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Hamilton tackles low voter turnout with new voting measures

by Ibrahim Daair, Municipal World
in Election

The latest municipality to revamp the way it carries out local elections

When it comes to this year’s municipal elections in Hamilton, increasing voter turnout is front of mind for City Clerk Andrea Holland. Hamilton officials hope that expanded voting options will reverse chronically low turnout and make the process more accessible for equity-seeking groups.

“We are going to target polls in areas where we know there is lower voter turnout,” said Holland. “It’s really important for us to engage and provide voting opportunities where the community is.”

Hamilton has suffered from low voter turnout at municipal elections for years. Turnout has been below 40 percent for much of the past decade. At the last poll in 2018, around 38 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. In 2014, only 33 percent of voters turned up. The changes also come on the heels of Ontario’s recent provincial election. That ballot saw the lowest voter turnout in the province’s history. Only 43 percent of Ontarians turned up to vote. In the riding of Hamilton Centre, that number was around 37 percent.

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Hamilton’s city clerk’s office consulted with local Indigenous and immigrant community groups to develop ways to improve voter turnout. “We did some outreach with our community partners … to help identify some of the barriers facing people who wish to vote,” said Holland.

Mail-In Ballots

One of the key solutions was to bring in mail-in ballots. Elderly voters living alone and those with mobility issues often face challenges getting to a polling place. This year will be the first time Hamilton’s 380,000 voters will be able to cast mail-in ballots in a municipal election.

Voting by mail has become increasingly popular during the pandemic. Earlier this month, Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault recommended that governments work to broaden access to voting by mail. Hamilton city staff are encouraging everyone to make sure that they are on the voter list.

Voters in Ontario can check if they’re on the list at Eligible voters have until the end of August to add themselves to the list. From September 1-22, voters in Hamilton will be able to register to vote by mail. Vote-by-mail packages will then be mail around the end of that month. Voters will need to mail them back by the middle of October. If unable to mail their vote in, they will also be able to drop it off at city hall or at one of the city’s six municipal service centres.

Improving Access

At the next election, post-secondary students in the city will be able to vote on their campuses, regardless of where they live in Hamilton. The city is home to several post-secondary institutions, including McMaster and Redeemer universities and Mohawk College. Those institutions will have on-campus polling places. “What we also wanted to do is make sure we’re engaging with people of all age groups,” Holland said.

The city will set up a “vote anywhere poll.” That means students will be able to vote at those polling places regardless of which ward they live in. Before the new rules were brought in, students would have to vote in the ward where they reside. But come Election Day, they will be able to vote on campus. “Regardless of where they reside in Hamilton, they will be able to vote at the school they attend,” said Holland.

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On voting day, Hamilton will have around 157 polling places. In addition, there will be polls set up in long-term-care facilities, four advanced polls, and a poll at the local Indigenous friendship centre. That polling place will be staffed primarily by Indigenous community members.

Hamilton has budgeted $3 million for improving elections in the municipality. That money will be used to provide more polling places and improve access. It will also go toward research and information gathering to figure out which areas experience the lowest voter turnout and why.

“We’ve identified areas that have lower voter turnout, so we’re trying to increase the number of polls in those locations. When we look at census data, those areas also mirror where equity-seeking groups reside,” said Holland.

The city has launched a community engagement drive to get people in those areas on the voter list and make sure they know when and where to vote. The effort is not just about physical accessibility. Part of the drive is addressing some of the psychological and social barriers that keep people from voting. The city is trying to increasing voting numbers among people experiencing homelessness and those living in shelters.

The clerk’s office hopes to have at least two polls set-up in local shelters. One of the polls will focus particularly on vulnerable women and people who identify as transgender. “We want to make sure that people living rough can vote and that it’s a safe environment for everybody,” said Holland.

Namesake Makes Changes

Hamilton, ON isn’t the only city with the “Hamilton” name bringing in electoral changes. Hamilton’s namesake in New Zealand is also changing the way it runs local elections. Beginning this year, the city (located south of Auckland) will switch to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. STV is a form of proportional representation where electors rank their preferred candidates. Supporters argue that proportional systems are fairer, increase representation, and improve the diversity of people in office.

To get elected, candidates need to reach a quota of the votes cast. That quota is based on how many positions there are on council and how many votes are cast. Once a candidate is elected, they keep the votes they need to reach the quota and any surplus votes are transferred to the voter’s next choice candidate.

Back in Ontario, Holland says, “what we’re looking at is a way to make voting accessible to everyone. It is very important that everyone who is eligible to vote can vote.” Voters in Hamilton will head to the polls on October 24.  MW

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in Dave Meslin’s article: Upgrading our democracy’s operating system (Part 1).

Ibrahim Daair is Staff Writer and Copy Editor at Municipal World.

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