As campaigning in Toronto’s municipal election begins to pick up, some candidates are working to address voter apathy and civic disengagement they worry could impact participation in the fall vote.
The city’s list of registered candidates was finalized last week with 31 people running for mayor and 164 council candidates. That is down from 35 mayoral candidates and 242 people running for council during the 2018 election.
Amber Morley, a council candidate in Ward 3, Etobicoke-Lakeshore, has been campaigning for weeks and has spoken with residents who feel disconnected from city hall. It’s a worrying sign for local democracy, she said.
I think a lot of voter apathy is a result of lack of trust and representation with the system.– Amber Morley, Toronto city council candidate
“I think a lot of voter apathy is a result of a lack of trust and representation within the system,” she said. “The system only works if we participate.”
In 2018, voter turnout tumbled as only 41 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in Toronto’s municipal election. That’s down from the 54 per cent voter turnout in 2014.
Things aren’t much better at the provincial level. During June’s provincial election, Ontario saw its lowest voter turnout in history, with 43.5 per cent of eligible voters participating.
Morley said the lack of diversity on council itself has contributed to the disconnect with some city residents and that has motivated her to run.
“As someone who’s grown up as a low income person, as a racialized person, often, we don’t see ourselves reflected in those systems,” she said. “I hope that my participation helps people like me see themselves in the [political] process.”
April Engelberg, a candidate in Ward 10, Spadina-Fort York, said she’s been campaigning since July. Many people simply aren’t aware of the upcoming vote.
She’s hopeful that will change over the next two months, but tries to impress on people that city government touches every aspect of life in Toronto.
“It’s their commute. It’s their walk in the park. It’s their affordable housing,” she said. “Once people realize how important city council decisions are, I think they’re more likely to vote.”
Jamaal Myers, who is running for council in Ward 23, Scarborough North, said part of the hard work to win a council seat is getting the word out, connecting with people one-on-one and earning their vote.
“I would say most of the people I’ve met didn’t know about the upcoming municipal election,” Myers said. “But when I show up at the door people are excited and they get involved. Showing up and listening to people’s concerns really matters in this election if you want to get people engaged.”
The Executive Director of the Samara Centre for Democracy, a non-partisan charity which studies political discourse online, said increasing voter apathy at all levels of government can be linked, in part, to the toxic dialogue that has emerged on social media.
Sabreena Delhon said increasingly politicians are being targeted with hateful, racist or sexist messages that drive many out of politics. That has a direct impact on voters who don’t even want to cast a ballot, she said.
“When you see that kind of content coming in your feed and in your timeline, it’s going to put you off,” she said. “It’s going to lead to disengagement and a sense of disconnection. It’s not a productive and civil way to engage in the conversation about what’s happening in politics broadly.”
Delhon said that the Samara Centre will be tracking the tone of the online debate during the civic election, using machine learning to monitor toxicity targeting candidates on Twitter.
“It’s time for us to test different ways of solving this problem,” she said. “It’s time for us to measure and adjust and see what sorts of things would make a difference.”