Low voter turnout means not all voices heard

Does Halifax council ignore non-voters?

By Rachel Ward

Political power is in the hands of voters, excluding those who don’t speak up

By Rachel Ward

This is a mural dedicated to Tyrone Layton Oliver, one of many victims of violence in Halifax. Some say finding solutions to violence isn’t on city council’s agenda. (Photo: Rachel Ward)

William MacDonald has never missed an election.

The 65-year-old retiree has been voting since he was 21. Whether it’s municipal, provincial or federal, he feels voting is his civic duty.

“It’s important to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do,” says MacDonald.  “Everyone has a responsibility to at least have their say.”

But that’s something the majority of people in the Halifax Regional Municipality didn’t do in 2008’s municipal election. Only about 36 per cent voted.

Most didn’t make it out to the polls but some, like MacDonald, remain staunch supporters of voting. It could be argued that voters are the most powerful group in the city. They decide who gets to be mayor and who gets a seat on council, leaving the rest without much say in how government is run.

This is a trend across North America, says Dr. John Aldrich, an award-winning political scientist from Duke University in North Carolina. Aldrich specializes in voting behaviour and elections. He says the turnout in Halifax is low, even for municipal elections. [pullquote]The fact that you can cast your vote every four years in a federal, provincial and municipal election doesn’t give you power. You don’t choose the candidates, and at the end of the day you have no control over the decisions they’re going to make.”– Dr. Issac Saney, Dalhousie University[/pullquote]

“In 35 per cent (turnout) there’s a real concern there’s going to be of a skew in the representation that will really advantage the better off and more educated.”

Aldrich says people are less likely to vote if they are less educated and haven’t been in middle class positions, causing them to feel uncomfortable engaging in politics. The result, he says, is that they won’t take part in making decisions.

“Because they vote at lower levels, they’re less likely to be paid attention to,” said Aldrich. “As a result it feeds back to them and they see that even if they do vote, the system ignores them. Why should they engage in it? It becomes a self-fulfilling cycle.”

Some of the lowest turnouts in HRM are in the parts of town with high crime and low income. One such polling area was District 9, Albro Lake-Harbourview, which had turnout 10 per cent points lower than the overall municipality in 2008. But one polling station has even lower turnout, coming in at only 13 per cent. This station was only a couple blocks from Pinecrest Drive and Brule Street in Highfield Park, a rough corner of Dartmouth. In 2011, an investigation by students at the University of King’s College found that across HRM the Pinecrest area had the highest number of police calls to serious incidents. It also found this tight-knit community was trying to make things better. Still, most people didn’t cast their ballot.

Candidates ignore people who don’t vote, favouring  those who do, says Aldrich, further encouraging the representation imbalance.

 “When there’s a community that’s left out, if you seek their support, it’s threatening to the people who are included, and so it’s a trade-off for the candidates,” he says. “For every vote they get in one area they risk losing votes in another.”

Newly elected councillor Waye Mason says candidates target places with higher turnouts to get more votes – a tactic that, he says, is nothing “revolutionary or new.”

Mason represents District 7, Peninsula South Downtown, and has spent years blogging about council politics, along with being a “council correspondent” for a CBC Radio show.

 “Because the numbers are so small in a municipal election it’s literally, if you’re really well known, let’s say, all down Tower Road and you can get 67 per cent turnout on Tower Road and 90 per cent  of the vote for you, that can swing the election,” he says, noting that he ran a “broader” campaign.

It happens on a larger scale, too, he says.

“It’s a very real fact that the county, the old Halifax County, elects the mayor,” said Mason.

 In the 2008 election, Shelia Fougere had the majority downtown, and Peter Kelly had the majority on the Eastern Shore. Kelly won.

“More people vote on a per capita basis in the rural districts than in the urban district,” said Mason. “So rural concerns have to be foremost.”

Candidates, he says, could be tempted to repay that loyalty.

“You can see how it would colour a councillor’s approach to decision making. If you have a base and it’s very small, you do not want to tick off that base,” said Mason.

Hundreds march to the Halifax Common, during Stop the Violence Day in September 2012.(Photo: Rachel Ward)

Many groups are saying they aren’t being heard. Some decided to take action.

Hundreds of people trudged through heavy rain one Sunday in September 2012, hiking almost five kilometers from Sullivan’s Pond in Dartmouth, across the Macdonald Bridge, to the Halifax Common. The organizer, former youth pastor Quentrel Provo, says even his grandmother made the trip. Many there had loved ones killed violently, like Provo’s good friend, Kaylin Diggs, who was murdered downtown in August 2012, only a few short weeks after Provo’s cousin also died. They prayed on the Common in the rain, under the thunder, and released balloons after a moment of silence.

Provo has spent years watching violence in his community escalate and friends die. This pushed him to start Stop the Violence Day. People came in phenomenal numbers, he says, even though voter turnout for North Preston in 2008 was below the rest of the riding. However, the turnout of politicians was not so impressive.

“A lot of people, especially people who came out to the march and everything, were really sad. People don’t want to vote or whatever because they didn’t support us,” says Provo. “So why should I support them and try to get them in office?”

Before the 2012 election on October 20, Gloria McCluskey, who has since been re-elected, was the only candidate who attended the march. Mayoral candidate Mike Savage, now mayor, was the only politician to donate. Provo says that wasn’t enough.

