Voter Apathy: Royal City Voters Need a Shake Up

Voter apathy in Guelph is a problem. As in earlier elections, only 36% in 2018 showed up to cast a vote. This is troubling.

Voter apathy is lack of interest in taking part in elections, at times by certain groups of voters. Voter turnout is multifaceted, with reasons ranging from simply weather on election day, to the nature of the current race, or too many elections and city data can pinpoint where the problem lies.

The community must engage those under age 40, and tenants/boarders, who disproportionately do not take part in City of Guelph municipal elections.  Homeowners and property owners make up over 75% of votes cast in recent municipal elections.  In 2014 28% of youth voters took part, so light yet not far off from the general low turn outs and disengagement. Yet, there should be improvements made.

What causes a voter to sit one out and not take part in elections is unclear.  Some voters feel the political system works against them, and to influence it through exercising a vote is meaningless. Reasons cited are lack of knowledge, voter accessibility, dissatisfaction with running candidates and other factors. Voter fatigue can occur, with elections occurring too often. This could have been a factor in the recent municipal election, given that the provincial race was short of six months prior.

Polling Station Accessibility

It was not accessibility in polling stations that caused the low turnout. The city was proactive in this. Stephen O’Brien City Clerk, City Clerk’s Office states that Guelph had “35 locations in 2014 and 36 locations in 2018. Those are regular voting locations and do not include advance voting dates/locations or special voting locations (those that are located within long-term care facilities/retirement homes)”

The City of Guelph supplied ample locations to support the numbers of voter turnout, and the addition to locations in centers where accessibility is important have been addressed.The advanced polling locations had ample parking, and fully accessible transit facilities, so accessibility was fine.

All who turned up to vote and choose to stay in line voted, with polls in the west end of the city taking their last vote at 8:20 p.m. to allow for full participation. What Stephen O’Brien reiterated was the practice that although the doors of a polling station close at the due 8 p.m. time, accommodations allowed those in line to exercise their democratic right. Polling stations gave voters the choice to attend other polling stations, to avoid the lines.

Simply put, those who choose not to stand in line nor go to another polling station made a conscious decision to abstain from the democratic process, so the issue is the voter not the way the city handled to election.

Sure, there are issues that can occur with identification, long waits, or misinformation yet hardly a reason to walk away from casting a ballot. Not a reason to cry voter suppression or inequalities in elections borne from city officials. – the voter.

O’Brien did confirm there was a complaint about 6:30 p.m. from the Italian Canadian Club polling station in ward 1 about ID requirements, which was at once addressed and corrected. This was a rare and surprising occurrence. Electoral law allows a scrutineer at each polling station. A scrutineer is a representative of a candidate or the candidate themselves, who look for issues.  Given that there were eight candidates in ward 1, plus 2 mayoral candidates that potentially meant a total of 10 allowed scrutineers overseeing election procedures. Given only one formal complaint brought forward I would say the city did remarkedly well.

How did not allowing online voting fair in voter turnout, and to what extent?


In 2014 we saw an incumbent mayor Farbridge challenged by then council incumbent Mayor Cam Guthrie along with four other candidates for the mayoral seat. We also had online voting. The actual voter turnout was 43%, slightly above the 2018 turnout of 36%. Perhaps offering online voting reached voters who had never been a part of the process before.

It could be that online voting caused this spike, which is more likely did given that most of the voting occurred in advanced polls. Yet added factors were in play that election such as increased dialogue due to an incumbent city councilor running against an unpopular incumbent mayor, more choices in the mayoral race, amid newly offered online voting.

By comparison, in 2010 votes in were 28,072 with 33.91% of Guelph registered voters casting a ballot. The 2018 election of a 36% turnout was more comparable to 2010, rather than the anomaly of 2014. Taking out 2014, there was a minimal bump in participation with 33,352 votes cast in 2018 or 36% of registered voters.

12,727 voters or 33% voted online in 2014, causally affected by both accessibility and demographics.  The highest volume of online votes occurred between 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., with ages 40 to age 69 the most active voters.

