The one who knocks
City Hall Watcher #192: Erin Wotherspoon looks at what door-knocking reveals about civic engagement in 2022, plus way too much data on voter turnout
UPDATE: This issue has now emerged from beyond the paywall. If you dig it, please consider subscribing to City Hall Watcher to get content like this every week.
Hey there. Hope Back-to-School Season is treating you well. Did you buy yourself a new backpack? You deserve a new backpack. And maybe a protractor? Do students still use those? Anyway. Treat yourself.
But before you do that, let’s enjoy an issue of City Hall Watcher.
I’m taking a backseat this week in favour of an article contributed by Erin Wotherspoon. Erin is a freelance writer with a history of civic engagement. She was interested in sharing some thoughts based on her experience doing some door-knocking during this municipal election. I was happy to give her some space.
⚡️⚡️⚡️ Speaking of giving people space: if you’re a writer with an idea for a campaign-themed story, get in touch. I’d like to feature a bunch of election perspectives ahead of the October 24 vote. Send your pitches to email@example.com. All contributors will be paid, of course — and promptly.
Because I couldn’t resist, this issue also has a big chart inspired by Erin’s story. The accompanying analysis tries to answer a rather intriguing question: what could happen if voter turnout for Toronto’s municipal elections was in the same league as provincial and federal turnout in the city? How different would the results be?
To find out, read on!
— Matt Elliott
Big decisions, small interest: what door-knocking in 2022 reveals about Toronto’s civic engagement
By Erin Wotherspoon
From housing to public transit to dog poop, Toronto City Hall makes hundreds of decisions each year that directly impact our daily lives. But when compared with provincial and federal politics, City Hall draws the least engagement from its citizens.
“If you can see it, touch it, or smell it, it’s a municipal service,” says Councillor Gord Perks. “The average Torontonian engages with about thirty to forty municipal services every day, compared with only one or two provincial or federal services.”
But data shows municipal elections draw the lowest turnout compared with provincial and federal elections. In Toronto, the federal election in 2019 saw voter turnout in the city’s 25 ridings at 65%, while the pandemic election in 2021 came in at 58%. The most recent provincial election in June drew a record low turnout provincewide, and drew a mere 45.1% in the city. But that election still has Toronto’s last municipal election beat. In 2018’s mayoral and Council races, voter turnout was a slim 41%.
If those stats aren’t bad enough, voter turnout for this year’s municipal election is predicted to be even worse.
Most Canadians have some idea what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is up to, or at very least have an opinion about his hair. But how many citizens have any idea what their City councillor is debating at City Hall? Given the influence municipal politics have over our daily lives, would it not make more sense if local issues had the most interest? Plus — fun fact — you’re far more likely to score a lengthy meeting with your City councillor than receive any kind of acknowledgment from Trudeau, aside from a stale templated email.
With the upcoming 2022 municipal election, I’ve been hitting the pavement myself, canvassing in the York South-Weston ward. There’s nothing like some good old-fashioned door-knocking to take the city’s political temperature.
The result? Aside from a handful of interested citizens, the vast majority of Torontonians have no clue a municipal election is coming up. In addition, the relevance of a municipal election to most citizens remains unclear. What does it have to do with them? The consensus drawn on most Toronto porches, at least this election season, is nothing.
And yes, while I wholeheartedly agree debates on things like phasing out subsidies for industrial sewage waste aren’t particularly titillating — nor does that particular issue make me want to run to the polls — it also doesn’t negate the fact that very important and impactful decisions do happen at City Hall.
From votes on affirming housing as a human right to nixing property tax increases to fund childcare subsidies, expensive, ethical, and even partisan decisions are made at City Hall constantly. Many of these decisions have sweeping, lasting, quality-of-life implications for everyday citizens.
“In 2019, City Council had the opportunity to mandate that all Housing Now apartments abide by rent control,” points out York South-Weston City Council candidate Chiara Padovani. “It was our ward’s own Councillor, Frances Nunziata, that voted it down. That voted against rent control.”
Padovani has seen tenants in her community faced with rent increases as high as 20%. Rent control, if implemented on Housing Now projects or brought back to apply to all rental housing, would cap increases to the provincial guideline. For future Housing Now tenants, this single Council decision could result in hundreds of dollars extra in rent each month.
Perks can list a lot of impactful decisions he has seen at City Hall. “Land transfer tax saved the city,” he says. “Without it, many of our services would be far worse.”
In 2008, Council voted to implement a municipal land transfer tax (MLTT), an imposed tax on land sales within the city. This tax became a vital source of revenue, funding many of our social services which have been starved for increases during Mayor John Tory’s low property tax regime.
This year, $948 million is projected to be generated from MLTT — a whopping 13% of the City’s annual revenue.
