Let’s Make Local Democracy Actually Democratic

February 4, 2013

We’ve all heard the defense of ‘traditional marriage’ – that between a man and a woman –made during an argument against same sex marriage. hughhefnerThe one about how the latter will ‘undermine’, ‘diminish’, ‘make mockery of’ the former. As if up until recently, traditional marriage had been some rock solid institution, a sacred bond that those who entered into it never undermined or diminished. Only serious practitioners of the heterosexual persuasion like Hugh Hefner could uphold its honour.

A similar line of reasoning seems to be at work in the debate over extending the right to vote in municipal elections to permanent residents. (Steve Paikin runs it up the flagpole in an excellent 2010 session with Desmond Cole on the subject.) Somehow allowing non-citizens to vote at the local level will cheapen the act for the slim majority who exercise their franchise at the best of times during a municipal campaign. castaballotChoosing not to vote should be the privileged right of citizens and citizens only.

While no one would argue that the right to vote is the bedrock of any democracy, to maintain that it should be the sole entitlement for those holding citizenship suggests that it is the only determinant to a democracy. As if democracy is synonymous with voting. If someone wants to be a part of our democracy, they only can do so upon getting their citizenship.

But democracy is so much more than that or, at least, it should be. Voting is a small albeit vital component of the process, something that happens, more or less, every four years. Democracy is a larger, daily commitment.

And the flipside of that would be citizenship is more than simply the ability to vote in elections. So to argue that somehow conferring the right to vote on permanent residents diminishes citizenship rings hollow for me. Citizenship, like marriage, is an institutional designation and what you do under its banner will determine the quality of it, won’t it? If voting is contingent on being a citizen, does deciding not to vote when that right has been bestowed upon you call into question your citizenship?

I’ll grudgingly accept the assertion that only citizens should be allowed to vote at the federal level although I’m not entirely convinced as to why. But at both other levels of government, I can’t think of a reason why that should be the case. engageenableenpowerIf someone has chosen to live in a particular locality that is, ultimately, overseen by a provincial government, the argument escapes me that they should be allowed to vote for their representation only after they’ve become citizens.

Let’s not forget that we’re talking about a group of people who’ve already indicated their keenness to be part of the community by becoming permanent residents. So pick a standard. A six month residency requirement? A year? During which time, a permanent resident is paying taxes, using amenities supported by those tax dollars, sending their children to schools or going to school themselves. Once they meet the time line, why not allow them to have a say in who’s making the decisions that affect their lives? How does allowing them to do so in any way diminish the notion of a wider citizenship?

I’d like to think of voting as something of a citizenship starter kit. An introduction to how shit works here. Your opinions and views matter as much as your tax dollars to the proper running of this place. kinggeorgeOne stake, a very important stake, in a functioning democracy.

It’s also possible that extending the vote to permanent residents might make politicians more aware, let’s call it, of the pressing issues newcomers face. If there are areas of a city, say, with high concentrations of permanent residents unable to cast a ballot, just how much attention will their local representatives pay to them. Taxation without representation and all that.

Back in 2006, then mayor David Miller attempted to put this debate on the front burner. The Community Development and Recreation Committee revived it again last week with a request for a staff report on the idea. Perhaps if it were as simple as a council vote on the matter, we wouldn’t be still talking and doing nothing about it. Unfortunately, it’s just another example of how we as a city don’t control our destiny. It’s a matter that Queen’s Park must decided and they will only do so if we show that’s there’s enough support for the idea.

If only those who had the most to gain actually had a vote in the matter.

invitingly submitted by Cityslikr


There’s A Better (Ballots) Way

November 24, 2011

I am not prone to giddy bursts of optimism. Like most of us here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke, my predilection tends more in the other direction. Bouts of downward fear and loathing that intersect dangerously often with paranoia. The office windows are almost always open to air out the toxic atmosphere.

But put me in a room full of enthusiastic voting reformers and I am over the moon, Up With People, Schweppes bubbly effervescent, that veritable ant that could move the rubber tree plant. So it was last night at the Oakham House on the Ryerson University campus for a Better Ballots get together, Thinking Ahead to 2014: Taking A Critical Look at Local Elections. Colour me activist. I’m thinking, teal-ish?

In short, this: Local Choice.

I am a firm believer that the desultory relationship we have with our politics and politicians boils down to one key element. It’s how we vote (or don’t for far too many of us) and elect our representatives. At the federal and provincial levels, the whopping majority of us don’t wind up voting for the ultimate winners. Right now in Ottawa, the party which less than 4 in 10 voters voted for now controls more than 50% of the seats in parliament. Each and every day they enact, pronounce and dictate in matters that a solid majority of Canadians don’t agree with.

