Two Cities, One Electoral Tale
Yesterday, Toronto chose fear and anger over reason and measure, they elected Rob Ford as mayor. Check my twitter feed from Oct 25 for some of my first gut responses to the win and people’s reactions to it. What follows is, hopefully, a more thoughtful response.
Now I’m not happy about this, at all. But I can deal with it. I’ll have to, 47% of Torontonians liked Ford’s populist message enough to make him mayor. In our democracy 47% is a lot of support. You can usually win with anything over 45%, that’s how our system works and he won fair and square within that system.
Some people are twitter are saying they’ll leave town, move to Vancouver, or Calgary!, because Ford will be ruining our beautiful city. That’s just nonsense and it needs to stop. And so do the fat jokes for that matter. Ford can only achieve all his crazy goals if we let him. He will get to pass some of his most important promises, involving money and car license fees… (seriously? that’s an issue? ok….whatever you say…) but he can’t single-handedly destroy Toronto, he can’t just cancel the marathon or the World Pride Celebration that will land right after his term ends. This is especially true since a lot of the councillors getting elected are actually quick progressive. So….headline says “Conservative wave in liberal Hogtown!” yet all the progressive councillors won? What’s going on here Mark?
Glad you asked. It actually makes perfect sense if you think about it.
Part of the reason Ford won is that there are a lot of conservative leaning people in Toronto, not a majority, but a lot, and they are perennially frustrated. Think about what it would be like to be even a right leaning centrist, a supporter of the old Progressive Conservative Party. The ridings downtown are diverse and progressive and there are lots of them. Whether it’s city, provincial or federal politics, they all go to progressive (l)Liberal or NDP-like or even green-style candidates. If you’re more conservative you never get what you want at the ballot box. That’s unfair, it is, even though I don’t want Harper’s Conservatives getting a seat in Toronto, they do deserve one, maybe even a few. But our voting system, at every level, only rewards those who are the majority in each voting district. So Toronto’s concentrated progressive neighbourhoods beat out the diluted, spread out conservatives in town every time.
However, for the mayoral election that flaw is removed. Everyone in the city votes for mayor in one riding. So even if your support is spread thin and can’t win any particular riding, it might be enough to gain the largest number of votes across the whole city if you opponents are divided.
It’s kind of surprising it hasn’t happened before actually (does Mel count?) but Ford’s campaign had a simple message, that pushed all the buttons for fiscal and even social conservatives and they all finally got behind a single candidate. And it turns out, there really are quite a few of them. This was combined with a number of factors to give Ford the win: apathy amongst progressive voters unexcited about voting for Smitherman; the significant showing of a third candidate Pantalone; the protests votes for also-ran candidates leaked support; even protest votes for Ford by people who aren’t even necessarily that conservative. So that’s why we now have a fairly progressive council and a very conservative mayor, winner take all voting is unfair in both cases, and produced different results at different scales.
The same reasoning explains Naheed Nenshi’s victory in Calgary last week. Progressives and centrists in Calgary must feel just like conservatives in Toronto. They found a candidate they could all get behind and low and behold, with the status-quo/conservative vote split he won the Whole Cowboy Hat.
So what we’ve seen this week is two very different cities, with very different political cultures. But one story, the underrepresented, political minority wins out over the expected side through a combination of splitting the ‘usual winners’ vote between status-quo and change. In both cases this was combined with underestimating the outsider because they don’t fit the stereotype of the city which let them sneak up and gain an unstoppable momentum. It seems surprising, but only because we like to oversimply complex, beautiful places like cities.
Democracy functioned this week in Toronto and Calgary, it functioned passably. But these are not a victories for democracy, they are yet another wakeup call that our votes are not really respected, our voice is not really heard.
And for the record, I still love Toronto, no matter who’s in charge. If you love it too, get on twitter and say “I #XOTO no matter who is mayor.” Its like giving the city a big warm hug. And tonight, for a little over half of Toronto at least, could really use that.