Illustration by Roxanne Ignatius/Torontoist.
“I represent all the people, not just the ones who voted for me.” It’s a line many politicians are fond of, and with good reason: an elected official’s job is to represent the needs and interests of all his or her constituents, and not just the ones who offer their endorsement on election day.
But what about the people who aren’t in a position to vote at all? Who represents them?
“Who Decides? Democracy, Power and the Municipal Franchise in Cities of Immigration,” a day-long conference held at UofT this past Friday, was devoted to examining this question—specifically, to considering the pros, cons, and implications of extending municipal voting rights to non-citizens. With a morning panel devoted to academic research into immigrant voting rights and patterns, both historically and in other parts of the world, and an afternoon roundtable examining the case for extending voting rights in Toronto, the conference offered a comprehensive and remarkably well-balanced examination of all the attendant issues.
Municipal voting rights in Toronto are established not by the city but by the province, via Ontario’s Municipal Elections Act. The act stipulates that in order to be eligible to vote in a municipal election a person must (a) reside in, or own or rent property in, the municipality in question, or be a spouse of a person who does; (b) be a Canadian citizen; and (c) be at least eighteen years of age. (The provisions about owning or renting property, according to one of the day’s speakers, professor Myer Siemiatycki, hearken back to nineteenth century norms which had property rights underwriting representation.) This voting scheme meant that in the 2006 election, 380,135 non-citizen Toronto residents (or 15.4% of the population) were unable to vote. Even more striking is that, because immigrant communities often cluster geographically, some neighbourhoods have more than 30% non-citizen residents, rendering elections in some wards far less participatory than others.
Among those non-citizen residents are several groups, including permanent residents who have not filed for citizenship or have not been here long enough to become eligible for it yet, temporary foreign workers, and non-status residents (who are here without official documentation). Most proposals for extending the vote focus on the first group, permanent residents, as this is the demographic that is already most involved in civic life and has cleared a significant number of hurdles on their path to citizenship.
Among the most interesting points raised against extending voting rights:
- If everything goes smoothly, the path to citizenship takes three years to five years, and there is a very high naturalization rate among Canadian permanent residents. Several speakers argued that this isn’t a particularly long process, and that it is reasonable to withhold voting rights for that length of time, which immigrants need in order to become acclimatized and acquainted with Canada and with their local political landscape.
- Separating the vote from citizenship risks devaluing citizenship. Marcus Gee, columnist for the Globe and Mail, argued that voting is one of the privileges inherent to the concept of citizenship, and that it is by becoming a citizen that a person “make[s] the simple statement of belonging to the polity.”
And the arguments in favour:
- The notion that voting rights are inherent to citizenship is actually mistaken. Just who has the vote has changed a great deal over time, and it is within our purview to revise enfranchisement to match our values.
- As for what those values are, Maytree chair Alan Broadbent contended that enfranchisement is a tool for attracting and integrating immigrants into our society, and that voting rights encourage new Torontonians to become active in civic life from the outset. “Successful immigration doesn’t happen just by chance,” he said, and we will need to increasingly rely on immigration to maintain and expand our city’s prosperity.
- I Vote Toronto project leader (and Torontoist contributor) Desmond Cole picked up on this theme, saying that the intention or effect of extending the vote would not be to undermine citizenship but rather to acknowledge that “it is a bit of a blunt object” when it comes to fine-grained municipal issues: “Are we going to really conflate belonging in a community with…national identity?” (He went on to argue: “If you move to Toronto from Yellowknife tomorrow, you are eligible to vote in Toronto tomorrow. Move here from New York City and it’s whenever you’re naturalized. Citizenship isn’t the right litmus test for preparedness to understand and take part in local politics.”)
- Councillor Janet Davis (Ward 31, Beaches-East York) gave a particularly interesting account of the impact of voting rights on politicians. When a politician knows “that possibly ten percent of the people [they] serve can’t make that judgement [of who should be elected], can’t express their views, there is a fundamental bias in the representation provided by city councillors, potentially.” This can effect campaigns as well: as Davis pointed out, if you have limited resources to communicate, you will target areas with a high proportion of registered voters.
While granting voting rights to non-citizens is counter-intuitive to many, it’s something that is in effect in many cities around the world and has precedent on this continent as well. (According to another speaker, Ron Hayduk, non-citizens voted in local, state, and federal elections in the U.S. from 1776-1926 in forty states. The rights were eventually revoked due to anti-immigrant backlashes.) And there is, arguably, something especially apt about considering such a move in Toronto, with its particularly high levels of immigration. Said Siemiatycki, “Toronto’s official brand is cosmopolitanism and inclusion…yet few cities in the western world are home to more municipally disenfranchised residents: one in seven.”
“We cannot treat the world as a global economic village but define it as a collection of remote islands for the purposes of political participation.” So said American jurist Jamin Raskin, and so repeated many of the conference speakers, following in his footsteps. So too are saying a small but growing number of Torontonians.