Taken from the 2014 data women are more inclined to vote, vote online and more so in advance voting. Homeowners and property owners accounted for over 75% of all votes cast. Tenants and boarders represented only 22% of the votes, having remarkedly low turnouts, with only 15% inclined to vote online.

Ward by ward was surprising. Wards 2, 3 and 4 were less likely to vote online, with only 13.5 % doing so. Wards 1, 5 and 6 were more inclined to vote online, at 15%. Overall, there were lower voter turnouts in wards 3, and 4 with higher turnouts in wards 1, 5 and 6 on election day.

James Gordon, Phil Allt, June Hofland, Mike Salisbury, Karl Wettstein and Leanne Piper and, Bob Bell voted against online voting for the 2018 election. Other than Wettstein, who retired from politics every councilor who voted against online voting won in the 2018 election. Go figure why the vote was a nay.

Cathy Downer, Dan Gibson, Christine Billings and Mayor Cam Guthrie voted yes to Councilor Mark MacKinnon’s motion, and with Rodrigo Goller newly elected, I would hope that the newly formed council votes in favor of online voting for the 2022 municipal election. Dominque O’Rourke is a supporter of collaborative cooperation rather than partisan politics, so there is optimism she will bring an open-minded approach to discussions. Bringing back online voting would mean a move towards better democratic representation and increased accessibility.

A compromise on council would be to include online voting in advanced polling, with in-person polling stations available on election day to voters who prefer the traditional voting methods. It is not up to city council to dictate what the constituents need, yet to support the policy changes we want locally.

Prior to online voting, in 2010 the voter turnout was 33.91%, comparable to the 2018 number of 36% with a slight increase. 2010 was a dual race for the mayoral seat, with Farbridge gaining 54.11% against opponent David C. Birtwistle at 38.41%.

2018 results with Mayor Cam Guthrie securing 66% over opponent Aggie Mlynarz at 33% aptly shows a dismal turnout for Mlynarz. Despite online voting not offered, Mayor Cam Guthrie picked up an added 15% support. Farbridge gathered 37% of the vote in 2014, so Mlynarz results of 33% are disappointing.

Running on Name Recognition

Mlynarz stated she had name recognition from the provincial campaign, which was one of the reasons she gave to forego use of signs. She had support of the Ontario NDP whether it be in kind or support (only audited financials filed in 2019 will show this). The conclusive results aptly confirmed the popularity of Cam Guthrie, and statement by voters about a candidate with no experience and weak reasons for a last-minute entry for the mayoral seat. Since loss, Mlynarz has been fundraising to offset campaign expenses; whether due to underfunding or mismanagement, she is clearly not a contender in a future campaign.

Had she strength to be a contender in future elections, she would have brought in more votes. This opinion echoed with Student Votes, where Cam beat out Mlynarz. Not popular with younger voters, Mlynarz captured only 38% of the student vote. Given in four years they are new voters, this is an indicator of where future election support will lean.

Stephen O’Brien, city clerk commented on the recent questions on voting irregularities about the occurrence at the Italian Canadian Club in Ward 1, and the lengthy line ups in the West End, that there seemed to be a minimal amount of complaints on these issues. He has confirmed that lengthy line ups were all addressed, and at some polling stations voters were able to cast their votes up to 8:20 p.m., allowing voters who choose to stay in the line that right. Doors closed at 8 p.m., voters lined up could vote. Others left and voted at other west end polls, which many did and voted.

Elections Ontario, the municipality and individual candidates communicated voter ID requirements. The City of Guelph website specifically told that “Note: It is helpful if you bring your voter notification card with you to the polls, but it cannot be used as proof of identity.” There are several ways to confirm your identity, and ways to plan your vote.

Increasing voter turnout should be a priority for a healthy democratic system; more participants create an increased diverse cross section of the constituents represented in the eventual outcome. Without participation across diverse groups, certain demographic groups and partisan groups wield a disproportionate share of electoral influence.

This is not on the city, nor a sign of voter suppression.

Who is to blame? Bluntly put, it is the voter.





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