City staff says it’s not their job to improve voter turnout in municipal elections and tenant activists say the manager of elections cited cost in refusing to add even one extra apartment polling station. Councillors facing potential accusations of conflict of interest are unsure of intervening. But they have also been reluctant to spend more money on city elections and recently accepted a cut in information flows that might encourage more participation in elections.
Only 40% of eligible voters cast ballots in the last Hamilton municipal elections, but “the job of increasing voter turnout rests with the candidates not the [city’s] Election Office,” elections manager Tony Fallis told CATCH in response to email questions about improving voter participation in next October’s elections.
The volunteer Tenant Advisory Subcommittee got a similar response when it advocated a pilot project to locate polling booths in apartment buildings – an initiative strongly taken up in Toronto to increase tenant turnout.
“Unfortunately we were informed that this pilot would be too costly and there would be no budget for it,” outgoing committee chair John Hawker told councillors last month. “Meetings and emails with Tony ended with not enough money and there’s an uncertainty about the number of needed workers.”
Hawker’s revelations were met with some concern from councillors, but they also noted that it’s improper for politicians to tell staff where polling stations should be located.
“We’re in this difficult position when it comes to elections that we have to keep our nose out of it as politicians,” noted Brian McHattie. On the other hand, “if it is a question of costs, that’s our business as council controlling the budget”, he noted, but says councillors “haven’t been asked to consider any improvements to the election budget.”
Terry Whitehead responded with an experience from his ward where “dismal numbers” led staff to move a poll out of an apartment building and the shift increased turnout. He surmised that “the people living in the broader area were not prepared to go up to the apartment building to vote”.
Neither Fallis nor the city manager was present for the discussion which frustrated Bernie Morelli.
“Every time we get into this election thing we seem to go wonky in terms of who can talk about it and who can’t talk about it,” he complained. “I think senior staff needs to take the dialogue today and listen to it closely”.
His motion to ask for a senior staff report was approved by the committee.
Councillors have challenged proposals by Fallis to increase election spending. A pitch he made to replace aging voting machines with leased ones was approved in principle but the required $150,000 was subsequently rejected during last year’s budget deliberations. A modified June proposal shifted the spending from the operating to the capital budget and won council agreement, but not before a strong challenge by Lloyd Ferguson who voted against it.
And in November councillors accepted a decision by city finance staff to save $30,000 a year by no longer sending tax information to tenants. The annual letter started in 2008 explained city spending and the fact that rates charged to most hi–rises are 2.74 times that of single family homes and are equal to about 20% of their rent payments.
Provincial policies since the 1990s urge cities to equalize property tax rates. Hamilton council cut business taxes by 40% in the early part of the last decade, but rejected appeals to take similar measures for apartments – except for newly constructed ones which are now taxed at the same rate as single family homes. V