, we've got Internet voting, referendums on changing various things, so there's lots going on."

Crowd of potential young voters

Engaging the next generation of voters

Ryerson Senior Democratic Engagement Advisor John Beebe is helping young people find their voices in Canada's elections through the university's Democratic Engagement Exchange.

"We start with asking the questions: ‘What matters to you? What are the issues that you care about?'," he says. "One of the things we often hear from the community members that we work with is: ‘No one's ever asked me that question before.'"

People who do not vote in elections are often young, racialized, marginalized or a combination of the three. In the last federal election, about eight million Canadians eligible to vote did not cast a ballot on election day.

The Exchange's two core programs — Democracy Talks and Vote Pop Up — target those problems by highlighting the importance of participating in elections while at the same time demystifying the act of voting in order to make it more accessible.

"Whether it's climate change, or support for education, or issues related to housing — all of these are issues that are particularly impactful for young people," says Beebe. "If they're not voting, the political parties will ignore their perspectives."

To date Democracy Talks activities have been delivered by 175 organizations in 25 communities across Canada. Vote Pop Up has been adapted for use by Elections Canada, Elections Ontario and Elections B.C., and has been downloaded by over 500 people in more than 100 towns and cities across Canada.

The work of the Exchange and organizations like it seem to be having an effect. In the last federal election, voter turnout among young people went up an unprecedented 18 percentage points.

"What we're building for the long-term is really an infrastructure for democracy that doesn't exist in Canada in terms of non-partisan democratic engagement," Beebe says. "It's about building that out and providing the core tools and resources."


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