Fostering new voices in city elections

Compared to its immediate predecessor, the 2006 Toronto municipal election was a bit of a bore. The mayoral race was a foregone conclusion despite Jane Pitfield's game efforts and Stephen LeDrew's far-reaching eyebrows. The biggest issues (if only "big" in a relative sense) were a garbage deal that had already been signed, a dedicated LRT route that was already mostly constructed, and a certain elevated highway that every single candidate agreed should stay where it was.

Amid the snoring, the race for Olivia Chow's former council seat in Trinity-Spadina took on the appearance of high drama. There was the reportedly ugly nomination battle for the NDP endorsement that was won by former Chow assistant Helen Kennedy. There was the appearance in the race of another leftish celebrity candidate, second generation urbanist and longtime Citytv reporter Adam Vaughan. In possibly the highest profile ward in the city (home to Kensington Market, The Annex, Chinatown, Queen West, Clubland, and Harbourfront) a heavyweight battle generated the heat and light missing from the incumbent coronations taking place most other places.

And in Trinity-Spadina, there was a further element that set political pulses racing: the surprising candidacy of Desmond Cole. He finished third, but everyone from Kennedy and Vaughan to NOW magazine and The Globe and Mail noted that Cole's was a name to watch. He brought so much to the race that is sadly lacking in Toronto politics: creativity and grassroots energy exemplified by his victory in the City Idol contest; youth (he was 24); ethnic diversity (he's black, the son of immigrants from the Sierra Leone). No matter who they thought best fit Toronto's needs today, most agreed that Cole would play a big part in transforming the city's politics in the years to come.

Today, Cole is attempting to live up to some of those expectations by leading a campaign to implement a plank from his electoral platform that would transform local politics by literally changing the electorate. The "I Vote Toronto" campaign has a simple premise: this city's 200,000 landed immigrants should be allowed to vote in local elections.

The idea of giving non-citizens the vote initially seems, at a glance, to raise some fairly fundamental civics questions. After all, how do we define who "we" are, as Canadians, if not by citizenship? And what exactly do we reserve for citizens, if not the vote? And if no rights and privileges are reserved for citizens, what exactly is the purpose of citizenship, anyway?

And yet, as Cole explained to me over a mid-winter brunch in Seaton Village, the more you examine the case of municipal voting in particular, the less grandiose principles we associate with the ballot box seem to apply. "No one is talking about giving non-citizens a vote in determining constitutional questions, or foreign policy, or citizenship requirements," he said — questions on which the Canadian allegiance of the voter would seem to be vitally important. Rather, the jurisdiction of municipal government is almost exclusively service-based: maintaining roads and schools and picking up garbage. Allegiance to the Crown is simply not a factor either way in determining one's vote on the length of the season for outdoor ice rinks. Membership in the community of Toronto residents is.

Moreover, we already treat the municipal vote as less than a sacred trust, as Cole explains. Not just in the sense that we don't exercise the franchise, though with a turnout rate under 40%, there's that too. But consider that you needn't live in Toronto to vote for our mayor or council — anyone who owns a business or property in the city can vote here. And if you own property in every city in Ontario, you're entitled to vote in every city in Ontario. So we allow plenty of people who don't live in Toronto to vote here, while excluding a couple hundred thousand permanent residents of the city. By allowing non-citizens to vote, he says, we'd be increasing their investment in the city and strengthening our own process — and it's only fair, Cole says, that they be given representation alongside taxation.

So far, I Vote Toronto has gained the endorsements of David Miller, among other local politicians, and 32 organizations including social service providers and trade unions. Cole notes wryly that the only endorsement they really need to accomplish their goals is that of the Ontario Liberal party (who form the government, with the sole power to pass a change to the eligibility laws). But at this point, he says his organization is spending its time on outreach to the immigrants who are affected. "It's important to get them involved, so that when we bring this forward, the request is coming from them," he said.

As our coffee cups were refilled and our plates cleared, the talk of voting had put Cole in a philosophical mood. He described his experience of voting — he remembers clearly each and every vote he has cast — and says that for him the act of voting is "spiritual." Grinning wide and almost giddy at the memory of voting for himself in 2006, it's easy to see why Cole wants to share the experience of casting a ballot. His energy and enthusiasm are something to behold. Landed immigrants who want a vote in city affairs may yet benefit from his efforts; our civic conversation already has.