That’s not a partisan statement. Here in Ontario, there hasn’t been a provincial government in power that more than 50% of voters cast their ballots for in nearly 75 years! How can that not sour our relationship with those who govern us? Don’t look at me. I didn’t vote for the guy. Yes, I said ‘guy’. Why? Because in our first past the post system, the status quo is usually maintained. Thus, the continued preponderance of doughy white guys in the corridors of power.

The list is long of ideas to reinvigorate our political process. In townhall gatherings last year, the Better Ballots folks winnowed down suggestions to 14 (pages 18 and 19), ranging from moving election days to weekends, introducing phone and internet voting, municipal parties and term limits. At last night’s session, the emphasis was on 4 areas: ballot or voting structure, extending voting rights to permanent residents, lowering the voting age to 16 and campaign financing.

My particular bailiwick happens to be how we vote. Over the next little while, I’ll be regularly writing on the subject of various voting systems, trying to figure out which one would fit best at our municipal level. The overarching theme will be that the first past the post system has got to go.

Based on the strength of last night’s presentations, lowering the voting age is also very intriguing. William Molls at Voteto16.ca made a highly entertaining and persuasive case. As did Leonardo Zúñiga of iVote Toronto in talking about extending voting rights to permanent residents. Both ideas couldn’t but help to reinvigorate the political process. The more people don’t have the right vote, the less politicians will feel the need to reach out to them and the less reason these people will be have to actively participate.

Bob MacDermid had the rather unfortunate task of pointing out our continued problems with campaign financing that inevitably favours those with money and those with influential friends with money. Vote Toronto does yeomen’s duty trying to keep on top of this byzantine business but it is a multi-headed monster that constantly shifts and morphs, always to the advantage of those with deep pockets. It seems that vested interests just don’t think that there should be a level playing field in our elections.

Which also explains why it is so hard to change what is so obviously broken. The status quo is a stubborn beast, made even more stolid by those who’ve expertly learned how to work the ref in the game. Any sort of change threatens the standard operating procedure. It is fought tooth and nail.

That’s why more of us have to get involved. Some of these proposals Toronto can enact on its own but others need a provincial go-ahead to happen. That’s two levels of politicians who have won under the current system, so may not be overly enthusiastic to altering something they’ve already mastered. (Hat tip should go out to councillors Shelley Carroll, Josh Matlow and Kristyn Wong-Tam for coming out to the event and showing their support.) Much pressure must be brought to bear to get this conversation going and put the wind in change’s sails.

It is change that is tantalizingly close and many of these ideas are easily implemented if a critical mass can be achieved. Grab an issue that catches your fancy. Talk to those already involved, see what you can do to chip in and help. If you’re like a majority of Canadians and Torontonians and don’t like the way the game of politics is played, demand change. If we change how we elect our politicians, we may start changing who we elect, and if we change who we elect, there’s every reason to expect we’ll change how politics is played. For the better.

activistly submitted by Urban Sophisticat


Better Ballots Town Hall

April 14, 2010

You know, even without any delays it is a long subway ride up the Yonge Street line to North York Centre. I was aroused from my reading material somewhere between Lawrence and York Mills, wondering if I’d read through a stop. You go really fast for a long time which, if my understanding of the physics of motion is solid (and it probably isn’t), means that you are traveling great distances.

Why would you be doing that, you might rightly ask. Heading up to the first Better Ballots Town Hall meeting, I will inform you, held in committee room #3 of the North York Civic Centre, home of the former city hall of the former city of North York. Its empty early evening halls steeped in the history where colossi of the political scene like Mel Lastman once strutted and fretted. The air remains pungent of past power, reeking of… shoe polish. Or maybe it’s the cleaning agent that’s being applied to a floor off down one of the corridors.

Better Ballots, if you don’t know and you should, is an organization committed to increasing voter turnout at the municipal level. The website can give you much better presentation of their mission but in a nutshell: less than 40% of eligible voters voted in the last municipal election in Toronto; 14 of the 44 councillors were elected with less than 50% of ballots cast; only 1 incumbent councillor was defeated while another won his ward with just 20% of the vote; the council make-up is wildly unreflective of the city’s diversity that it claims to represent. Better Ballots wants to change all that.

