Analysis: Toronto election campaign highlights flaws in system

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Toronto skyline Source City of Toronto/Flickr

Yesterday marked the first day of early voting in Toronto and, once again, Torontonians are being forced to consider the viability of strategic voting. Our flawed electoral system leads progressives to face this decision regularly at all levels of government. Vote for your preferred candidate and risk splitting the vote. However, if you shift your vote and lose, you've now removed your support and the symbolic value it carries from a progressive candidate whose ideas could help the city move forward. It's a difficult calculation.

In a recent Toronto Star op-ed under the headline "Toronto deserves better than timid, lukewarm Tory," Royson James observes that strategic voting brought Toronto Mayor John Tory to power four years ago: "Many voters abandoned their preferred candidate in Olivia Chow because of the credible fear that votes split between Chow and Tory would dilute the opposition to madcap Ford."

The result, as James writes, has been "mediocrity, at best."

Four years later, many Torontonians find themselves in a similar position, debating whether to vote, not for whom they want to see in power, but against the person they do not want to see in power. This is a terrible predicament that should have been resolved long ago as it limits the possibility for change in the city.

In response, several advocacy groups in Toronto have created pledges with the hopes of creating a benchmark against which candidates can be measured. The TO Housing Pledge, for example, calls for prospective mayoral and city council candidates to "take five practical steps towards making Toronto a fairer and more equitable city for all." These five steps included ending homeless deaths in Toronto (of which there have been 201 since 2014), ensuring more inclusive residential development creating financial stability for Toronto Community Housing, making affordable housing truly affordable, ensuring new developments are more inclusive and affordable, and using the city's resources to build more affordable housing.

Similarly, TTCriders, a transit advocacy group in Toronto, has created a Respect for Riders list of demands that calls for fair TTC funding, lower TTC fares, better TTC service, keeping transit public, and the creation of a publicly-owned rapid transit network.

Each of these pledges speak to rampant socioeconomic inequality in Toronto. They represent an effort, in light of the limitations of the electoral system, to ensure commitments from politicians on key issues like housing and transit. It is an unfortunate reality that progressive candidates directly and meaningfully engaging with issues of inequality and oppression rarely receive coverage. They are trapped between the competing problems of low voter turnout and meager media coverage.

In 2014, researchers Myer Siemiatycki and Sean Marshall found that voter turnout in Toronto municipal elections is low across all areas and communities. Voter turnout over the last three municipal elections averaged 42.7 per cent compared with 61.6 per cent federally. Siemiatycki and Marshall found that an area's proportion of immigrants has a strong inverse correlation to voter turnout and an area's proportion of visible minorities has a medium inverse correlation to turnout.

They also observed that competitive election races for positions of mayor or councillor increase voter turnout. In their recommendations for improving voter turnout, Siemiatycki and Marshall proposed initiatives by municipalities, candidates, community organizations and individuals.

For municipalities, for example, they recommend a greater public education campaign, small tax rebates for voting, and multilingual voting. Initiatives by candidates include community-based canvassing, using multilingual campaign messaging and materials, and reaching out to local media.

While some of these initiatives have been undertaken, Bill 5, which aims to cut Toronto city council to 25 seats from, and the chaos that it created have undermined some of the many efforts in place to increase voter turnout. Further, despite their best efforts, many of the lesser-known candidates have had difficulty breaking into the media. The result is an election that has been fraught and discouraging, and inches closer toward the questions of who this city does not want to see elected.

The Final Stretch

Earlier this week, at the Globe and Mail-Board of Trade debate, the moderator questioned Tory about his ongoing refusal to debate Jennifer Keesmaat head-to-head. His response was disrupted by a demonstrator who stood up and yelled "This is a rigged election!" before championing for Faith Goldy, a known white supremacist running for mayor of Toronto, to be included in the debate.

As the candidates stood quietly on stage and the audience jeered, security escorted the demonstrator out of the venue. After she had been removed, Tory returned to his response, stating he favours including a wide range of candidates in debate.

"My only rule is that I will not debate a known white supremacist, of which there are two running in this election" said Tory.

Tory also noted that he was initially polling at two or three per cent in Toronto's 2003 election and, by today's measure, he would not have been included in the debate — something he considered clearly "unfair."

As the moderator prepared to move on to the next question, candidate Saron Gebresellassi interjected:

"The people of the City of Toronto are done with a John-Jennifer race. This city is one of the most diverse in the country and the world, and the press need to know, frankly, this is not a two-way race. The city is tired of it.

"Two status-quo politicians cannot relate to the everyday struggles of working-class people in the City of Toronto and, for that reason, people need to hear all of their options and understand that there are better options than what's being presented in the media."

Gebresellassi's words were the closing remarks on a moment that perfectly encapsulates this election: even as Tory stands on stage with three highly skilled and qualified candidates, he is asked to address only one.

As disruptions caused by supporters of a white supremacist, lead Tory to respond by disavowing himself from such individuals, the staggering inequality in Toronto and the exclusion of candidates of colour from key platforms is lost in the distractions. It is against this backdrop that the simple act of refusing to debate a white supremacist now seems progressive.

Phillip Dwight Morgan is a Toronto-based journalist and writer. He is the inaugural Jack Layton Journalism Fellow.

This is article is part of rabble's series on the 2018 Toronto electionFollow the series here.

Photo source: City of Toronto Flickr

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