In the end the only number that matters is 71.
Everything else pales. The unsurprising, lifeless re-election of John Tory as mayor. The handful of upsets and pleasant surprises at the council level. Even the uptick toward a more inclusive representation in City Hall, greater (but still unequal) gender balance, fewer pasty white faces (the Tory caucus, I’ll call them). A typical election night in its disappointments and triumphs.
All of it pretty much undermined by the 71% of eligible voters in Toronto who decided to sit this one out, on track with numbers still to be finalized to be a record-setting low or high, I guess. A record high number of non-voters. Or a record low number of voters.
Either take, it’s ugly, grim. Residents in Toronto just simply tuned out. This, of course, follows a record low turnout of voters in our spring provincial election. Something’s in the air, it seems, and it’s not just new Covid variants. We are stuck in a politically disengaged gear. Tuned out. Turned off. Moved on. Nothing to see here.
Some of it, most certainly, was by design. In both campaigns, municipally and provincially, the incumbent powers, Doug Ford and John Tory, essentially went into hiding, not really wanting to discuss their respective record of achievements because there really wasn’t much positive to discuss. Who wants to answer that old election nugget, Are you better off now then you were 4 years ago, 8 years ago, with an irrefutable ‘No’? That’s a tough message for even the best comms team to massage with the only possible response ending with a ‘Yeah but, it could’ve been worse’.
For some reason, the local media and civic organizations in Toronto allowed our two-term mayor to get away with this disappearing act. Largely speaking, when he declined to debate his opponents, there was no debate. Rather than put an empty chair with the mayor’s name on it up on stage, accentuating his absence, there simply was no stage, leaving every other lower profile candidate running for the office out in the wilderness, to fend for themselves to generate interest in their respective campaigns. An incumbent hardly needs more advantages over their opponents, especially in terms of being able to dictate the hows and wheres he gets to defend his record.
Right out of the gate once Tory announced he was running again, it was pretty much declared to be yet another cakewalk for him. That, in fact, is how it played out in the end, and in the process, sucked the life out of the campaign all the way down ballot. After being first elected in 2014 in the midst of a Ford-panic induced 55% turnout and re-elected in 2018 with slightly under 50% of eligible voters marking a ballot, the third time around, Tory’s victory lap kept more than 7 out of 10 away on election day, tallying down nearly140,000 fewer votes than last time out, a 30% drop in support.
That’s what John Tory’s calling a mandate, a strong mandate!
If you say so.
This, when all other signs indicated much unrest within the electorate, usually never a good sign for an incumbent. If not hostilely angry, the general sense seemed to be one of heightened disgruntlement. Congestion. Potholes. Malfunctioning public transit. Shoddy green spaces. Garbage strewn public places. Too many people left, fending for themselves, unhoused on the streets. A city not working or working at a level far below people’s expectations.
But this negative sentiment, if not overblown in my mind, went largely unharnessed in any sort of unified voice or front. No one candidate emerged for the opposition to business-as-usual to coalesce around. There was no wave of discontent manifest at the ballot box.
So, maybe things aren’t that bad out there?
(Something the prickly Tory suggested to John Moore on Tuesday, saying he’d been on a lot more doorsteps than journalists had.)
Yet, during the campaign, the mayor himself admitted he wasn’t happy with the general state of things while assuring the electorate that only his experience would be able to address the mess he’d presided over for the last 8 years.
A fundamental disconnect that seemed to reverberate with Toronto voters.
An apathy grown from the perception of intractable issues festered beyond repair?
It didn’t help matters that, like it had during the 2018 municipal race, Doug Ford’s government once again interceded in the midst of the election, announcing that it would be granting new ‘strong mayor powers’ to the winner, powers, that if fully implemented, would further diminish the input and contributions made by city councillors, concentrating decision-making more-and-more into the mayor’s hands. Combine this with the mid-campaign cutting of the number of city councillors last time around and local democratic participation drifts beyond view of residents. A double whammy, if you will. Less hands-on representation at City Hall that is itself subject to the whims and fancies of a provincial government that ultimately calls the shots. All the shots.
It all feels as if, to paraphrase the late-mayor, Rob Ford, our municipal level of government is more of a ‘nice-to-have’ rather than a ‘need-to-have’. We didn’t re-elect a mayor on Monday but more of a loyal administrator from Queen’s Park, city councillors, now mere functionaries, shunted aside to tend to their expanded fiefdoms and fighting amongst themselves for a decreasing slice of a shrinking pie.
Low voter turnout wasn’t just a Toronto problem on Monday, the >30% wasn’t even the lowest in the GTA. Electoral detachment appears to be a thing right now, supplanted at some levels by conspiracy-fueled, toxic ideological ‘freedom’ fighting. Why vote when you can just park your transport truck in the middle of a busy downtown street and honk your horn to your heart’s content? By this measure, bothering to cast a ballot for your city councillor and even mayor seems meaninglessly anticlimactic, quaint and archaic almost, utterly beside the point.
Into these gaps, however, these democratic gaps, are where bad faith actors prosper. It’s no mistake that since winning re-election, John Tory has talked almost exclusively about his ‘strong mandate’ rather than register any sort of disappointment with voter turnout, a low voter turnout he counted on to get his third term. He’s already off and running with this mandate and proclamation of those strong mayor powers on a ‘fundamental rethink of our bureaucracy’ in order to solve our affordable housing crisis. Nothing from him so far about our apparent local democracy crisis. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, amirite?
But can democracy and citizens’ participation in the political process just switch off and then back on like that? Despite its importance to our everyday lives, municipal politics has always been the forgotten stepchild in our system, voter turnout rarely matching that of federal or provincial elections. Would we even miss it if it disappeared altogether, governance uploaded in its entirety to provincial capitals, residents’ interaction taking place entirely through 3-1-1 calls?
Can you really notice the disappearance of something a solid majority of us never paid much attention to in the first place?