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Small increase in voter turnout makes ‘dramatic’ difference in Richmond Hill election thanks to citizen mobilization: expert
Nov. 14, 2022

Richmond Hill residents might have collectively missed the mark with only a 32 per cent voter turnout rate in the October election, but those who did cast their ballots managed to shake up the incumbent council.

Fresh faces from the community are replacing four current members at the city council table after fierce races in the election which saw demonstrations on the streets, mailboxes overflowing with election flyers, and paid advertisements in newspapers and on social media.

While it was less than ideal to see just one-third of eligible voters exercise their rights, an expert in Canadian politics says the election outcome indicates that grassroots organizations have helped mobilize voters and they eventually changed the political landscape in Richmond Hill.

“When voter turnout is so low,” said Dennis Pilon, an associate professor of politics at Toronto's York University, “slight shifts in voter turnout can actually lead to dramatic shifts in representation. That means organized groups at the local level can actually make a difference in a way that's much harder to do at the provincial and federal level.”

The voter turnout went up by 5 per cent from the 2018 Richmond Hill election when only 27 per cent of eligible voters elected a term of council beset by problems.

Engaged residents -- who were fed up with some of the decision-makers’ behaviours -- took it upon themselves to expose the political infighting, name calling and lack of productivity of the previous council members and educate the public on the importance of voting.

The Council Accountability Group (CAG) and A Better Richmond Hill (ABRH) -- two prominent groups that emerged in the middle of the 2018-2022 term of council -- took different approaches to increase public engagement in local politics.

While the CAG did not endorse any candidate and was committed to providing information on all candidates, A Better Richmond Hill (ABRH) was registered as a third party advertiser and publicly voiced their opposition to three incumbents.

The incumbents the ABRH were seeking to oust -- Carmine Perrelli, Greg Beros and Tom Muench -- all failed to win re-election by a notable margin.

“In a way, we've broken the ‘money wins’ municipal election curse,” John Li, the leader of the ABRH, said.

It was a result of a “long-term” effort by community groups that Richmond Hill bucked the trend of declining voter turnout across Ontario, said Li who spearheaded the group last May.

In the 2022 municipal elections, the province saw an average 33 per cent voter turnout rate, a drop from 38 per cent four years ago, according to the Association of Municipalities Ontario.

“I don't think it's because people don't care. I think it's that people don't believe that the political system actually works for people like them,” Pilon said.

There are a number of factors contributing to the low voter engagement in municipal election but blaming it on voter apathy is not the answer, he noted.

“Mobilization is always part of the solution. Politics doesn't just happen. It always requires some sort of activity,” Pilon said of the grassroots endeavours in Richmond Hill.

“What they should do is make it more permanent,” Pilon said. “If you can’t have political parties and maybe what different towns need are these kinds of mobilization, accountability groups whose job is to continue to promote and circulate information and particularly organize before election time.”

Paul Rose, an executive member of the CAG, said he believed the group helped increase the intelligence of the voters in the election and is in the process of planning for the future for the group to continue their efforts.

It has been an uphill battle to raise awareness among the public, Rose said, noting “I hope people won’t think the battle is won and resume their former ignorance.”

Li said ABRH will continue to be a non-partisan, non-profit organization with a mandate to encourage civic engagement and public participation in municipal issues in Richmond Hill.

In order to increase voter engagement across the board, Pilon suggests we should change the way we look at the problem from focusing on the voters to finding out what is not working in the system.

“We have an inverted pyramid,” he said, “The piece of government that is closest to voters is the one that is also the most distant politically in terms of their abilities to engage them.”

Reforming the campaign finance laws to limit the ability of the developers to control the city hall would be one of the ways to improve the public’s participation in the election, Pilon said.

Meanwhile, the associate professor said it would be easier for the public to make a decision if the restrictions on party slates were removed from municipal elections.

Pilon noted it’s also important to make sure there’s effective coverage of the city hall at the local level.

“We can’t expect people to be able to participate if there’s no oversight,” he said.