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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The politics of extending the municipal franchise

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In The Globe and Mail’s online debate/column Friday about voting rights for immigrants, Marcus Gee denounced David Miller’s bid to extend the franchise as a “thoroughly awful” idea, but allowed that he didn’t think the mayor was acting out of cynical political calculation.

Gee’s getting it backwards: the proposal, subject to provincial approval, certainly smells like pre-election positioning on the mayor’s part: after all, new immigrants are a natural constituency for a possibly vulnerable left-of-centre politician. Miller has gone to some lengths to cultivate suburban newcomers in his two previous campaigns and will have to do so again in order to be re-elected next year. What’s more, the province’s ultimate ruling is almost immaterial: the mayor likely scores political points with new Canadians (i.e., those who have recently obtained their citizenship) simply by waving this flag.

Politics aside, the concept itself is a good one. Extending the franchise certainly won’t exacerbate what author Yann Martel and others immigration critics have dubbed the ‘Hotel Canada’ phenomenon. Comparisons to Europe and the U.S., as always, are dubious because Canadians, especially those living in big cities, are less inclined to view immigration as a corrosive social problem. Nor will such changes create costly new entitlements because our local governments — unlike those in the U.S and Europe — don’t provide social services that are unavailable to non-citizens.

On the contrary, the municipal franchise is a kind of appetizer: by allowing landed immigrants to vote in local elections, they’ll become more motivated to seek out the complete rights and responsibilities of Canadian citizenship.

Yet the problem with the city’s proposal is that it serves as a distraction from a far more tenacious failing of local democracy, which is  the chronic non-participation of tenants and low-income residents [PDF]. Half of Torontonians rent, and the turnout rate among this segment of urban society has been dismal for years.

City Idol followers tried valiantly to open up municipal politics in 2006, albeit with mixed results. We still have no term limits for councillors, meaning outsiders for the most part need not apply. The council deputation system is a sham. And politicians have a hell of a time campaigning in apartment buildings.

The mayor could make local politics more compelling for a broader segment of urban society by pushing for some kind of mixed electoral model that combines traditional riding representation with party lists. Such measures, however, require provincial assent, which is a complex process with an uncertain endpoint.

There are more straightforward techniques that the city could enact without running to Queen’s Park for permission. For instance, council could seek to establish a system that ensures most tenants receive a statement showing how much of their rent goes towards property taxes. Right now, only property owners receive municipal tax bills, which is a big reason why homeowners vote: they expect a say in how their money is spent and the decisions that affect their assets.

But tenants pay property taxes, too, and at a significantly higher rate than homeowners. Yet those taxes are invisible because they’re rolled into the monthly rent payment. The city is now setting up a licensing system for apartment owners. Why not require landlords, as a condition of license, to report to tenants how much of their monthly rent cheque goes to pay municipal taxes?

The city will whine that such disclosures are administratively complicated and costly, and some tenants will fall through the cracks because they sub-let informally or illegally. But those aren’t compelling reasons to not act. Indeed, if the mayor is serious about making Toronto more inclusive, he should take steps to ensure that all residents, not just homeowners, know precisely what they pay for their municipal services. Only when that happens will we see the voter turnout numbers rise.

Or are there other approaches?

photo by Bouke Salverda



  1. “On the contrary, the municipal franchise is a kind of appetizer: by allowing landed immigrants to vote in local elections, they’ll become more motivated to seek out the complete rights and responsibilities of Canadian citizenship.”

    What a silly comment. There are no other rights and responsibilities of Canadian citizenship over and above what permanent residents get. The only difference would be the ability to vote provincially and federally, and if they can’t be bothered to become citizens in order to do so in the first place then I doubt voting municipally won’t make any difference. And if there are any other hidden rights and responsibilities I’d surely like to hear of them.

    This will encourage “Hotel Canada” because the only thing this might do is pressure the provincial and eventually the federal governments to make the same voting concessions, and as it stands voting and (the passport) is the only thing differentiating citizens from non-citzens. What we really need is to eliminate the stupid dual-citizenship idea as many other countries already do.

  2. The idea that voting municipally is like an “appetizer” is rediculous. The correct analogy would be “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”. Allowing people to vote without citizenship devalues Canadian citizenship by allowing those with no vested interest in this nation to make decisions on behalf of those that do. The correct action in this case is to encourage permanent residents to obtain citizenship and partake in a fully realized political life.

  3. If the above two commenters are so adamant that landed immigrants can’t vote, I hope they’ll back the idea that those same landed immigrants shouldn’t pay any municipal taxes. I have a neighbour whose been in Canada for 20 years but is not a full fledge Canadian citizen yet (wants to have his eventual kids get a shared passport) and works for the city and pays all taxes. He should be able to vote (though I do encourage him to go thru the final citizenship stages). But not allowing him to vote after being here for 20 years is kinda silly.

