How bad was it?
A look at voter turnout in Waterloo Region
Last week, I shared what I considered the high- and low-lights of the municipal election. Of course, most disappointing of all was the dismal voter turnout.
Voter turnout in Kitchener sank to just over 20%, a significant decrease from 28% in 2018. Cambridge and Waterloo had higher turnouts than Kitchener (likely due to the more competitive mayoral races there), but at 29% and 27% respectively, they are still discouraging numbers. In 2018, Cambridge’s voter turnout was 32% and Waterloo’s was 34% (still nothing to write home about, but much better than this year). Check out the Association of Municipalities Ontario site if you’re interested in seeing voter turnout and results in other Ontario municipalities.
But why such a low turnout this year? The Record believes that, “It could have been fear of COVID-19. It could have been the diversion of Diwali. Or it could have been not knowing who to vote for, plain and simple.”
While it’s unlikely to be the only cause, I agree with Tom Galloway’s assessment when he says that individual voters must “do a lot of the work themselves to figure out whom to support”, since there are no political parties at the municipal level.
While the issue of low voter turnout comes up at every election, this year author Dave Meslin decided he wanted to do something about it. In his riding of Grey Highlands, Meslin created the Grey Highlands Municipal League with the goal of increasing voter turnout by 50% with a budget of $1 per voter. In his municipality, that worked out to a budget of ~$10,000 which was spent on “creative advertising to attract candidates as well as printed, full-colour ‘candidate menus’ for every resident.” While many consider low voter turnout as inevitable, especially at the municipal level, Dave Meslin saw it as an opportunity, “We have this great opportunity (with municipal elections): let’s show people that it can be done differently and that it can be done better.”
The Grey Highlands Municipal League’s website states that their “Job Posting leaflet helped Grey Highlands break records for candidate recruitment while the rest of the province saw record lows. And our unprecedented Candidate Menu showed Canada what election education materials should look like!”
Dave Meslin isn’t new to the local democracy game, either. He’s the author of several Spacing articles and a book on the topic, Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up. In his TED Talk, Meslin challenges the idea that apathy is the cause of low voter turnout. Instead, he “identifies 7 barriers that keep us from taking part in our communities, even when we truly care”. Meslin concludes that we must “redefine apathy, not as some kind of internal syndrome, but as a complex web of cultural barriers that reinforces disengagement.”
So, after Meslin’s experiment in Grey Highlands, what conclusions does he draw?
“The main thing I learned is this: that if you want to boost turnout on election day, it has to be a four-year process. You have to create voter engagement for the entire council term.”
Meslin has some thoughts about what that might look like: “You have to get people paying attention to the budget process every year — make sure that they feel involved and engaged in how their money is being spent. The same way that we mailed out colourful brochures and leaflets for the election, I think there’d be a lot of value in having a group like the Municipal League creating fun, educational materials between elections.”
So, what’s next for the Municipal League? “Meslin is not yet sure what will come of the league after Monday. Maybe it will host events and policy debates. Or it might focus on its creative, digestible political materials. Maybe it will disband altogether. “I’ll ask my team,” he says. “See what they think.”
Meslin sums up his experience with the Municipal League this way: “I spent $10,000 doing outreach on this election. I think that’s the municipality’s job, and it should probably be at least twice that amount, which is still only $2 per voter. But, I mean, if you’re not spending $2 per voter in an election year to help people be informed about the election, I kind of think you’re not doing your job.”
I suspect Sam Nabi may agree with some of Dave Meslin’s conclusions. In his recent newsletter, Nabi noted that, “The measure of success for progressive movements isn’t that our candidate got into office, that’s only the beginning.” He goes on, “The measure of success is that our neighbours don’t have to sleep in tents. That people don’t die in car crashes. That we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. That Indigenous peoples take land back. That we alleviate inequality. That police-free community care flourishes. That artists don’t leave this region due to rising rents.”
Nabi outlines the many amazing grassroots organizations pushing against the status quo, concluding that, “our elected leaders are most effective when they are pushed to do better by progressive voices outside city hall.” He also provides some great examples, such as O:se Kenhionata:tie Land Back Camp and A Better Tent City, noting that, “sometimes community leadership looks like just doing the damn thing and waiting for municipal governments to catch up.”
Sam Nabi concludes, “The best thing we can do between elections is to stay involved, somewhere, somehow, in a cause that’s meaningful to us. The politicians we elected can’t do it on their own. They need progressive residents to keep speaking up and build the political will to build a more just society.”
I couldn’t agree more! In addition to each of us staying involved in some way, there are a few other ideas and noteworthy initiatives to consider in order to increase turnout on election day.
What about the possibility of municipal political parties? While it’s not an idea I’d currently support, one of the most common questions I was asked at the door when I campaigned in 2018 was ‘Which party are you with?’ We have political parties at both the provincial and federal level, so I can understand why people assume that’s also the case for municipal politics. It’s not the case, of course, and John Michael McGrath breaks down why that is in this ‘Nerds on Politics’ piece. There, he says that many believe that political parties may simply bog down the day-to-day decisions that need to be made at the local level, noting that “There is no Republican or Democratic way of taking out the garbage.” -a quotation attributed to Fiorello LaGuardia. While it’s an American reference, I appreciate its point.
I think the city of Guelph’s initiative to collect feedback from residents about the elections may be worth emulating. Their website says they’re “looking for your feedback on how you experienced the 2022 municipal election. Your feedback will be used to inform how we plan and deliver future municipal elections.” They’re hoping respondents will let them know: if you voted in the election; how you learned and received information about the election; what your experience was during advanced polls and election day; and if locations and advanced voting dates were enough and spaced out well.’
Of course, my biggest concern with this approach is that I suspect most of the people willing to do this survey are likely to be the same people who voted in the election. I think that feedback will still be helpful, however, we really need to hear from those who did not vote in the municipal election.
Ranked ballots have often been suggested as one way to increase voter turnout (although I did find this short Twitter thread on Electoral System Families interesting). In fact, nearby London was the first municipality in Canada to use Ranked Choice Voting in 2018. However, in November 2020, the Province of Ontario enacted Bill 218, Supporting Ontario's Recovery and Municipal Elections Act, 2020. Schedule 2 of the Act removed the option of ranked ballot elections for Ontario municipalities meaning that London, and any other municipality hoping to offer ranked ballots, instead had to use the traditional first-past-the-post system.
Now, Richard Thaler notes in his book Nudge, that if we want more people to vote, we can “emphasize the stakes. Or, decrease the cost and burdens by making it easier for people to get to the polls. But, there is another way. It turns out that if you ask people, the day before the election, whether they intend to vote, you can increase the probability of their voting by as much as 25 per cent.” (Nudge, p.71). 25%! While we definitely need a multi-pronged approach to voter engagement, clearly, at a minimum, we need to find a way to ask residents to make a plan to vote.
Where does that leave us exactly? I think there are some great suggestions here for some tweaks (such as Guelph’s election survey) as well as some intriguing big ideas (like Dave Meslin’s Municipal League). But, most importantly, like Meslin and Nabi, I think it will take all of us putting in an effort to stay engaged with local issues in the in-between time between elections. Hopefully, Citified will help in some way, but I’d also love to hear your ideas to encourage more citizen engagement over the next four years. Comment below!