“A lot of people are feeling like it was a slap in the face for our crime to be going so crazy right now.”

After the march, Shandra Downey was singing under a tent with members of her church. She wore a shirt baring the face of her family member, Casey Downey, who was killed at a party in 2010.

She said she’d vote, but wasn’t sure who to pick.

[pullquote]“If my voice doesn’t matter, why bother saying anything? Where do I go? Who exactly do I talk to?” – Marrilee Wilson, former St. Pat’s-Alexandra student [/pullquote]“I don’t see any of them here so I guess they don’t support us much.”

Dr. Issac Saney is a Dalhousie University professor, says the municipal system is in “a crisis.” Saney has studied political systems across North and South America, as well as Black Nova Scotian history and political movements. He says people’s votes count for little and council candidates are “just courting their vote,” leaving the government, once elected, free to act as it pleases. 

“They’re just used as voting cattle,” said Saney.

He closely watched the sale of St. Patrick’s-Alexandra School, attending council meetings and supporting the North End community. He says the city went against its own by-laws and ignored the clear desires of the community. Voting, he says, did little to hold politicians to their promises.

“My role in a so-called democracy is to fill out a ballot, put an x, put a cross, whatever, and put it in a box and that’s that,” says Saney. “The fact that you can cast your vote every four years in a federal, provincial and municipal election doesn’t give you power. You don’t choose the candidates, and at the end of the day you have no control over the decisions they’re going to make.”

The result is a lot of voter apathy in the Black community, says Saney, and among poor and working class people.

“People feel alienated. People feel they have no role in shaping their lives.”

Jaida Regan, a 19-year-old student who works with the Metro Student Coalition, says students should vote, even if they usually get left out of local politics.

“There’s the community and the students, but there’s no middle ground and no one speaking between both of them,” says Regan. Students from five universities formed the Coalition to fix this, and have requests for things such as increased transit and affordable housing.

A brief survey of city council agendas shows that council primarily works to keep the city functioning properly. It discussed in the last six months 48 different road-related items, 27 property-related items and 12 items related to sewage, water or gas. But, there’s more than just sewage, roads and water concerning people in HRM.

David Hendsbee, current councillor and 20-year veteran of municipal politics, was re-elected in 2012 to the expanded riding of District 2, Preston-Porters Lake-Eastern Shore. He says part of council’s job is to take care of these primary functions, which students just aren’t concerned about.

“They’re not really interested in local municipal issues unless it’s something tangible to them,” says Hendsbee. “They don’t see much in regards to police and fire, garbage, street lighting as an issue of concern for them.”

Students and other people in his mostly rural district want more transit, said Hendsbee. Some communities don’t have bus services, so to fill the gap they started up their own, MusGo Rider, a local cooperative for transportation.

Hendsbee says people don’t vote in part because municipal politics lack the drama of provincial and federal governments.

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“Municipal politics are not partisan politics. It’s just straight politics. We’re all independents.”

The talk of the day can propel people to cast a ballot, said Hendsbee, noting that the 2004 Sunday shopping plebiscite drew out 48 per cent of voters.

In the 2008 election, turnout in Handsbee’s district was just under HRM’s average, coming in at 33 per cent.

Hendsbee, who missed the Stop the Violence march, says his job is to represent everybody, “those who voted for you, those who didn’t vote for you and those who didn’t vote at all.” He thinks it would be easier if he had more days to spend in his riding.

Councillor Jennifer Watts says people need to get involved or they might not have a say in big changes.

She’s councillor for the newly formed riding Peninsula North, which was created by merging part of her old district and that of former councillor Dawn Sloane.

Council will be planning major development changes in the North End over the next four years, says Watts, ones that could enhance the North End, but need community input.

“If people aren’t at the table discussing what the issues are, providing feedback and comments, there could be decisions made that they believe could negatively impact them,” said Watts.

Watts has been hearing that increased transit and development consultations are top of the list for people in her district. She says this is good because the plans could significantly impact the area. Recent debates in local politics have sparked interest, she says, such as the controversial sale of St. Pat’s-Alexandra and the subsequent Supreme Court ruling which gave the school back to the community groups.                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Marrilee Wilson, a former St. Patrick’s-Alexandra student, says local politicians aren’t listening to her community.

Former St. Pat’s student Marrilee Wilson paid close attention to sale. She votes and attends council, but says politicians didn’t listen to her community then and aren’t listening now. She asked mayoral candidates, at a debate in September 2012, how they could help her, a black woman on a limited income, but says their answers were poor.

 “You should know what are the concerns and hopes (and) dreams of a mom with two kids. You shouldn’t be so tunnel vision,” said Wilson. “If you don’t have a sense of it now, what are you going to do, play catch up when you get elected?”

Such attitudes, she says, alienates voters and encourages them to stay silent.

“If my voice doesn’t matter, why bother saying anything? Where do I go? Who exactly do I talk to?”

Wilson votes as diligently as MacDonald, the voter with a 44-year track record. However,  the two see things differently. MacDonald says council misses the point sometimes, but generally gets the job done.

“They’re focused on the small things, within our small areas,” said MacDonald, pointing to South End complaints about winter parking. “But who cares? What about the methadone clinic? What about finding employment for people? What about getting people off the streets?”

People have the responsibility to vote, says MacDonald, even if council could be doing better.

“If you don’t take part, you can’t bitch.”