Candidates often don't reflect the diversity of their constituencies—and that may be keeping some residents away from the ballot box.
Immigration and visible minority status play a significant role in voter turnout for Toronto municipal elections, according to new research.
In their publication “Who Votes in Toronto Municipal Elections?” Ryerson University professor Myer Siemiatycki and geographic analyst Sean Marshall explore how immigration, visible minority status, income, and home ownership affected residents’ likelihood of voting in the last three municipal elections. Their findings show that neighbourhoods and wards with higher proportions of immigrants and visible minorities tend to have lower turnout rates.
Siemiatycki ranked Toronto’s 44 wards by turnout and then looked at the percentage of immigrants in each ward. In the 10 wards with the lowest turnout, immigrants comprised an average of 63 per cent of the population, visible minorities 62.7 per cent. Immigrants made up 37 per cent of the population of the top 10 wards for voter turnout, visible minorities just 27 per cent.
“The short answer is, not enough of us turn out to vote,” said Siemiatycki in an interview earlier this month. The report states that “voter turnout over the last three Toronto municipal elections averaged 42.7%, compared to a 61.6% turnout average in the last three federal elections.” But Siemiatycki expressed particular concern about the lower turnout rates among immigrants and residents of visible minority status.
“One very likely explanation is that the composition of elected officials and candidates is not representative of the communities,” Siemiatycki explained, noting that only five of Toronto’s 45 city council members belong to a visible minority group, and that this pattern of disproportionate representation exists across the GTA. “This sends a signal that our elections and politics are the domain of some people and not others,” said Siemiatycki.
The researchers also looked at how property ownership and income affect residents’ likelihood of voting. Siemiatycki was surprised to find that tenants are just as likely to vote as property owners. “It’s been conventional wisdom that homeowners vote in greater proportion than tenants do—that is absolutely not the correlation that exists in Toronto,” Siemiatycki said. He also found that the higher a resident’s income is, the more likely he or she is to vote—but the effect of income on turnout rates is less significant than that of immigration or visible minority status. This finding also surprised Siemiatycki, as international studies of national elections suggest that higher-income residents are far more likely to vote.
Siemiatycki’s research shows a decline in turnout rates in the northern regions of the city. “Highway 401 is a dividing line,” he said. “North of Highway 401, you tend to get a real clustering of the lower voter turnout areas.” The research also indicates that on average, wards within the old City of Toronto have higher turnout rates than wards in the inner suburbs of Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough.
Siemiatycki also believes close races influence voter turnout: “If you look at those northern constituencies, I think you will find long term incumbents at the council level who were pretty much running unchallenged. So they don’t have the competitive race to attract voter turnout.” He added that local media tend to focus on the mayoral race and downtown wards rather than on suburban areas. “That becomes a contributing factor.”
According to Siemiatycki, low turnout in the suburbs is influenced partly by geography and public space: “The inner suburbs of Scarborough, North York, and Etobicoke north of the 401 don’t have the same bonds of connectedness that often is what sparks and underlies people’s decision to vote. Each home is boxed off by its fence and its yard, and people are largely automobile dependent. There is not as much street life and connectedness as you get in a downtown central city street.”
The city’s small elections office is limited in its ability to boost turnout, Siemiatycki said. “The council needs to make more of a priority of turnout and therefore equip Elections Toronto with more capacity.” He also supports the use of info sessions at community centres, shopping malls, and libraries to educate residents and encourage them to vote.
On a more hopeful note, Siemiatycki pointed out that Thorncliffe Park, a low-income neighbourhood with many immigrants and visible minorities, boasts one of the highest voter turnout rates in the city. “It’s a neighbourhood that has been able to cultivate and develop a very strong sense of community, of participation in the life of the area, and that then ripples into high rates of voting,” he said. “If Thorncliffe Park can do it, any neighbourhood can.”
See the full report below.