This year’s Kingston municipal election saw 30.5 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot, down from the 41.3 per cent turnout that was recorded in the 2018 municipal election. These numbers are consistent with an ongoing trend in municipal elections across Ontario, with turnout often below the numbers observed in federal and provincial campaigns. For example, 46.06 per cent of eligible voters in Kingston and the Islands participated in this past spring’s provincial election, more than 15 per cent higher than the municipal turnout.
According to Dax D’Orazio, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Political Studies at Queen’s University, the low turnout can be attributed to a number of factors. “One is just what’s described as voter fatigue. In a period of about a year and a bit we’ve had three elections. We had [a] federal election in 2021, the recent provincial election, and now municipal elections. Even though voting itself… might not seem like a lot of labour, being politically informed [and] understanding all of the issues [and] candidates at play can perhaps seem like a daunting task.”
While Kingston voters have been asked to participate in a number of elections since last fall, D’Orazio noted that citizens lead increasingly busy lives these days, which, when coupled with the pandemic, might mean some people just don’t have time to pay attention to municipal matters. “Keeping abreast of political affairs might rank pretty low on the list, despite its obvious importance for all of our lives.”
D’Orazio also pointed to the current political climate as another factor contributing to the decrease in voter turnout. “Politics [has] certainly become more of a blood sport in the last decade… [The current] mode of political engagement, which is trying to get people angry and voice their frustration, can animate the base and be really motivating for some potential voters. But [it] can also alienate a wide swath of the rest of the electorate who are not really motivated by appeals to anger and frustration.”
According to the political studies expert, more ways need to be found to encourage citizens to get involved in the democratic process. “We need to think about ways to craft public and political opinions to pull as many people into the policy-making process… Just over 30 per cent is not a very encouraging number. What that means is that when policy is developed, the actual mandate given to each of the people crafting that policy is lower.”
In terms of individual races in Kingston, a reported 29,938 ballots were cast in this year’s municipal election, with incumbent mayor Bryan Paterson receiving 21,844 votes. Both numbers are down from 2018, which saw 34,529 votes cast across the city, 23,708 of which were for Paterson. For the first time in his three bids for mayor, Paterson’s opponents this time around were newcomers to municipal politics, none of whom had ever held elected office before. D’Orazio said that some people may have decided against participating in the election if they felt the result was a foregone conclusion.
”[There] is this very deep-seated and persistent feeling that no matter how you vote, the status quo is too durable for anything to be done about it. So feelings of cynicism and apathy really close the democratic project essentially from the inside out… If people feel as though their vote doesn’t have an impact and if they don’t see themselves as a part of the policy process, it’s much easier to rationalize just staying home.”
While a number of different factors contributed to Monday’s low voter turnout, D’Orazio credited the City of Kingston for offering a variety of voting methods, which he said can help increase the overall level of democratic participation. ”A big step in the right direction is using hybrid voting. So it’s been really encouraging to see various municipalities across Ontario [promote] participation in a sort of multimodal way… It seems like the Kingston rollout of some of these measures was pretty smooth. And I think we can reasonably say that had they not had those measures, we might see even less voter turnout [at] the municipal level.”
It should be noted that Monday’s election was originally supposed to look quite different. Back in 2018, Kingstonians voted in favour of adopting ranked ballots for municipal campaigns, an initiative that was set to begin with this year’s election. Under a ranked ballot voting system, candidates must receive at least 50 per cent support in order to get elected, with voters ranking candidates in order of preference. However, in October 2020, Ontario Premier Doug Ford revoked the municipality’s ability to conduct elections using ranked ballots, in an effort to make voting consistent throughout the province.
D’Orazio argued that electoral reform could lead to increased participation in municipal elections. ”If we compare Canada to other liberal democracies, Canada is lagging really far behind with the first-past-the-post system. Municipalities can actually work to close that gap by tinkering with their own electoral reforms. I think that would be a really positive and encouraging sign.” Since ranked ballots were scrapped in 2020, the provincial government has not indicated any plans to re-implement the option for municipalities.
Results in Kingston held back for third consecutive election
Low voter turnout wasn’t the only thing on people’s minds Monday night, as Kingstonians once again had to wait quite some time before election results became public. While many municipalities across the province began to issue results just after polls closed at 8 p.m., it was after 9 p.m. before any results were released by the City of Kingston’s Election Office.
According to Janet Jaynes, Assistant Returning Officer and Deputy City Clerk, there was no official delay in releasing the results: ”They were released in less than two hours following the close of the voting.” The story was much different in nearby municipalities, however, as municipalities like Greater Napanee began to post results well before 8:30 p.m.
When asked about the slower pace of results in the City of Kingston, Jaynes said, “We followed our procedures. Results take time to download, review, and confirm before they are released.”
The results from the 2022 municipal elections in Kingston and other municipalities in the region can be found here.