Turnout in municipal elections was frequently low in the 20th century

Last week’s column covered some of the changes in municipal voting through the 19th century. There were two main themes: increasing participation by women as voters, and a shift from property qualifications for men to universal participation for all males over 21, with a poll tax payable by those owning less than $400 of assessment. The latter reform came in 1888.

The two trends were frequently at odds, and some of the reforms actually reduced participation by women, which, in any case, was small to begin with. More could vote after the property qualification, for men and women in villages, towns, and cities, dropped to $200 in 1900. After the 1888 changes, many women usually qualified only to vote in referendums for borrowing bylaws if they owned property exclusively in their own names.

Perhaps the greatest reform of the 20th century came in 1917, when all women resident in a municipality over age 21 could vote in Ontario municipal elections. That eliminated the complex and confusing regulations of the 19th century. Two years later, further legislation permitted women to stand for municipal office.

Women did not flock into municipal politics after those reforms. Some sat on school boards during the 1920s, but councils in Wellington saw few women. Some municipalities did not have their first female member until the 1970s, and in a couple of cases, the 1980s. It appears Elora was the first place in the county with a majority of women on council, three out of five, in the 1990s.

The early 20th century re–forms in voting qualifications were the significant changes in municipal affairs in Ontario until the last third of the 20th century, with the exception of the creation of Metropolitan Toronto in the 1950s. In other respects, municipal government and boundaries followed, the 1849 Baldwin Act. Responsibilities, though, in–creased, with higher street and road spending as cars became common, and with the installation of water and sewer systems. Partially offsetting the heavy expenditures for infrastructure were increases in provincial grants.

In 1967, the provincial government appointed the Smith Commission to examine the increasing complex relationships between adjoining municipalities, and their interactions with the provincial government and its agencies. The chief recommendation was that a system of regional municipalities should be created. Altogether, 10 regions were set up, most following existing county boundaries. The new system, though, produced no savings and did not simplify government. The province abandoned that controversial concept in 1974.

After World War II, the traditional voting day of January 1 moved up to the first Monday in December, with nomination day in late November. Nominations, as in the 19th century, continued to be made at a public meeting. Candidates had the opportunity to makes their statements and state their plans, and voters could question incumbents and challengers. Two voters could make a nomination, and the nominees could decline at the meeting if they did not wish to stand. As well, they had two days to drop out if they chose to do so. The campaign period rarely exceeded 10 days. The one-year term continued into the 1960s.

In small municipalities, there was much private arm-twisting and discussion before and after the nomination meeting. Often that resulted in some sort of consensus, with all council positions filled by acclamation.

The year 1954 can serve as an example for the mid 20th century. That year, nomination meetings in Wellington’s townships took place on the afternoon of Nov. 26, a Friday. Most towns and villages had theirs on the evening on Nov. 29. Turnouts year were generally large compared to the 1930s, continuing a trend that began in the late 1940s. There were a few exceptions: some meetings had to be rescheduled due to an insufficient turnout of voters and prospective candidates. In Fergus, for example, 51 people turned out from a population that was then about 3,000.

The only controversy at the Fergus meeting revolved around the financing of the new hospital. Feelings ran much higher in some of the townships, especially Nichol, where James Burnett was making his second attempt to unseat Bob Foote as reeve. As well as that clash of personalities, there were other issues involving fire protection and the cenotaph in Salem. Clerk Ivan French had his work cut out to maintain order at that meeting.

On voting day in 1954, Fergus boasted only a 34% turnout, but that could be explained by the fact that the chairs for the mayor and reeve were filled by acclamation. Nichol’s intense competition for reeve produced a turnout there of 58%, and an unexpectedly lopsided margin of 352 to 192 for Burnett over Foote.

Guelph’s polling stations, by contrast, saw only 20% of their voters, maintaining a general trend that turnouts were usually greater in smaller municipalities. The champion that year was Harriston, where an intense campaign attracted more than 80% of ratepayers to the polls. The big issue there was over the financing of the new public school. A referendum earlier in the year to approve the required borrowing bylaw had been overturned by the courts due to irregularities in the list of voters. There were 17 candidates for Harriston council that year, and a tight contest for reeve between George Walkey and J.C. Dale.

Nominations the following November, for the 1956 council, were much quieter. Only 25 people, including councillors, turned out at the Nichol meeting, and about 40 at Fergus. Both municipalities returned their old council for another year by acclamation, as did most of Wellington’s municipalities. The following year the situation was similar. In Fergus, Mayor J.M. Milligan and Reeve W.K. Denny traded chairs. The move was not due to a controversy, but to the fact that Denny had a new position at the Beatty Bros. He no longer had time to sit on county council. The public nomination meeting fell out of favour in the 1960s. Instead, prospective candidates were required to file a nomination paper signed by a dozen qualified voters. Along with that change came the two-year term, which could be implemented at the discretion of each council.

The change produced yawns from most ratepayers, as municipalities, one after another, opted for the change. In Fergus, for example, council approved the two-year in 1965, but Mayor Denny thought it proper that the change should be submitted to the ratepayers.

The referendum was the only item on the Fergus ballot that year: all positions had been filled by acclamation. Turnout was a dismal 8%, but those who did vote approved the two-year term 148 to 45. Curiously, voters did not blame themselves, but Mayor Denny for the expensive and unnecessary exercise that cost, according to Hugh Templin of the News Record, $2.59 per vote cast. The Ontario government extended municipal terms to three years in the 1990s, and to four years in 2006. By then, three and four year municipal terms were virtually universal across Canada.

The most significant changes in Ontario municipal structure were implemented in the late 1990s by the provincial Mike Harris administration, as part of that government’s so-called Common Sense Revolution. The major change was the wholesale amalgamation of municipalities and the restructuring of county government. There were also changes in grants and responsibilities.

Little thought or consideration went into those reforms. Wellington, for example, was reduced to seven municipalities. The purpose of the changes was to produce economies across the structure of municipal government. The evidence suggests that the reforms did the opposite. Municipal budgets in Ontario totalled $16.99-billion in 1996, and $20.8-billion in 2000. The impact on property taxes was much greater: provincial grants contributed 34% of the 1996 total and only 29% of the 2000 budgets.

The changes created problems for many of the amalgamated municipalities in the years immediately after the changes, and the provincial government attempted to calm the situation with large transition grants. Since those reforms, provincial grants have continued to decline. Also declining over the past decade has been the turnout of voters. In 2000, 41.1% of Ontario voters exercised their franchise; in 2003 that figure was down to 40.2%. In Wellington County the figures are somewhat higher, and particularly so in the northern municipalities. Those figures are not out of the range of voter participation through the 20th century. Still, it is regrettable that more residents do not take an interest in their local governments, which have control of so many services that are vital to modern life.



Stephen Thorning