  4. If that neighbour who has been here in Canada for 20+ years, still has not taken citizenship, then do so now. Then he can vote in federal, provincial, and city elections, and not before. PERIOD.

  5. Miller should put some more thought into it. Look at what happened to John Tory when he tried to score some points on the seperate schools issue. This could boomerang on him in a similar fashion.

    This proposal would devalue citizenship. What are people doing here if they don’t want to be Canadians? We’re being made fools of.

    I strongly support the mayor in general and think he is the best pol we have on any level. But I would seriously consider giving my vote to a fringe candidate or not voting at all in the next mayoral race (no way would I vote for a right-winger) rather than support Miller if he pushes this.

  6. In any club, group or organization, voting is a priviledge of membership. Similarly, voting (at any level of government) should be a priviledge and responsibility of citizenship.

    As long as that “membership” is open to all and there is no discrimination in being given citizenship, then voting belongs to the citizen.

  7. I think the idea of extending the franchise to non-citizens is not a particularly useful step; where municipal government is concerned I wouldn’t mind the franchise being shrunk, that is to say, removed from business owners (who are non-resident). I’m not a fan of anyone getting 2 or more votes.

    However, I do agree that the abysmal turnout among renters and other low-income earners should be addressed. I would greatly support the idea that either, landlords make property tax a visible line-item on a rent bill; or better still, the multi-residential property tax should be wiped out as a class and each renter directly billed for their property tax by the city (with an accompanying rent reduction of course)

    In addition; I think it would be useful to require mock-elections in every high school for all 3 levels of government, to help familiarize people with the process of voting and show them how easy and non-intimidating it is. Over a generation, I would like to think this might raise turnout by a noticeable amount.


    There are a host of other municipal political reforms that would be nice, though I doubt very much that they would effect turn out.

    I think term limits after truly extended political terms are good; but not short limits as occur in some U.S. jurisdictions; as institutional memory is a good thing. As it letting people re-elect a genuinely popular and effective politician. So how about a 5-term (20 year) limit? That allows re-election of the good and the competent but also says eventually you must make room for new blood.

    I think another important reform, not mentioned is campaign finance reform; ie. prohibiting contributions from businesses, or unions, (or any non-individual)and also limiting contributions sizes.

    This might allow someone in Durham to get elected who isn’t…(cough) overly developer friendly.

  8. I’m actually pretty ambivalent on the question of extending the franchise…I see both arguments.

    However the people denouncing by saying it’s a privilege and sign of a commitment need to stop talking. 30% turnout for municipal elections demonstrates that most people don’t feel particularly “privileged”. Don’t complain that it’s a such a special thing if you can’t be bothered to exercise the right yourself. I can’t think of anything more hypocritical. (I recognize that the people commenting on this blog are interested in local politics, and so more likely to vote. But you are certainly not the only ones making this case.)

    I also don’t get the “why buy the cow?” line of thought. Why is “demonstrating your commitment” to Canada so important in this sense? How has a natural-born citizen demonstrated their commitment to Canada any more forcefully than a landed immigrant/permanent resident?

  9. Voting is not a priveledge, it’s a right of citizenship. Complaining about low voter turnouts and linking it to enfranchising non-citizens doesn’t make sense. The way to raise the percentage turn out of municipal elections is to increase the franchise? Voter apathy is bad, but the way to improve it is not to extend it to those who display citizenship apathy.

    If people want a vote in local or any other level of government, they should become citizens. It takes less than 4 years for most permament residents to obtain citizenship. That means you miss one election (or two if you are unlucky) from the day you got off the plane to when you become a Canadian. New arrivals who want the vote can get it very quickly.

  10. Mook, I am an immigrant living in Canada for some 13 years now. I got my citizenship 9 years ago, one year after technically being eligible for the citizenship. What is your neighbour’s excuse? As long as he lives in the city and has the same services available as the rest of us, why would he not pay the municipal taxes? Would that not encourage most permanent residents to NOT become citizens? One less tax to pay.

    Well, voting is kind of like that: it encourages people TO become citizens.

    By the way Asher, people can choose not to exercise their democratic rights as citizens of Canada. It’s their choice, but it’s a right (not a privilege) they gain upon becoming citizens.

    The natural-born citizens vs long-term permanent resident comparison is not really analogous. The vast majority of natural born Canadians have attachments to Canada which immigrants arriving to Canada today just can’t have (Canada tends to be the only country that natural-born Canadians are a ‘part’ of).

