At the municipal level, inspiring political engagement among voters can be challenging. In Toronto's last election, only 50.5 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballot.
To tackle this problem, Women in Toronto Politics (WiTOpoli) developed the Position Primer website to help Torontonians make an informed decision in city council elections. By simply typing in their postal code, users can access a ward-specific chart outlining candidates' views on a wide range of municipal issues.
While the 2014 mayoral race is undoubtedly important to Toronto's future, the disproportionate attention it receives from voters and media does not reflect the true nature of Toronto's civic process. Ultimately, the mayor will represent only one council vote, while the other 44 seats will be occupied by city councillors elected by each of Toronto's wards.
The fate of Toronto's transit plans, affordable housing strategy and many other priorities will be determined by Toronto city council as a whole -- not just by the mayor.
That's why the Position Primer aims to get voters thinking about their council-level races. The website features answers from all city council candidates who completed WiTOpoli's online survey. While candidates' platforms may only focus on their own pet issues and talking points, the survey asked candidates to address a large spectrum of issues that represents Toronto's diverse needs. Topics include employment, transportation, childcare, poverty, newcomers, affordable housing, taxation, public services and infrastructure. The survey also invited candidates to discuss one additional topic of their choice that they feel is especially important to their community.
The Position Primer calls attention to several key policy areas that disproportionately impact women. Because women are overrepresented in part-time and minimum wage jobs while the gender wage gap in Ontario holds at 28 per cent, women tend to be heavier-than-average users of public transit, and are acutely affected by the lack of affordable housing and childcare options in Toronto. This is especially true for women with families and those who are the sole or primary caregiver in their family.
Women make up almost 60 per cent of the TTC ridership -- and when 70 per cent of the TTC operating budget is covered by riders, that means women are carrying the majority of that burden. As a group that aims to foster a more inclusive civic discourse, we feel that it's essential for all council candidates to reflect on these issues in order to build a more equitable city.
The website provides a non-partisan platform where candidates can share their ideas with a wide audience through one simple click.
Unlike federal or provincial elections in which candidates can rely on formal party structures for funding, local candidates are responsible for their own fundraising, leaving candidates with varying levels of resources at their disposal.
As Apathy is Boring president Ilona Dougherty explains, "At the municipal level, the money that is spent to promote the campaign is just not enough that citizens will be as engaged as they would be at the provincial or federal level." When voters are unaware, incumbents may have an unfair advantage.
Since 2003, only ten candidates have succeeded in defeating incumbent Toronto city councillors. Disengaged or under-informed voters are drawn to the name they recognize, while competing candidates struggle to raise their profile. By creating an easy-to-use, accessible online resource, the Position Primer aims to level the playing field and allow all candidates the opportunity to be judged by the strength of their ideas and reach a larger number of voters than they might have otherwise.
After studying voter turnout in Toronto's last three local elections, Ryerson University researcher Myer Siemiatycki concluded that, "Municipal elections are confusing because candidates have no open party affiliations. It's more difficult for voters to identify with the candidates and what they stand for." The sheer number of candidates running for council compounds this challenge. In total, there are 359 candidates running across Toronto's 44 wards -- many of whom are first-time candidates and not household names (yet!).
We want to make it easier for voters to get informed. For women who more often than their male counterparts juggle their careers with unpaid forms of domestic labour like childcare, eldercare or housework, a time-saving tool like the Position Primer may be especially useful. By giving voters a side-by-side comparison of candidates' views, the Position Primer will help voters learn which candidates will best represent their interests on Toronto City Council.
As the campaign countdown continues, be sure to check out the website before October 27 so you can be confident in your civic decisions.
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