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New Leach screwup - voters list in chaos

More than half the city's tenants haven't been signed up

NOW - October 9-15, 1997
by John Sewell

When you consider the scandal of Toronto's municipal voting lists, you become aware of how the Tories give themselves authority for tasks they have no interest in doing well.

Take the case of the thousands of tenants -- possibly more than half the tenants in Toronto -- excluded from current voters lists and the way the chief electoral officer for Toronto, appointed under megacity legislation by municipal affairs minister Al Leach, is so utterly unconcerned.

Here's the situation at 666 Spadina, a 25-storey apartment tower built 20 years ago. The preliminary voters list shows 316 residents entitled to vote, but the building directory, which lists a total of 365 names, says only 85 of those people still live there.

So 231 people are given a vote when they no longer qualify at this address, and about an equal number who now reside there are not on the list when they are entitled to be.

For this apartment building, the list is accurate about 25 per cent of the time and inaccurate 75 per cent of the time. There's little reason to think this building is any different from the other 200 to 300 Toronto high-rise apartment buildings.

It's a scandal that so many tenants are excluded from current voters lists. If international observers were watching this municipal election, they would call it unfair.

It's a scandal the provincial government is responsible for, since the province prepares the municipal voters list.

At a press conference last week, the chief electoral officer for Toronto, Warren Bailie, showed little interest in the problem of who's on the voters list and who isn't.

Democracy quashed

He said he'd had a few conversations with one of the officials responsible for the list in East York and Scarborough (not with those responsible for Toronto or the other municipalities), but he hadn't talked to the senior people who might actually fix the mess or to the minister who appointed him.

Bailie, who is also the chief election official for the province, kept telling the media that he reports to the legislature, although for this task he reports directly to Leach.

Leach, of course, has taken extraordinary steps -- including the imposition of the megacity -- to ensure that local democracy is quashed in Toronto. He recently said that people could vote however they wanted on casinos, but that didn't mean he'd pay any attention to what they decided. He can't be expected to want to have good voters lists. Bailie disclaimed any conflict in his own role.

For the 1994 municipal election, the city forwarded 17,000 revisions to the list to the province, but according to Colleen Bell, manager of elections for the current City of Toronto, none of those additions or changes have yet been made to the list. Another 14,000 revisions were prepared for the March 3 megacity election in Toronto, and Bell says none of those have been incorporated either.

In the spring of this year, premier Mike Harris announced with great fanfare that he had hired American Express to prepare the voters list for the megacity election, but that exercise turned into something of a joke. According to Ken Fagen, recently appointed to be responsible for the list in Toronto, the Amex mail-out resulted in a return of about 40 per cent.

Fagen is directing limited provincial resources into rectifying what are considered the really gross oversights on the list. A dozen or more new apartment buildings occupied in the last few years were left off the list, and they are now being enumerated.

An apartment building for artists included in the 1994 enumeration but left off this time is also being attended to. But problems with rental buildings like 666 Spadina aren't being dealt with.

Fagen says one problem with current rules is that names can't be removed from the list without notification, an exercise for which there don't seem to be resources available.

In any case, Fagen's main job in life isn't preparing a voters list -- it's reassessing properties in the megacity in order to impose current market value assessment, so that every property will receive an assessment notice by the end of next January. It's safe to assume the province will take much more care in creating a tax role that is accurate.

Bailie makes the point that anyone can get on the voters list at any time by simply phoning the central number -- 397-VOTE (397-8683) -- and providing the appropriate details. As well, on voting day, any qualified voter (18 years of age or older, a Canadian citizen and resident in the city) can vote by simply going to the poll.

Getting information

However, not being on the list means that many candidates won't send you election pamphlets or have someone call at your door to ensure you are interested in participating in the election.

Like many other aspects of democratic life, the key to citizen participation is getting good information from a number of different sources so people can be informed and active.

The problem with the voters list is clear -- the province has taken over a task it doesn't care to do well. In management terms, responsibility has been separated from authority, a recipe for disaster. The provincial department responsible for creating good voters lists never suffers the consequences of poor performance.

Harris is extending this irresponsible approach to virtually all aspects of municipal life. His government will make all decisions about education -- but the lion's share of funding will come from property taxpayers, a very distinct separation of performance and results.

His government will specify how public health and ambulance services are delivered by municipalities, as well as the levels of service provided, but municipalities will be required to pay for and deliver these services over which they have no control.

Bill 152, the downloading bill, lists other services that will be fragmented in the same manner.

Like the voters list, this arrangement is bound to fail, bound to provide poor service to citizens. It's hard not to believe it's a conscious and sinister attempt to belittle democratic control in the city.

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