Writing for the Toronto blog Torontoist, Desmond Cole recently suggested that permanent residents in the city of Toronto should be able to vote in municipal elections.
In 2006, Ryerson municipal affairs expert Myer Siemiatycki estimated that at least 250,000 Toronto residents, or 16 per cent of the city’s population, could not vote in municipal elections because they were not citizens. He describes this as a “lost city” of residents—who pay municipal taxes through their mortgages or rent, and contribute to services and programs through various user fees—but have no say in electing the mayor, city council, and school board trustees.
We have much to gain from giving permanent residents a direct say in Toronto’s election. Those who use and pay for services have a right to hold their relevant elected officials to account.
It is important for these residents to feel as welcome to shape programs and services as any citizen. Non-citizen residents can do this through advocacy, public consultations, and many other general forms of engagement, but with voting comes a more powerful kind of inclusion, symbolic and otherwise. Extending the vote empowers those who qualify to proudly identify themselves as fully engaged participants in civic life, not merely ratepayers or service users. Having more Torontonians taking up this responsibility is a good thing for our politics.
In Thorncliffe Park, a central east Toronto neighbourhood, one in three people is a child between five and 13 years of age. Thorncliffe is also home to immigrants from South America, South Asia, and the Middle East. But parents of children in Thorncliffe can’t choose their school board trustee simply because they are not citizens. Yes, politicians in these neighbourhoods are charged with representing everyone, non-voting residents included. But at election time, their decisions not to canvas houses, apartment buildings, and areas with high non-citizen populations tells those residents that their opinions matter less because they are not the ones going to the polling stations.
Canada has one of the highest rates of naturalization, or turning immigrants into citizens, in the world. Statistics Canada found in 2006 that four in five Canadian immigrants had become citizens, and that figure was on the rise. Some see this as an argument against extending the franchise to non-citizens: if most immigrants will become citizens anyway, why not wait until they have to give them the vote? But this is backwards. Since we know the vast majority of immigrants will pursue and obtain citizenship, delaying what in most cases will happen anyway is an artificial barrier to more robust participation in civic life.
The post was controversial, accumulating (at present) 58 comments. Many were opposed to the idea on principle, while others saw it as less necessary than boosting political participation including voting among people who are citizens already. Cole's rationale, though, does appeal to me, all the more so since--as he points out--any number of countries already do allow foreigners resident the vote in local elections. Most germanely, European Union citizens can vote in municipal and European Parliament elections across the Union, while Commonwealth citizens has access to the electoral roll in a diminishing number of countries. (Perhaps surprisingly, given the trend in the United Kingdom to limit Commonwealth citizens' access to the country, Commonwealth citizens still have the vote. In Canada, in marked contrast, the tendency has been to move away from this principle.)