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How do you solve a problem like low voter turnout?

This week's Market Squared has no easy answers for the most essential question coming out of Monday's election
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It’s the question of the week: Why did only 28 per cent of the Guelph electorate come out and vote in the municipal election?

I don’t know.

I’ve been talking to people about this question, a lot, and I still have no idea why less than one third of the electorate is so disengaged that they didn’t even bother to vote, to say nothing of the nuts and bolts of political engagement like council delegations or serving on local boards or council committees.

Voting is the beginning of political action, not the end.

To a careful political observer, or even a careless one, the rock bottom voter turnout might have had a couple of causes.

First, this was the third election we’ve been through in the last 12 months. Considering that the last federal campaign started in August 2021, we’ve been in a state of election fever for over 16 months now, and while there was essentially a break over the winter, fixed election dates serve as more of a countdown than a reminder.

That provincial election in the spring ended up having the worst voter turnout of any provincial election ever. That was another warning sign because there’s always more attention for the province-wide race than the local, and while Guelph did better than the provincial average, around 10,000 people that came out in 2018 stayed home in 2022.

This past fall there was another potential warning sign when the city extended the deadline for people to apply to appointments on local boards and committees. Now, these committees are not always easy to fill, but one would think a pre-election zeal and the opportunities of a new term of council might encourage more community involvement.

That might have been naïve.

The last warning sign was the repeated posts I’d see on social media where people would ask, “Where do I go to learn about the candidates?” Some people were so out of touch that they didn’t know where to begin their research, even the most obvious sources like local media outlets.

I can sympathize. We live in a digital deluge where even internet creatures like me can miss a key post, and some politicians, not necessarily at the local level, have become practitioners of “flooding the zone” wherein so much news is created you can never really focus on one thing, especially the smaller things.

So the internet might be part of the problem, but is it part of the solution? Not immediately. I’ve heard people talk about gathering all information in one place, but there’s a lot of uncertainty about what that would look like, and who would run it. Also, would you not be adding to the deluge by throwing up another city politics site and trying to rise above the maelstrom.

No, the solution will not be so easily achieved. You can’t just throw up another website because this is an ongoing, multiyear project, and it means meeting people where they are, at least physically, out there in the real world.

We need to talk to people in the mall, in the Farmers’ Market, at local festivals, in the public squares, and even on the street corner. We then need to ask them about what they know about city council. What issues matter to them? Where do they go to get information about those issues? Do they even know where to begin?

Who’s going to do all this work? That’s the question. I don’t think it should be the government, and I’m not sure it should be the media either. Maybe this should be the work of one of the outgoing councillors, coordinating a city-wide effort to understand the electorate and bringing the experience of a candidate, a councillor, a voter and a resident to a job that might require that four-quadrant point-of-view.

Long story short, there is no silver bullet to our voter turnout issues, and I’m not sure there’s anyone smart enough or with the expertise to craft one anyway. That’s another reason why we need to start preparing the electorate for the next election starting today, if not yesterday.

As for this new council we have now, I can’t wait for them to get started.

This is a council that’s majority women, plus one person who identifies as non-binary. It’s not a record, but it’s a notable reshuffling of the table now with eight councillors who do not identify as male. We also have a person of colour on council, a new councillor that identifies as someone with a disability, and a serious injection of youth that’s going to knock 10 years off the median age of the horseshoe.

But demographics aside, we also have a wealth of new experiences. We have a former member of the school board, which can be, in many ways, a much more unwieldy beast than city council. We have a small business owner, someone who’s worked for the biggest tech companies, an urban planner, and a nurse turned manager currently working with Wellington County.

It’s a motley crew, and there’s going to be a learning curve for them and for the veteran councillors too as they all figure out how to work together in this new configuration. Perhaps if you’re looking for a place to jump on and get more politically engaged, this is your moment too.


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Adam A. Donaldson

About the Author: Adam A. Donaldson

In addition to writing his weekly political column for GuelphToday, Adam A. Donaldson writes and manages Guelph Politico, frequently writes for Nerd Bastards and sometimes has to do less cool things for a paycheque.
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