‘Alert.’ ‘Depressed.’ Oshawa simply had lowest-ever municipal election turnout. Now what?

Oshawa recently saw its lowest recorded voter turnout for a municipal election.

Oshawa recently saw its lowest-ever voter turnout for a municipal election, with just 18.4 per cent of eligible voters casting a ballot.

That’s compared to 24.1 per cent in 2018, 26.4 per cent in 2014, 29.9 per cent in 2010 and 25.1 per cent in 2006.

Oshawa’s highest recorded municipal election voter turnout was in 1960, when it hit 51.7 per cent.

Residents on social media are using words like “alarming” and “depressing” to describe the declining interest.

What is causing Oshawa’s turnout to drop? What can be done between now and the next municipal election in 2026 to turn the trend around?

Some residents are pointing to phone and online voting as possible solutions.

“People are used to doing everything from their phones like banking, work…” says Oshawa resident Mike Bauer in an email to durhamregion.com. “Why not make it easier to vote by making it online? It makes sense when we do everything else online.”

In 2020, Oshawa council’s corporate services committee directed city staff to “investigate risk mitigation strategies associated with internet and phone voting” and develop a public consultation strategy.

Staff is expected to report back in the fourth quarter of 2024.

City staff declined an interview to discuss Oshawa’s voter turnout trends and the possibility of phone or internet voting in 2026, noting it was “premature and could be inappropriate at this time.”

More municipalities than ever are offering phone or internet voting options, but it doesn’t appear to be changing Ontario’s voter turnout for municipal elections.

The Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) reports the number of municipalities with phone or online voting jumped from 175 in 2018, to 217 in 2022.

Preliminary numbers from AMO show Ontario’s overall voter turnout for the 2022 municipal election at 33 per cent, compared with 38.2 per cent in 2018 and 43.1 per cent in 2014.

“The evidence suggests that online voting doesn’t increase voter turnout,” says Nelson Wiseman, a political-science professor at the University of Toronto. “The main driver of voter turnout is how competitive the race is. If it’s an open race, in other words the incumbent has resigned, you’ll tend to get a higher turnout.”

Wiseman points to Toronto’s mayoral race in 2014 when high-profile candidates John Tory, Doug Ford and Olivia Chow faced off resulting in a record 60 per cent voter turnout. That’s compared with 29 per cent in the 2022 race when it appeared to many that Tory had a lock on the win.

Renan Levine, also a political-science professor at the University of Toronto, agrees competitiveness of the races is key — both in terms of giving voters more push to cast a ballot and candidates more incentive to pull in every possible vote.

“You have multiple candidates knowing that they’re in a close fight, working really hard to find every voter,” he says.

Levine suggests Oshawa could make races more competitive by allowing candidates to engage in campaign activity earlier, giving new candidates more time to raise money, build a volunteer network and equip themselves to challenge an incumbent.

Some municipalities report success with introducing alternate voting methods.

In 2014, the Town of Ajax became the largest municipal government in Canada to deliver a fully paperless election. The town has a long history of election innovation — it was among the first municipalities to use vote tabulators and to pilot a “vote-anywhere” model relying on a live real-time voters’ list.

Ajax saw voter turnout increase from 25.4 per cent in 2010 to 30.4 per cent in 2014, the first year online voting was available. After increasing again to 32.9 per cent in 2018, Ajax saw turnout fall to 22.5 per cent for 2022.

A 2018 Town of Ajax report says 95.4 per cent of voters who responded to a survey said online voting was more convenient than voting in person and 17 per cent of respondents said they would not have voted if online voting wasn’t an option.

Recent municipal election candidates in Oshawa say there is much that could be done to get voters to the polls.

“There needs to be more opportunities for engagement, that’s the element we’re missing,” says Theresa Corless, who ran for the Ward 1 City Councilor seat in Oshawa in the recent election and lost by eight votes to incumbent Rosemary McConkey.

Corless would like to see informal events where voters and candidates can meet and chat in community spaces like libraries or universities.

“You see so many signs, but who are these people? It’s too many signs and not enough personal connections.”

Shailene Panylo, who won a seat representing Oshawa as Durham District School Board trustee, says Oshawa is facing challenges around voter engagement.

“We’re not very good at being culturally responsive and meeting people where they’re at,” she says.

For example, Panylo says there are many communities in Oshawa where English is not the first language spoken — she says election information provided by the city and literature provided by candidates may not be accessible to those residents.

“They don’t see themselves represented so they’re not engaged, they don’t feel like representatives will care about them and their life experiences,” Panylo says.

She says it can also be difficult for voters to locate candidate platforms and compare and contrast where candidates stand on major issues — something that is easier for provincial and federal elections.

“I don’t think we’re making politics digestible for people,” Panylo says.

The City of Oshawa is asking residents for feedback on their 2022 election experience and how likely residents are to use phone or internet voting in 2026.

Feedback can be provided online at connectoshawa.ca or in person at Service Oshawa, 50 Center St. S. until Dec. 5 at 12 p.m

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