Shift the Conversation: Democratic Engagement - Making Votes Count Where We Live

The Democratic Engagement domain of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) measures Ontarian’s involvement in advancing democracy through participation in political institutions, organizations and activities. There has been a small increase of 1.7% in the democratic engagement of Ontarians since 1994, falling short of the increase that occurred for Canada as a whole (7.0%).

According to the Provincial Report on Wellbeing, a society that enjoys a high degree of democratic engagement is one where citizens participate in political activities, express political views, and foster political knowledge; governments build relationships, trust, shared responsibility, and participation opportunities with citizens; and democratic values are sustained by citizens, government, and civil society at a local, national, and global level.

Voter turnout has taken a downward spiral since the late 1970s. This trend is more so experienced by low-income residents, as they are less likely to vote than higher-income citizens. Elected officials are more likely to make decisions in the interest of the people who elect them by addressing the needs of citizens who voted them into office. To paint a picture of an ongoing cycle, low-income residents or those experiencing poverty may not see their concerns addressed, resulting political disconnectedness and democratic deficit, causing an even decreased likelihood to vote.

Making Votes Count Initiative

To address low voter turnout in Ottawa, the Coalition of Community Health and Resource Centres (CHRC) and City for All Women Initiative (CAWI) have joined forces in a three-year project to increase democratic engagement among residents in low-income neighbourhoods and poverty-stricken urban and rural areas of the city.

The goal of the Making Votes Count initiative is to engage residents, community partners and governments into developing and implementing strategies to increase voter turnout and sustainable civic engagement. Phase 1 of this initiative involved participatory action research carried out by women living in low-income neighbourhoods to understand the barriers to voting and to develop solutions for poor democratic engagement. Five teams of women from across Ottawa facilitated 20 focus groups with 202 participants, including recent immigrants, Francophones, Aboriginal people, seniors and youth and people with disabilities, representing the diversity of Ottawa’s residents. Thirteen key informant interviews were also conducted, with a literature review to supplement the findings.

It was found that most participants felt positively about voting – the opportunity it provides them to have their voices heard. One participant says, “I have a right to vote. I am happy to vote, eligible to vote and proud. I can’t complain if I don’t vote”.  

However, a total of 10 key barriers to voting were identified, including being unsure about which politicians to trust, not understanding the political process, difficulty accessing polls, not knowing enough about candidates or finding a candidate that represents them.
In the words of an Ottawa resident, “It is the experience of poverty itself that will discourage one from voting, how do you find time juggling so many concerns? Besides, people living on low income have come to the conclusion that, who will listen to a poor person anyway”
Four key issues also emerged that are important for low-income residents in the upcoming 2014 municipal election: affordable housing, affordable and safe transit, access to good food and employment for immigrants and youth.

A strategy to “Create a Culture of Civic Engagement” was developed by the participants. Four strategies were identified, with specific actions to be carried out by the government, community organizations, residents and candidates:
  1. Make it easy to vote
  2. Make it fun to vote
  3. Ignite the passion to make a difference
  4. Build bridges between candidates and residents

Based on this strategy, women across the five neighbourhoods have been organizing activities to create a culture of civic engagement. From information sessions about the importance of voting to inviting candidates to neighbourhood forums to designing contests, low-income residents are becoming more actively engaged in the civic life of Ottawa.

According to Euphrasie Emedi, Community Developer at South-East Community Health Centre and key staff member involved in the Making Votes Count Initiative, it is essential to continue fostering democratic engagement among Ottawa residents to ensure civic sustainability, “Civic engagement must be ongoing – whether that is in the municipal, provincial or federal elections.”

View the full Making Votes Count report here.

Join us on October 7 at 10:30 am at Ottawa City Hall for the release of "Bridging the Gap" a report card on the wellbeing of Ottawa.