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We've been kicking the can on democracy too, and we should stop

This week's Market Squared talks about why accessibility to the polls is an issue beyond what was talked about this week
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Perhaps predictably, city council decided that the clerks office was right and it’s too late to initiate Remote Accessible Vote by Mail for next year’s municipal election.

This is notable for two reasons. The first is obvious, there were some very passionate delegates who went hard at council and staff to demand real answers and real accessibility, and you could tell that they felt the heat. It’s not often that community advocates put the horseshoe on a backheel, which is exactly what about half a dozen delegates did on this issue.

The second reason puts this issue on par with certain budget matters that were mentioned in a couple of town halls this week. You see, just like how there’s a budget crunch this year because all those cans kicked down the road now have to be picked up and accounted for, there are other cans containing democratic reform that have also been kicked down the road.

Consider the fact there was a 30-year period between ward boundary reviews. Also consider that after months of consultation, the end result was a new map with the exact same number of wards, and only some cosmetic changes to the ward boundaries. So now Ward 4 ends at the Hanlon Expressway instead of Silvercreek Parkway, was it worth it?

Speaking immodestly, I’d like to think I’m something of an expert on local politics, but I still struggle to figure out why so many people think the council composition for Guelph in 1991 will still apply to Guelph in 2031.

And if we’re talking about the future, we need to talk seriously about internet voting. No, I haven’t flip-flopped. I’m still against it, but I also still find it persuasive that it is the most accessible system of voting for everyone.

As I said before the last election, we really need to have a big community conversation about internet voting. Not the kind of discussion that we have at city council right before a decision is made, but an open forum where we can hear from cyber security experts about the potential risks and the strategies by which they might be mitigated.

We also need some systemic changes, like moving away from using the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) to maintain the voters list in municipal elections. It’s always seemed weird that the same body that oversees property assessment also oversees our voting list, especially since there’s a whole provincial agency whose job it is to manage an electoral list.

But let’s go even further out and consider just how hard it is to get people involved in municipal politics in the first place. Most of the time, voter turnout in a local election is around 34 per cent, and yeah, voter turnout was about 10 per cent higher that one year we had internet voting, but given that, can you tell me why over 66 per cent of voters cast a ballot in the last federal election in October?

I think it’s clear that there’s an overall issue with public engagement. People either feel like they don’t need to take part in the local democratic process, or that the powers that be don’t want them to take part. I don’t think either of those things are true.

If expanding and encouraging democratic access were just another problem that the city needed to solve, how would they do it?

They would present a plan to council and outline the problem they want to solve. They would do a few rounds of community feedback through the Have Your Say site and public meetings, they would look at comparator municipalities and see what they’re doing, and then they would look at developments coming in the future.

I wonder if we should commit to a similar project to improve our local democracy. Let’s look at why we vote, how we vote, and what kind of council we want to vote for. What would our local democratic institutions look like if we were building them from scratch for an electorate in the 21st century?

That may be too much to take on for one project, and did you hear that the City’s facing a budget crunch? but maybe there are some things we can do in the meantime.

We need to uphold the commitment made to the disabled community this week and genuinely make this next election the last one where anybody thinks they’re being left behind.

We need to increase transparency at city hall so that no one thinks decisions are being made in the shadows and that they can trust the recommendations that come to council as the best possible information.

We also need to figure out the secret sauce of getting more people involved. Internet voting helps get more people to the polls, but its not a magic cure all. Why are people more engaged on federal matters versus stuff going on just around the corner?

And finally, we need the time to do things right instead of trying to get it right just as the clock runs out. You can always find more money, but it’s significantly harder to find more time.

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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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