Every week (or so), two Torontoist staffers square off to debate an issue that’s important to our city. We invite our readers to join the debate in the comments section following the post.
Last week, a panel discussion at City Hall kicked off a campaign to extend voting rights in local elections to Torontonians who are not citizens. Although Mayor David Miller supported the idea during last years municipal elections, thus far no provincial political party has announced a position. Would an extended franchise be an example of true democracy in action, or would it trivialize the meaning of citizenship? As always, Torontoist has a couple of different opinions on the subject.
Extending the franchise to non-citizens for municipal elections makes perfect sense. After all, we are not ‘citizens’ of a city (despite the origins of that word), and it doesn’t matter whether you were born in Toronto, or whether you moved here from Mumbai, Dublin, or (God-forbid) Winnipeg: we should all be treated equally. There is no test for becoming a Torontonian. Voting in municipal elections is based on residency and land-ownership. Citizenship should have nothing to do with it.
The basic argument is about fairness. No taxation without representation, and all that. From a municipal standpoint, we all participate in the city the same way and the issues the city has to deal with affect us the same way. Non-citizens pay the same rate of property taxes, and the same fare to ride the TTC. The only thing that’s different about us is the passport that we hold. In Federal elections, where we elect representatives who deal with international relations and issues where citizenship is a meaningful consideration, then it makes sense to limit the vote to citizens, but potholes don’t care what passport you hold.
Mayor Miller has said that he is behind non-citizen voting in order to improve representation and diversity on Council, but at the provincial level the left has been slow to embrace this issue. I’m not sure that this is because of some adherence to philosophical notions about the meaning of citizenship; I think that they are just running the numbers in order to see how this would affect election results.
While there are a lot of poor immigrants in Toronto who would suddenly be enfranchised under a plan like this, there is no assurance that those people would vote even if they could. Statistically, it’s not likely. However, there are a lot of wealthy expatriate Americans and Brits who live in the city, or who own land here, and if they had the right to cast a ballot it’s likely that they would. So, there is no guarantee that extending the franchise would be a boon to one side or the other. What is guaranteed is that the whole process would be more fair and open.
There are those who want to turn this into a debate about what it means to be Canadian. This is far off-base. The right to vote in municipal elections isn’t a selling feature of Canadian citizenship and it doesn’t need to be. If the most compelling reason you can give someone for why they should become a Canadian is that they’ll finally have a say in whether or not their street gets a speed bump, then you’ve lost the idea of what it means to be a Canadian. People should get their citizenship because they believe in Canadian values. Values like inclusiveness, fairness and equality.
It is those very values that point to the idea that we should all have the right to vote in the city where we live.
The idea of allowing non-citizens to vote in municipal elections is one that has yet to attract the support of any major political party, and if common sense prevails, it won’t do so in the future.
The proposal may seem almost sensible on its face. After all, surely those who live in the city should have some say in how it’s governed, even if they’re lacking the paperwork that would make them official citizens of the country.
That argument ignores the fact that the majority of eligible immigrants, and in fact of all Torontonians, don’t vote in municipal elections at all (41% of eligible voters participated in the most recent contests). Expanding the pool of civic apathy is unlikely to make any difference in the stated goal of ensuring “inclusiveness”, whatever that means.
Still, there’s little doubt that the idea will appeal to some politicians, who will see the potential benefit in cultivating a group of voters predisposed to support those who secured their enfranchisement. Such is the nature of democracy, and appealing to ethnic, religious and other groups in the hopes that they will vote as a bloc has been standard operating procedure for years.
This simple-minded viewpoint misses the larger question that must ultimately impact the country as a whole. What does it mean, after all, to be a Canadian? The meaning of citizenship has already been diminished to the point that there is virtually no distinction between a resident and a citizen, apart from the right to hold a passport and to vote. New immigrants and refugees already share all the legal and civil rights of citizens, are entitled to social benefits, and indeed are the beneficiaries of many taxpayer funded training and support initiatives. Voting is one of the last areas in which participants are asked to demonstrate some commitment towards the nation in which they have chosen to live, even if that only means meeting a short residency requirement and answering a 15 minute quiz. Are we ready to discard even these minimal criteria, and accept that to be a Canadian simply means having been fortunate enough to have stepped off a plane onto the northern part of the North American landmass?
In Canada, voting has always been the right of every (adult) citizen. But the concept of citizenship implies not only rights but responsibilities, and an allegiance towards certain fundamental principles of the particular nation-state of which one claims to be a member. To abandon this most basic of standards suggests that it is time to give up pretending that Canadians share any common values, and to accept the future of the nation as disparate groups of squabbling self-interested entities, each working to manipulate the system to their own ends, and succeeding according to their numbers and political influence.
Canadians, both new and old, deserve better.