Municipal and school elections this fall, but how many will care?

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This is again the time when voters can vote for the levels of government most likely to impact their daily lives.

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Yet many Ontarians have no idea what individual candidates like or intend to do when they vote in municipal elections.

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Local city council and school board election campaigns begin in earnest in September, culminating in voting once every four years on October 24.

Dr. Robert MacDermid, a professor emeritus in York University’s department of politics, said voter turnout in municipal and school board elections remains generally lower than in provincial and federal campaigns.

In the last municipal election in 2018, it is estimated that less than 40% of registered voters voted.

Many people choose not to vote because they feel they don’t have enough information, MacDermid said.

“We often vote in a low-information environment where not only do people not have consistent platforms…I want to know what they think on big issues, I want to know if they’re left-wing or right-wing, more generally, to be able to assess how they might behave in an unknown circumstance in the future,” he said. “Are they going to raise taxes or are they going to lower taxes, are they going to lower Services ?

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The absence of political parties is one of the ways Ontario’s municipal campaigns stand out from most other jurisdictions.

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Municipal seats and offices are contested by Democrats and Republicans in the US and by Labour, Conservatives and Liberals in the UK, MacDermid said.

“It helps people organize the kind of disparate viewpoints of candidates,” he said. “We’ve all voted in school elections where you frankly have no idea what the candidate stands for…I’m not trying to say the parties are perfect – for heaven’s sake they’re not — but they give voters a clue as to what the candidate stands for.

Critics of political parties at the municipal level have noted that non-aligned candidates are free to vote as they wish on issues and are arguably better able to reflect the real opinions of their constituents.

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At the provincial and federal levels, votes are “whipped” and government MPs rarely have the luxury of voting against their own party and leader’s position.

However, McDermid noted that municipal candidates may have other influences, such as real estate developers, and face very little scrutiny outside of larger jurisdictions.

Another problem is finding candidates willing to join a race – dozens of candidates were cheered on this time around because no one ran against them.

While there are people interested in city or school politics, many quickly find the process can be intimidating, the voters demanding, the social media brutal and the salaries inadequate, he said.

Yet city government remains a place where critical decisions are made about everything from what gets built at the end of the block to whether a child has a place to swim or skate.

“It’s a shame because these things are so important in people’s daily lives,” MacDermid said.

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Melissa C. Keyes