    As for long-term permanent residents who refuse to become Canadian citizens… well, they are in fact demonstrating their lack of commitment to the country since gaining citizenship after the minimum residency requirements is anything but complicated. Many of them don’t become citizens precisely because the country where they are originally from does not allow dual citizenship; well, they’ve therefore demonstrated which country they find more important in that case, and can vote at home all they like.

  11. I lived in the U.S. for two years and don’t think it would have been appropriate for me to have been able to vote in their municipal elections since I didn’t have sufficient background knowledge of their issues and wasn’t planning to stay there long term. I think the four year timeframe for getting citizenship allows people time to understand their new community (maybe we should also have a municipal residency requirement for all voters) and the citizenship requirement helps weed out many people that do not have long term plans to stay in Canada.

  12. Sheesh, what happened to no taxation without representation? The points made about about people who are long term permanent residents just obfuscates the issue. There are lots of PRs who cannot yet become citizens, but still pay taxes, so why not let them vote at at least the municipal level? Several cities in Germany, which arguably is not known for its extreme tolerance of foreigners, have a municipal voting franchise for all residents, regardless of whether they are citizens. I am surprised that this has not long been the case in Toronto. The argument there is that municipal taxes are used for local things which affect all residents on a day-to-day basis, so everyone should have a say. Clearly voting for a higher level of political office is a privilege of citizenship as those taxes are used to promulgate “Canadian” values and policies. This is not the case for municipal votes.

  13. I have always been surprised that Landlords did not take the initiative themselves to inform tenants about the tax burden that they carry. Imagine if the 50% of Toronto renters understood that they pay tax rates 3 to 4 times higher than residential property owners.

    I don’t think that we will see the city itself pushing for such disclosure. Imagine having to tell the residential property class that the jig is up as a result of the back lash. Toronto residential property owners might be forced to actually pay for what they consume. Toronto politicians would have to fess up to the true extent of there budget decisions.

  14. Remember that the low turnout is among those who CAN vote so there is another issue here besides citizenship and who can vote.

    In my mind voting come with citizenship which does not take very long if you want it.

  15. Sorry, but when obtaining citizenship requires all of 3 years, I don’t see why this proposal is even under consideration. Sounds like a make-work project for the immigration industry. I am not anti-immigration, but I think there is a clear distinction between proposals that actually benefit immigrants and proposals that benefit the immigration industry. (eg. high immigration rates DO NOT help the immigrants already makes their employment prospects more precarious the labor market is being flooded with desperate people looking for work BUT high immigration rates do help the immigration industry since it increases the workload for this sector).

    Canada already has some of the most liberal immigration and citizenship rules in the developed world — rules that are far more liberal than most of the countries cited as examples to follow in extending municipal voting rights to non-citizens.
    My guess is that the Mayor is convinced that large blocks of vote will come his way because of this proposal. This is an idea that sounds progressive, but is actually quite insidious and self-serving when you start thinking through the implications.

  16. If you pay taxes, shouldn’t you have say in how they are spent?

    What about citizens that are living outside the country? Why should they get to vote?

    Is it not really about future spending?

    If the only issue is about taxation with representation, then anyone who will be living in a region in the next fiscal year should be allowed to vote.

    If the goal is to make the public participate, then how about making more of the results.

    And letLs not forget, the percentage of turnout is of eligible voters.

  17. Regarding the “no taxation without representation” argument… Waiting 3 years for citizenship is not an onerous wait… and the wait actually provides the time one might need to actually learn about the society one is living in and hence make a more informed choice at the ballot box. I’m not saying that all citizens make informed choices. But I do think that extending the vote to non-citizens (who either are very recent arrivals or have not bothered to apply for citizenship) increases the chances of large blocks of voters who are much less informed and hence much more susceptible to voting for particular candidates that their club, local community leader or case-worker is advocating for.

  18. It should be noted that this is a proposal that has been put forward by organizations that work with permanent residents and other landed immigrants and not by Mayor Miller. He is endorsing the concept, not driving the policy on it. I say this as some commenters see this as a ploy to win votes (his support of it is a ploy no doubt) but don’t confuse the genesis of the idea and who supports the concept.

  19. Monica,
    Other groups may have put forth the idea BUT that doesn’t preclude the possibility that certain politicians are endorsing it as a ploy to win votes. Really, it doesn’t.

  20. Thanks samg but I said that already: “(his support of it is a ploy no doubt)”

    I don’t think this is a Left v. Right thing, Miller v. MInnan Wong since everyone can benefit from this. Immigrants are not inclined to vote in any particular political spectrum. And to assume that their case workers and social agencies will effect their voting decision: um, you do relaize that lots of well-educated, well-paid and well-informed citizens move here and can think for themselves. Not all immigrants are financially downtrodden and are socially/politically hopeless.

  21. “If you pay taxes, shouldn’t you have say in how they are spent?”

