Voting Rights in Toronto: Who Has (and Hasn't) Been Allowed to Cast a Ballot in Our Elections

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Voting Rights in Toronto: Who Has (and Hasn’t) Been Allowed to Cast a Ballot in Our Elections

From women to tenants to 18-year-olds—the evolution of the city's voting rights since 1834.

Ballot box preparation, Township of North York office at 5000 Yonge Street, 1964. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 261, Item 1.

For most of Toronto’s history, the privilege of voting in municipal elections belonged to an elite group. If you were male, 21 or older, and owned a certain amount of property, you automatically gained membership. If you were a male tenant, or a woman in general, the road to getting the municipal franchise was long and frustrating, often pitting the city against the reluctance of Queen’s Park.

The limitations on who could vote were enshrined in the document that created the City of Toronto, the York Incorporation Act of 1834, and written in convoluted legalese:

That the Aldermen and Common Councilmen of the said City shall be elected respectively by the majority of votes of such persons being male Inhabitant Householders within the Ward for which the Election shall be holden, or the Liberties attached thereto, as shall be possessed at the time of the Election, either in freehold or as tenants for term of years, or from year to year, of a Town Lot of Dwelling-house within the said Ward or Liberties: Provided always, that a portion of a House in which any Inhabitant shall reside as a Householder, and not as a Boarder or Lodger, and having a distinct communication with a street by an outer door, shall be considered a Dwelling-house within the meaning of this Clause: And provided also, that no person shall vote at any such Election, who has not been a resident Inhabitant with the said City or Liberties thereof, for the period of twelve calendar months, and who had not resided within the Ward for which the Election shall be holden, or the Liberties attached thereto for the period of three calendar months next before the Election.

The minimum monetary property value set by the province varied over time. Amendments under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1849 set the minimum at 50 pounds (pre-decimalization); by the time a revised Municipal Act passed in 1866, the minimum was $600, later reduced to $400. The ownership restrictions effectively shut out the city’s growing working class, despite calls as early as the mid-1860s to extend voting rights to all male taxpayers aged 21 and older.

Although women chose educational trustees as early as 1850 (since schooling was seen as a domestic concern), getting the municipal vote took nearly half a century. The fight for women’s suffrage gained traction after women’s property rights were officially recognized in the early 1870s. Organizations such as the Toronto Women’s Literary and Social Progress Club (TWLSPC, founded by pioneer suffragette Dr. Emily Stowe) urged city council to petition the province to extend the vote. Defenders of the status quo made ridiculous arguments against doing so: women lacked the mental capacity to comprehend politics, extending the vote to women would destroy marital bliss, the whole political process was too degrading, and virtually every other misogynistic complaint you could think of.

There were even fears that allowing women to cast ballots would disrupt child-rearing. “Some people think it will take women from the fireside, and cause them to neglect the babies and spoil the dinners,” observed a TWLSPC member during a meeting held in the city council chamber in March 1883, “but there need not be much fear that our absence will greatly affect our domestic concerns.” The TWLSPC soon renamed itself the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association, and fought for the vote at all levels of government.

1914 calendar advertising Belle Ewart Ice Co. with reference to women’s suffrage. Toronto Public Library.

In March 1884, Queen’s Park passed legislation that allowed women to vote municipally, though the franchise was restricted to spinsters and widows, and only those who met the same property ownership qualifications as men. It was believed married women, even if property was held in their name, would be represented by their husbands at the ballot box.

Thanks to implementation delays, it wasn’t until January 4, 1886 that women in Toronto cast their first municipal ballots. Reform candidates such as mayoral contender William Holmes Howland counted on the 2,000 eligible female voters to support their stands on middle class concerns like the temperance movement. The Globe predicted that the injection of female virtue would cause inebriated, rowdy behaviour on election day to vanish: “No woman need fear having to endure any insult or having in the slightest degree to part with her womanliness in consequence of exercising her privilege of voting.”

Nearly 40 years passed before married women were allowed to vote, over which time countless attempts by city council and opposition parties in the Ontario legislature to change the rules failed. But the will was there, as shown by council’s actions when its Civic Legislation and Reception Committee heard from a delegation of 30 local suffragettes on January 11, 1912. Constance Boulton noted how the “public spirited ladies of Toronto” influenced council to back major infrastructure projects like the Ashbridges Bay water treatment plant. Dr. Margaret Gordon, president of the Toronto Suffrage Association, observed, “We are allowed to vote only when our husbands die. They do not die until we are well up in years.” The councillors in attendance (apart from George McMurrich, who believed that giving women the franchise would discourage their husbands from voting) praised the suffragettes. “There are hundreds and thousands of women in this city who pay taxes yet are without a voice in municipal affairs,” reflected controller J.O. McCarthy. “It is not square. The individual who pays taxes has some right to a voice in the government that spends them.”

Two weeks later, council voted unanimously to apply to the province to extend the franchise to married women. Mayor George Reginald Geary originally insisted on a rider that recommended that if a couple was jointly assessed for taxes, only the husband would vote. Sensing the mood, he consented to dropping it. Fifty women were on hand for the vote, but only after councillors gave up their seats to allow more to enter a council chamber packed that day for a separate debate on legalizing Sunday tobogganing.

But the province didn’t feel like rocking the boat. When three proposed bills allowing women’s suffrage were defeated in the legislature on April Fools’ Day 1913, Premier Sir James Whitney noted that they were contrary to British precedent. “The restriction of the franchise to men is a good custom that is quietly helping to corrupt the world,” an editorial in the World noted, “and it will have to change.” Married women were granted the right to vote in provincial elections in February 1917, but they had to wait until the passage of the Municipal Franchise Act in 1922 to vote in municipal elections.

