In 2018, 34.7% of voters in Newmarket cast a ballot in the municipal election. This year, it dropped to 24.8%. 

But Newmarket wasn’t alone in posting these numbers. Low turnouts happened across the Province.

Should we just shrug our shoulders and consider this the new normal? What happens next time if turnouts continue to collapse and we are in the teens, not the twenties?

Perhaps the low turnout is a sign of voter contentment?  This is what some would have us believe. A 14.8% turnout in Newmarket in 2026 (following the current trajectory) would be solid evidence we are all deliriously happy and content.

Boosting Turnout

People in Grey Highlands have been trying to boost turnout with mixed success. In this month’s election it was 35% - much the same as in 2018.

Dave Meslin told TVO:

“…maybe a mistake was thinking that, after three years of having a disengaged population, you could suddenly just convince them to vote. I don’t think a lot of people even know what city council really does. There’s a really low level of civic literacy.”

On the doorstep I found lots of people asking which Party I was from and I had to explain that the political parties don’t organise at municipal level. There was a staggering amount of ignorance about the powers of the Regional Council and little appreciation of who does what between the two tiers of municipal government.

And, of course, there is always the churn of voters between elections. People moving out of Town and new people moving in. Voters’ memories are short and appear to be getting shorter.

So, what is to be done?

I would bring back in-person voting to complement on-line voting. We still have in-person voting for Federal and Provincial elections. I met many people during the campaign who told me they would not vote because it was (almost exclusively) on-line. 

A vibrant local democracy is more than the act of casting a ballot. It needs a supporting architecture – an engaged local press and media and election debates to generate the fizz and excitement to grab the voters’ attention.

Election Debates

If I were Master of the Universe I would lay a duty on Municipalities to appoint an independent person/s to organise “official debates” at election time. 

Municipalities already appoint independent people who operate at arm’s length to carry our various roles. Ethics and Integrity Commissioners spring to mind.

What happens in future if Newmarket Chamber of Commerce decides not to organise a debate and the local media follow suit? We would be in the same situation as happened in this election

There would, of course, be nothing to stop candidates from shunning debates but that could carry a penalty. 

The recent Provincial election showed the PCs boycotting candidates’ debates - including our very own Dawn “Corn Roast” Gallagher-Murphy. This was part of a considered strategy. They figured they had more to lose than gain by exposing weak candidates to public scrutiny in an election debate.

Social Media

If we do nothing, elections will be fought almost exclusively on social media where the message can be micro targeted, telling people what they want to hear. Incumbents will have had years to cultivate their on-line audiences.

We need a fundamental re-think of how elections are run and organised at municipal level.

The very significant costs of running present a formidable barrier to many people. They simply wouldn’t countenance gambling many thousands of dollars running against an incumbent who was well known and dug-in. 

One third of all Mayors in Ontario were returned unopposed.

Common Platform

And why should candidates be forced to run as “independents”? 

Why can’t like-minded people pool their resources and fight the election on a common platform?

Our current system is not working. 

And I think we all know it.

Gordon Prentice 28 October 2022

From Newmarket Today: Newmarket has worst turnout in 46 years.

See also the Association of Municipal Organisations for statistics. The AMO estimates turnout Province-wide in 2022 was 33%.