    No, just think about that for a second. Any look at the Canadian tax code would show that, net government transfers, low income Canadians pay no taxes or are in fact net recipients of taxes. Were tax burden the qualification for voting, they wouldn’t have any legal right to it. Obviously that idea is preposterous on any number of levels.

    Its also not worth comparing to a country like Germany. The reason countries like that give limited franchises for non-citizens is because getting citizenship is just about impossible unless you can prove your grandfather’s name was Gerhard. There is also a whole mess of EU related regulations involved which don’t apply here. Canadian citizenship is very open, anyways.

    I would also add that it is likely this would make voter turnout worse. Enfranchising a group of people that only has to reside in country for 2 out of every 5 years and is, at least according to polling data, ambivalent towards elections is almost guaranteed to drop voter turnout even lower than it already is.

  22. Wait, one more thing. What the hell is Miller doing this for? Anybody with even a minor understanding of Canadian governance knows that this issue isn’t within the Mayor of Toronto’s jurisdiction. At best it is a non-binding referendum which no Premier would ever listen to for about a hundred different reasons. Its not like there aren’t plenty of issues within his jurisdiction that are never addressed. Fabricating issues he can’t do anything about just to create constituencies is lame.

  23. In the discussion of who should be able to vote, it is worth noting that under the Municipal Election Act, if I own property in, say, Markham, I can vote there even though I don’t live there, provided that I am a citizen. This is an example of how taxation and representation are linked for property owners.

    It’s odd that someone who does not live in Toronto can vote here because they own land as long as they are a citizen, but someone who lives here without citizenship pays taxes but gets no vote on how they are spent.

    Having said that, the same argument could be made at the provincial or federal level (you don’t have to be a citizen to pay taxes), but property ownership is not a qualification for either of those.

    As for being well-informed about local issues, well, lots of people think they know better than we Torontonians what is good for out city, and all they have to do to get a vote is to move here, or buy a piece of land. Heck, lots of people who do live here are not well-informed about local issues, and if that were a criterion for getting the franchise, readers of certain local rags wouldn’t ever get to vote.

  24. Steve property owners, whom are non residents, are allowed to vote for the same reasons that non property owners are. They have a vested interest in the finances of the city.

    This is due to the nature of municipal finance and structure. Local taxes are supposed to pay for services provided within the said municipality.

  25. Monica, I agree with you that this is not a left vs. right thing. Also, to be clear, the discussion is not about extending the vote to immigrants since there are many immigrants who already vote … but rather about extending it to immigrants who don’t yet qualify to vote either because they are very recent arrivals (under 3 years) or are not recent arrivals but have not bothered to apply for citizenship. I don’t think it’s inflammatory to suggest that someone who is a very recent arrival to Canada (and nobody is suggesting they are all downtrodden) is perhaps less able to make an informed decision regarding municipal voting than if they had been here more than 3 years.

    Regarding the comment that recent immigrants (ie non-citizens) are likely to be more susceptible to election machinery and being swayed by what their reference groups and institutional contacts say, I don’t think this is an unreasonable comment…The more unfamiliar we are with something, the more we look to reference groups, community leaders regarding what choices we should make. Though I’m not a Liberal, I’ve seen more than a few riding nomination battles in which the winner’s strategy hinged on getting various clubs and associations to bring out out delegates no matter who ill-informed(entitled to vote but often knowing little more than the name of the person they were supposed to be voting for).

    Again, I’m not suggesting all those now able to vote in municipal elections are making informed decisions…but I don’t understand why we would be looking to expand the pool of people who are less likely to make an informed decision (said strictly on the basis of how long they’ve been here).

  26. “Imagine if the 50% of Toronto renters understood that they pay tax rates 3 to 4 times higher than residential property owners.”

    That much?!?!

    Anyone know the name of a good class-action lawyer?

  27. Yes, even though I’m a home-owner, and will see my rates go up, there is no question that this is a terrible inequity build into our municipal tax system. The segment of the population who can afford it the least (broadly speaking) pay the most. Apartment dwellers, get out there and make this an issue in the next election!

  28. To clarify, I will see my rates go up if the property tax burden were more equally distributed. I’m afraid I left my thought unfinished in the last post.

  29. Replying to Glen: Yes, I know why non-resident property owners are allowed to vote. My whole point is that this is based on the premise that those with an interest in how their taxes are spent get a franchise. If one accepts this, then citizenship should not be a criterion.

    However, people pay taxes at all levels, and the municipal franchise is a relic of a time when all (or almost all) municipal spending was funded locally as a tax on property.

    If one argues that paying taxes is NOT sufficient to justify getting the vote, then the non-resident property owners should not be able to vote either.

  30. Hi Steve,

    Also inside that dust bin of history is a time when the rates between classes were nearly even.