Editorial: Time to consider municipal election reform

Ontarians go to the polls today to elect new municipal councils at a time when electoral reform is on a lot of people’s minds.

Of course, previous elections have shown that few people actually decide to cast a ballot. So finding new ways to get them out to the polls seems like a good idea.

But in Calgary, we’ve already seen what it takes: an exciting election with inspiring candidates. Last week, voters in that city countered tired stereotypes about Alberta politics by electing Naheed Nenshi as their mayor.

In doing so, Canada’s first Muslim mayor beat his conservative challengers, including Ric McIver, who had the backing of many among the city’s Tory establishment.

But particularly striking was voter turnout at 53 per cent. That’s up from 33 per cent last time and just 18 per cent during the election before that. In a province known for its lopsided elections and dismal voter participation, the results were impressive.

In Ontario, discussions on improving the electoral system have included options like Internet-based voting and term limits. Toronto mayoral candidate George Smitherman has also talked about governance reform to increase citizens’ involvement in municipal government.

Already, places like Markham, Ont., have tried electronic voting with mixed results. There, participation at advanced polls increased dramatically, but overall turnout remained flat. In Brockville, Ont., residents will be voting electronically for the first time today.

Given the concerns over the security and accuracy of such systems as well as their limited effect on participation, it’s clear that web-based options aren’t a panacea. But term limits may be a better option.

Studies, of course, have shown that incumbents have a massive advantage in municipal elections, which could lead to the conclusion that the reason some people don’t vote is the assumption that whoever is already in office is going to win no matter what.

In Calgary, the tight race was a wide-open contest as current Mayor Dave Bronconnier wasn’t running. So with no incumbent on the ballot, many potential voters likely felt they could make a difference by going to the polls.

Toronto has seen similar results. When Mayor David Miller first ran in 2003, 692,000 people cast a ballot in an exciting race with no incumbent. Three years later, Miller kept the title in an election that saw just 584,000 people go to the polls.

Of course, other factors come into play. Nenshi, for example, was particularly good at mobilizing potential voters through social media.

At the same time, candidates’ ability to motivate people with inspiring campaigns also plays a role. But given what we’ve seen in recent elections, it’s clear that term limits for municipal councils are worth considering.

Already, the Law Society of Upper Canada has taken a few attempts at electoral reform, notably by invoking term limits for benchers that should provide some evidence on whether they work (see "LSUC votes to end life
terms
").

While some people call such changes undemocratic, it’s arguable that the alternative of continuing to have such low rates of voter participation is the worse option.
- Glenn Kauth

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