Two opposing visions for Ottawa, but voter turnout is still low

By Scott Healey

As the 2022 Ottawa mayoralty race progressed, it became evident that the choice for mayor was between two strong candidates, Catherine McKenney and Mark Sutcliffe. Two opposing visions were put forward by two highly respected and experienced candidates – that’s a good thing. For the first time in over a decade, Ottawa had a competitive mayoral race.

A competitive mayoral race with two very different visions for the city – isn’t that a recipe for increased participation and higher voter turnout? It would appear not. The 2006 mayoral election was the last time voter turnout exceeded 50 per cent at 54 per cent. During the Jim Watson years, voter turnout in three mayoral elections averaged 42 per cent. The most recent election barely got over 43 per cent.

What happened? A consequential and impassioned campaign, and voter turnout barely moved up.

I was disappointed with the voter turnout for the provincial election on June 2, and I am equally disappointed with the voter turnout in the recent municipal election. There are several reasons why the June provincial election turnout was so poor: overall satisfaction with the current government; the opposition parties could not articulate a clear vision and alternative to the government; not very inspiring leaders; and growing voter apathy for the whole electoral system.

In a recent Pew Research study of election turnout in 50 OECD countries over the past three years, Canada was ranked 43rd. The United States was 31st – so much for Canadian moral superiority. Uruguay led the group with over 90-per-cent voter turnout. There will be caveats to these rankings, but I believe the point is made.

I have a question: Do Canadians really care about the declining engagement in their political system? Current trends would say they don’t. If Ottawa had a poor voter turnout, take a look at the B.C. municipal elections. The Vancouver mayoral race was also a consequential campaign this year offering two visions for the city, and the voter turnout was 36 per cent.

So how to change this trend? Technology and more effective communication is a start.

Technology will not solve all voting issues, but it can be used to modernize the voting experience. We just require the political will and courage to experiment. Voting online on a variety of platforms will be the norm in the future, if we are brave enough to embrace it now. Innovation should not be restricted to software and virtual engagement only. In-person, 24-hour voting can be accommodated through artificial intelligence and robotics. Voting stations can be available 24/7. Ottawa has the technological ability and innovative spirit to be a world leader in this field. Let’s demonstrate that we are a G7 capital and take the lead.

Effective communication needs to be a priority. The road to success begins with awareness and knowledge. Effective engagement and communication are essential to the success of any initiative. I may not be fully versed in all the operational features of my mobile phone, but the difficulty I had in finding voter information was at times excruciatingly challenging. Most citizens are not scanning social media endlessly as to where and when to vote – they have a life. The boiler-plate municipal websites are clearly not working. Think differently. Be creative.

I will add that citizens also need to get off the social-media treadmill. The echo chamber of negativity, misinformation and false news does nothing to enhance voter participation and a more informed public.

I believe that there is a growing “exhausted majority” that is becoming less engaged in the political process. The polity needs to re-engage these citizens in a more positive and constructive manner. I don’t think I am being too hyperbolic when I say that the health of our democracy depends on it.

Scott Healey was a candidate in Ottawa Centre for the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario in the 2022 election.

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