Local political impresario, Dave Meslin, is the Better Ballots project coordinator and has been toiling away in the margins of election reform for much of the past decade including 2006’s City Idol where 4 candidates were chosen to run for council seats in that year’s election. He chaired last night’s town hall in an amiable but focused manner, promoting inclusiveness with the 25 or so of us there while not allowing things to careen too far off topic. Like any good promoter of a cause, Meslin made sure to surround himself with other smart, articulate advocates.

There was Desmond Cole, one of the winners of the City Idol project, and now an organizer with iVote Toronto. Another Better Ballots representative, Rob Newman, talked about campaign finance reform. Julia Deads from the Toronto City Summit Alliance moderated the town hall portion of the meeting, gently but with the necessary firmness to keep the proceedings flowing. If I had any claim to being an actual journalist, there were a couple other members of the panel whose names I would’ve made note of but didn’t. One was from Fair Vote Canada, a group promoting more proportional representation at all levels of government. I want to say Jeff Peck but, maybe somebody out there who attended the meeting with much better powers of observation could correct me on that. [It was Mark Greenan not Jeff Peck from Fair Vote Canada who were referring to. Thank you to mayoral candidate Sonny Yeung for clearing that up for us. — ed.]

The intent of this town hall meeting (and the 3 others planned at various city locations throughout April) was twofold. The first was to present 14 proposals for discussion about possible reform. These included such things as extending the vote to permanent residents and lowering the voting age to 16, the pros and cons of municipal parties and term limits, several options on ballot structures and districting and the above mentioned campaign finance reforms.

Along with providing information, these town hall gatherings are also about promoting advocacy. Ideas are all well and good but they die on the vine without a movement to take them to a wider audience. The second aim of the meetings is to initiate a grassroots movement to begin pushing for the reform options that garner the most interest from those who attend the meetings and vote on the ballot provided.

Despite what you might think, grassroot movement making ain’t pretty. It’s not all Julia Roberts’ Erin Brockoviches and Meryl Streep’s Karen Silkwoods but rather a long, tough slog through outsider-ville. For every smart, dedicated activist and proponent, there are those who wear their exclusion from the mainstream loudly and proudly, sometimes hijacking the proceedings to grind an axe or to just simply have their voices heard. This manifested itself last night when a handful of mayoral and council candidates took the floor to speak their minds. More campaigning than listening, they mostly took up time and space rather than contributed to the discussion.

Still, the dialogue was far more informative and exciting than any of the claptrap and bullshit that has passed for debate and deliberation so far in campaign 2K10®©. These people truly want to change how things are done in Toronto and to explore the ideas that will ultimately translate into electing those who best represent the widest community views at City Hall. It was time well spent on the subway hearing them talk about it firsthand.

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr


iVote, 1 Vote

March 13, 2010

Recently I’ve spent some time at iVote. This is an organization dedicated to bringing the right to vote in municipal elections to Toronto’s 200 000 or so permanent residents. Their reasoning seems sound and it would undoubtedly increase turnout at the ballot boxes, at least in real numbers. Hopefully, permanent residents would be more enthusiastic about the process than the 39% or so of citizens who bothered to vote in the last election.

Something caught my attention while reading through the iVote information. Currently, voter eligibility is limited to Canadian citizens residing in Toronto who are at least 18 years-old. In addition, and here’s the interesting part, either a resident of the municipality or a property owner or tenant or the spouse or same sex partner of an owner or tenant in the municipality during a specified time just before the election [italics mine]. My reading of this is that if you own or rent property in a municipality, you are eligible to vote in that municipality. So that if you own or rent properties in numerous municipalities, you can vote in numerous municipal elections. According to iVote: … someone with a property in each of Ontario’s 444 municipalities can vote in all 444 municipal elections, even though they do not reside in all of them [italics mine. Again.]

I don’t know. There’s just something wrong with that and maybe only at a visceral, gut-level. My visceral, gut-level. It seems to contradict that whole one person, one vote concept we were raised on.

Certainly at a provincial level, no such ownership option for voting exists. I realize that there, as well as in the federal parliament, it is one elected body and so if you could vote where you lived as well as where you owned or rented property that it would be an example of more than one vote for one person. At the municipal level, it is distinct governments you vote for. Still, if you have particular views like say, lower taxes, those views are reflected more often than those held by single property owners or renters.

It feels undemocratic, harkening back to the days when voting for anything was open only to the propertied classes. It smacks of privilege and rubs me the wrong way. And like most people, I only like to rubbed in the right way.

suggestively submitted by Urban Sophisticat