|Oct. 14, 2003|
Billboards, lawn signs will spring up on Thursday
Voter turnout always lowest in municipal races
CITY HALL BUREAU
The turkey's over. Now, for serious municipal voters, comes the stuffing. With Thanksgiving behind us, city residents have just under four weeks to get better informed by poring over a mass of voter information from all-candidates' meetings, mayoral debates, campaign flyers, political promises and platforms leading up to the Nov. 10 municipal vote. Come Thursday , the first day allowable under election rules, billboards will be festooning the skylines and campaign signs will spring up on lawns across the city. Radio and newspaper ads are picking up steam. For the second time since amalgamation, there'll be a competitive and compelling mayor's race, featuring five main contenders trying to replace the tired leadership of Mayor Mel Lastman. It is shaping up to be a close race between three contenders. An EKOS Research/Toronto Star poll of 600 eligible voters conducted last Wednesday and Thursday found that among decided voters Barbara Hall has 34 per cent support, followed by David Miller at 27 per cent and John Tory at 21 per cent. John Nunziata has 12 per cent followed by Tom Jakobek at 5 per cent. However, one in two people surveyed are undecided about the Nov. 10 municipal election. There are also 10 open ward races, with no incumbent, ensuring that almost one-quarter of the next council will be new faces. There are also a half-dozen races where incumbents could get turfed. Municipal elections, held every three years, are always crucial. But this one may even be more so. A new Liberal government at Queen's Park promises to be more city-friendly. Prime minister-in-waiting Paul Martin has made a firm commitment to addressing the funding woes of cities from coast to coast. Since amalgamation, city streets and parks have become litter-infested. Taxes are rising, roads are more congested than ever, user fees are multiplying, infrastructure continues to crumble and services are pinched by under-funding. But with local services like police, public transit, public health, community centres and libraries touching on every aspect of city life, why aren't local voters more engaged? Why does the percentage of municipal voters seldom rise above 35 to 40 per cent, while provincial turnouts in the past three elections ranged from 57 to 62 per cent and federal votes in the past three campaigns ranged from 63 to 69.6 per cent? "Voter turnout in municipal elections is a real paradox," said Ryerson University professor Myer Siemiatycki, who specializes in urban politics. "Because the municipalities deal with issues that strike so close to home and to our everyday lives, I think one would expect there to be a heightened interest on the part of the public," Siemiatycki said. "The best way I could put it is to say, of all our levels of government, we make it hardest to cast an intelligent ballot at the municipal level," he said. Party politics at the federal and provincial levels make voting decisions a lot simpler to make, Siemiatycki said, with a parliamentary system that is "party-led and party-defined." Municipal voters, by contrast, vote for a mayor, ward councillors and school board trustees, none of whom run on official party labels. "To be fair to the electorate, it's very difficult to figure out who's who, what the candidates stand for and what your choices and options are. The absence of political parties and the emphasis on individual, independent candidates significantly erodes voter turnout," Siemiatycki said. "In some respects, a rational course of behaviour on the part of citizens is to say, `since I don't know who these people are and I really don't know what they stand for, maybe the best thing I can do is not cast an uninformed ballot,'" he added. The ballot will indeed be daunting this time out, with a record 44 candidates for mayor, requiring the names to be stacked in two columns. But Greg Essensa, the city's director of elections, said he expects the high-profile race to replace Lastman to boost voter turnout. "I think, given the mayoralty race, there is a great deal of interest. That will result in a higher turnout," said Essensa, noting the 1997 megacity election had a 49 per cent turnout. The city will produce a total of 2.1 million ballots in anticipation of a heavier vote and spend $800,000 as part of the total $5.8 million election cost on an advertising blitz to inform voters and boost turnout. "Our job is to make sure any eligible voter knows about the election and where to vote," said City Clerk Ulli Watkiss. "To get the vote out is the candidates' job." Essensa urged voters to consider voting in the advance polls or early in the day on Nov. 10 — polls open at 10 a.m. — because the biggest bottlenecks and line-ups are usually between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., when the polls close. For the first time, electors will need to bring identification showing their home address — such as a driver's licence, utility bill or mortgage statement — even if they have a voter's card to prove they are who they are. "It ensures accountability," Essensa said. "We can affirm that they are qualified electors." Voters may be asked to swear an oath that they are who they say they are, he said. The city's voting machines will ensure that 75 per cent of the results will be available by 9 p.m. and will be equipped with back-up batteries in the event of a power outage to ensure that voting data will be protected. Complete results should be available by 10:30 or 11 p.m. Early advance voting will be held at Toronto City Hall and all civic centres from Monday to Friday, Oct. 20 to 29 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Advance polling will also be held on Saturday, Nov. 1 and Sunday, Nov. 2 at one location in each of the city's 44 wards.