Low voter turnout in municipal elections

If the Toronto election was so exciting, why did less than 40% of eligible voters show up at the polls? Andrew Spicer cites lousy voting hours and poor distribution of voting cards. I tend to agree on Andrew’s latter point, but I’d have to disagree with the former. The hours for voting in this year’s municipal election were largely the same as those for the provincial election.

Poor voter turnout in municipal elections can be largely attributed to voter perception, or rather misperception, of their importance. Ask most people to order the three levels of government in order of importance from highest to lowest and most will probably cite the federal level as the most important, followed by provincial and finally municipal. The perception is that municipal politics is boring, doesn’t matter and that the larger issues are at the provincial and federal levels. That could not be more wrong.

Our municipal government is the level of government which affects us the most. If the federal government were somehow wiped out tomorrow, how long would its absence go unnoticed? Those receiving EI payments would notice within two weeks, but most of us probably wouldn’t miss the federal level of government for months. The same goes for provincial. The absence of a municipal government, however, would be noted almost immediately: there would be no garbage collection, no building permits, or no parking permits, among other things.

Because of the low level of interest in local politics, municipal government lends itself more easily to corruption. It is much easier to broker shady deals when nobody is looking. (No doubt the lack of a scrutinising opposition party also increases the likelihood of corruption.) We need voters to pay more attention to local politics so that corruption may be avoided. However, people often cite government corruption as a cause of voter apathy.

It’s a catch-22. How do we get people interested in local politics so that corruption is avoided, when the corruption is what repels them? I don’t have the answers, but I hope that it starts with an election like the one we saw in Toronto earlier this week. David Miller’s promise to clean up City Hall seemed to attract a lot of attention. If he is successful, it could rekindle interest in participation at the local level and, hopefully, increase voter turnout to non-abysmal levels.

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