The fruits of voter apathy

Kind of makes you nostalgic for the crack now, doesn’t it Toronto?” So asked Stephen Colbert of the popular satirical news program The Colbert Show about what was the latest embarrassing statement by Rob Ford. Much of the world is laughing at Toronto’s mayor and, by extension, they’re laughing at Toronto. For many of us, this is all well and good. The Centre of the Universe deserves it, we might say. To borrow the words of documentarians Albert Nerenberg and Robert Spence, let’s all hate Toronto.

Things aren’t so funny in Toronto. No one wants there mayor to be a Saturday Night Live punchline, regardless of how well-deserved. The scorn is bleeding onto the city as a whole, and it is understandable that the citizenry wants it to stop. How long must Canada’s largest city be a victim of the Ford follies?

But there’s the rub. Toronto isn’t a victim in this. The people of Toronto are co-conspirators, having voted for a man who was clearly unfit for the job. It is easy to point out all the gaffes Ford has made during his time as mayor; there have been so many, it may be hard to remember a time that he wasn’t Toronto’s intoxicated, antagonistic, profanity-spewing mayor. But there was such a time, and before he was mayor, he was dropping racial epithets during council meetings and getting arrested for drunk driving. Yet, still, Torontonians decided this was their guy.

And it’s not the first time Toronto has chosen a gaffe-factory for mayor. Mel Lastman served as mayor of North York for 15 years before serving two terms at the helm of the newly-amalgamated city of Toronto—Mel Lastman, the man who feared being boiled alive in Africa, the man who had never heard of the World Health Organization, the man who threatened a reporter in the council chamber. Clearly, Toronto has an established track record.

We might think there is no real lesson in all of this. Jim Watson is far too milquetoast to toke the rock; the consummate politician, he would never be caught mouthing the foul words Ford has splattered across the evening news. However not too long ago, we had our own version of that other embarrassing Toronto mayor, Mel Lastman. In our attempts to move on from the Chiarelli years, voters turned to Larry O’Brien. A one-term disappointment, O’Brien was known for such things as referring to street people as “pigeons”.

Whether we are talking about the embarrassments of Ford, Lastman or O’Brien, blame must be firmly placed on voters and their disinterest in municipal politics. Ford won the 2010 election with 47% of the vote; however, only 53% of eligible voters actually showed up to fill out a ballot. That means that Rob Ford was elected, essentially, by one quarter of Toronto.

If only this was an aberration, Toronto might feel better. Actually, it was an aberration. This was a monumentally good turnout for Toronto. In 2006, only 39% of voters participated, which was slightly better than 2003, when turnout was at 38%.

In 2000, Lastman secured four out of every five votes. It was a landslide, yet with only 36% of voters participating, it meant that fewer than three in ten voters actively chose Lastman—“actively” being the key word. By choosing not to participate in the democratic process, 64% of voters were delegating their choice to the whims of a small minority.

This is a problem that most cities have. Voter apathy is thriving in Canada, and its effect is felt most greatly at the lowest level of government. As a result, established candidates with a robust electoral machine can mobilize their voter base, knowing that winning less than a third of potential voters will result in a comfortable victory.

Ottawa is no exception. Jim Watson handily defeated Larry O’Brien by a 2:1 margin, yet, again, he received less than half of less than half of the potential votes—gaining 48% of the vote with a turnout of 44%. This number was down from 2006, when we had a remarkable 54% turnout. 2006 was all the more remarkable when you realize that in 2003, only 33% of the electorate decided to vote. Despite 2006’s elevated turnout, the winner, Larry O’Brien, received votes from about one quarter of eligible voters, just like Rob Ford.

There is no rational argument for any one individual to cast a vote. With hundreds of thousands of voters, one vote cannot possibly make a difference. Attempts to argue otherwise run into a standard collective action problem. And yet, relinquishing our civic duty cannot be the answer either. Voter apathy results in a quarter of Torontonians electing a violent, racist, crack-smoking mayor. Surely, democracy has an answer for this.

Unfortunately, the only answer is voter responsibility. The farce that is the Ford administration is a creation of the people of Toronto. No one was forced to vote for this man who was such a thoroughly ridiculous candidate. Rob Ford, himself, only cast one vote (we assume). It was the rest of Toronto who either chose to throw the reputation of the city down the toilet or who stood by and watched. Blame the Ford brothers all you want, but they had one million accomplices.

Voters in Ottawa need to take an interest in our city’s governance. We need to take seriously our duty to become informed and our duty to remain informed about issues and about politicians. And if we don’t, we will return to 2003 turnout levels, when two thirds of our community weren’t interested enough to cast a ballot.

In 2003, 1312 of your neighbours voted for a white supremacist.

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