Whether you find yourself on the progressive or conservative side, I’m guessing most citizens, when pressed, would have an opinion on a $948 million decision. Or if millions of dollars don’t do it for you, maybe issues like the elimination of library fines, building 25 kilometres (or more) of new bike infrastructure, or declaring a climate emergency are more your jam.
In 2013, City Council made another important decision. Perhaps you recall the era of crack cocaine, police investigations, and international headlines —the Mayor Rob Ford days, baby! A 2013 Council motion limited Rob Ford’s power to that of mostly figurehead status for his remaining eleven months in office. When a leader loses the plot, a democracy has the right to intervene on behalf of its citizens, as City councillors did in 2013.
In 2022, as Queen’s Park passes strong mayor legislation, a very different picture of our city’s democracy is emerging. One that grants the mayor a significant increase in power and weakens the influence of City councillors and, consequently, local residents who elect them.
Under the new legislation, the mayor has more budget oversight, expanded abilities to hire and fire senior staff, and authority to veto bylaws that conflict with provincial priorities. Council can override a mayor’s veto, but they require two-thirds of the vote to do so.
The new strong mayor system will require a Council that is prepared to fight for their ideas and push back hard when the mayor raises the spectre of a veto.
This is a critical time for our city’s local democracy. During the Ford days, Council took action to rein in the mayor’s powers. Under the new strong mayor regime, this type of democratic action may be far more difficult, if not impossible. With the municipal election around the corner, voter turnout and civic engagement feel incredibly relevant but, at the same time, apparently irrelevant to the people I’m talking to on front porches. This will be a telling election. Whether or not people actually show up is up to us.
Erin Wotherspoon is a freelance writer based in Toronto. She has written for the CBC, Chatelaine, HuffPost, and more. Follow her social work and random musings on Instagram @rine_wotherspoon
Charted: Voter turnout by ward, in four elections
After reading Erin’s piece, I was curious to do a ward-level analysis of voter turnout over the elections held recently in Toronto. There’s been a bunch of ‘em since 2018. One municipal, two federal, and one provincial.
Pulling this data proved to be more annoying than I expected. Full data from this spring’s provincial election hasn’t been published. All Elections Ontario has available is Excel files with numbers formatted as text. Still, I figure using the number of electors in each riding from the 2021 federal race is a reasonable way to get a turnout estimate.
The result is the chart above, ranked by the average voter turnout across all four elections in each ward since 2018.
Municipal turnout is the lowest, despite — as Erin noted — the recent provincial election setting new records for low turnout. The only wards/ridings that saw similar turnout at the provincial and municipal levels in the most recent elections were Toronto Centre, Etobicoke North and, to a lesser extent, Humber River - Black Creek.
A few notable notes:
In all 25 wards, the 2019 federal election saw the best turnout. Don Valley West, Parkdale-High Park and Toronto-Danforth rank as the wards/ridings with the most engaged voters.
Conversely, low achievers include Humber River - Black Creek, Etobicoke North, York South - Weston, Scarborough North and Spadina-Fort York. Spadina-Fort York also saw the biggest decline in voter turnout between the two federal elections, which I have to assume is based on a bunch of voters staying home due to the Kevin Vuong situation.
Comparing the 2018 municipal race with an average of the provincial/federal races in each ward reveals an average delta of 15.2 percentage points. In other words, voter turnout was, on average, about 15.2 points lower at the municipal level compared to other levels of government.
On average, that 15.2% translates to about 11,709 voters on average per ward who voted provincially and federally, but not municipally.
Of the 25 council races contested in 2018, 20 were decided by fewer than 11,709 votes. I repeat: 20 of 25.
The week at Toronto City Hall
MONDAY: 🧱 Let’s get ready to ruuuuumble. The Toronto & East York Property Standards Panel is hearing today about a dispute between homeowners in Parkdale - High Park regarding a retaining wall that is falling over at the bottom of a big hill. Whose property is it on? Accounts differ!
🧱 Last but never least, the North York Property Standards Panel deals with a property falling apart after the death of its owner.
WEDNESDAY: 🎢 The Board of Governors of Exhibition Place gets together. They’ll learn whether their executive compensation plan is reasonable. They’ll also consider their 2023 operating budget submission.
THURSDAY: 🐕 The Dangerous Dog Review Tribunal meets to consider appeals to muzzle orders for Weimaraner Beatrix and Boston Terrier Moose.
FRIDAY: No meetings scheduled.
City Hall Watcher #192
Thanks for reading! And thanks again to Erin for her contribution this week. Again, if you’ve got an idea you think the CHW audience will appreciate, pitch me!
I’ll be back next Monday with another issue, as the election grows ever closer. See you then!