The next great battle was extending the franchise to anyone 21 or older, regardless of their property holdings. While some community leaders, like Mayor Jimmie Simpson, supported the idea during the 1930s, others not only opposed it, but also wanted to reduce the number of eligible voters. At a provincial hearing on reforming municipal taxes in April 1938, Property Owners’ Association of Toronto president H.E. Manning argued that the administration of social services and assistance to the poor should be eliminated from municipal budgets. “With the removal of the above services from the municipal field any sentimental reasons for preserving an unrestricted municipal franchise disappear,” Manning stated. “The temptation to win elections by promises of spending the taxpayers’ money on airports, uneconomically cheap housing projects, harbour improvements and other enterprises not particularly the concern of either local government or property ownership will persist as long as non-taxpayers control the election.” In a piece published by the Globe and Mail a few months later Dr. Charles Sheard wrote, “to have members of Council representing tenants is like being asked to contribute to a charity by a canvasser when she herself contributes nothing, but merely seeks to point out to others wherein their duty lies.”

Advertisement, the Globe and Mail, November 9, 1956

Advertisement, the Globe and Mail, November 9, 1956.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, calls to update voting qualifications grew louder. The existing laws allowed tenants to vote only if they met absurdly convoluted qualifications. In 1949, for example, the Municipal Act stipulated that tenants had to rent two or more rooms that could be assessed for at least $400 worth of taxes, and in which they regularly cooked and slept. If an adult lived in their parents’ home, they were disqualified from voting if they ate meals in the parent’s portion of the residence. Extending the franchise to tenants was seen by some as a blow to the ego of taxpayers.

In a referendum during the 1956 municipal election, Torontonians were asked if they would allow city council to request the province extend the franchise to all people 21 or older who had resided in the city for at least a year and were British subjects. The ballot question exempted public votes on money matters, which would continue to require proof of property ownership. By a two-to-one margin, voters approved of the idea.

Yet the province stalled. When the matter finally arose in March 1958, proposed legislation required Ontario municipalities to hold a referendum before extending the vote, with the exception of the three cities (London, Port Arthur, and Toronto) that had already done so. The province’s municipal law committee unanimously approved the proposal on March 24, but overnight dictates from Premier Leslie Frost and his cabinet provoked backtracking. The next day, the committee announced the three exempted cities had to hold fresh referendums. The move was defended by Renfrew South MPP James Maloney, who believed the bill should be reconsidered because “there are certain matters in it which trouble my people down at Renfrew”—namely, the notion Toronto was receiving preferential treatment. Bewildered opposition officials, including Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the forerunner of the NDP) leader Donald MacDonald, wondered why on earth anyone in Renfrew cared. He chalked up the mood shift to “railroading tactics.”

City council reacted swiftly. Another referendum question was placed on the 1958 municipal ballot; it passed by an even larger margin than the last one. In response, Queen’s Park allowed an extended franchise (with some lingering restrictions) to be implemented in 1960, on condition that a pricy separate voters list prepared by a separate enumeration team was maintained for newly eligible electors. The move reeked of spite.

Over the course of the 1960s, city council worked on proposals to base voter qualification on residency instead of the few remaining property ownership restrictions, most of which were abolished years earlier for federal or provincial contests. These efforts caused at least one right-wing councillor to cry “Communism!” Loosening the franchise occurred gradually in the suburbs within Metro Toronto, though communities like Scarborough resisted as long as possible.

Advertisement, the Toronto Star, October 26, 1972

Advertisement, the Toronto Star, October 26, 1972.

The piecemeal process of reform ended in June 1972, when the province passed the Municipal Elections Act. The new legislation lowered the voting age to 18 and removed the last property value qualifications—the main requirement was Canadian citizenship or being a British subject (the latter a right Toronto retained into the 1980s). The city’s current voter qualifications reflect these changes; they also allow non-residents who own or rent property within the city’s borders to vote, which some observers say is a means of padding the electoral rolls.

Current efforts to extend the vote to non-citizens are not without historical precedent. In 1971, councillor Joe Piccininni proposed allowing non-citizens who owned property in the city to cast ballots. The idea was attacked in letters to the editor by those who argued that the right to vote is one of the few incentives to become a Canadian citizen. Yet, as Ryerson University political science professor Myer Siemiatycki pointed out in a 2006 report on voting and social inclusion [PDF], nearly 16 per cent of Toronto’s population was ineligible to vote due to lack of citizenship. Will this group bring about the next stage in the evolution of our municipal franchise?

Additional material from Mayor Howland: The Citizens’ Candidate by Desmond Morton (Toronto: Hakkert, 1973); Statutes of His Majesty’s province of Upper Canada, passed in the fourth session of the eleventh provincial Parliament of Upper Canada (Toronto: Robert Stanton, 1834); The Muncipal Franchise and Social Inclusion in Toronto: Policy and Practice by Myer Siemiatycki (Toronto: Community Social Planning Council of Toronto, 2006); the August 30, 1866, March 7, 1883, January 12, 1912, and January 23, 1912 editions of the Globe; the April 29, 1938, July 27, 1938, December 1, 1949, June 9, 1961, May 10, 1962, and April 21, 1972 editions of the Globe and Mail; the March 25, 1958, December 16, 1958, April 12, 1960, December 9, 1971, and December 13, 1971 editions of the Toronto Star; and the April 2, 1913 edition of the Toronto World.

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