by Xiaoxi Wang
City for All Women Initiative
Voter turnout has been on the decline since the later 1970s. In Ottawa’s last municipal election, only 44% of eligible residents voted – a decrease of 10% from the 2006 election. The impact of this trend is especially felt among low-income residents who are less likely to vote than higher income voters.
To turn this trend around, the City for All Women Initiative (CAWI) and the Coalition of Community Health and Resource Centres (CHRC), which includes the Centretown Community Health Centre and the Somerset West Community Health Centre, have joined forces in a three-year project, Making Votes Count Where We Live. The goal is to increase voter turnout in low-income neighbourhoods and among people living in poverty, both in urban and rural areas in Ottawa.
To start this project, twenty-five women from low-income communities across Ottawa contributed to a recently released report: Making Votes Count Where We Live. Women held focus groups and interviews to identify barriers to voting and strategies to address those barriers.
Over 200 people, including Aboriginal people, Francophones, recent immigrants, people with disabilities, rural residents, seniors and youth shared their experience of voting. This information was especially timely given the provincial election called for June 12 this year.
The group found that the majority of participants felt positively about voting. They value voting as a right that gives them an opportunity to have their voices heard and to elect candidates who are accountable to them. In the words of Marta Restrepo, who recently received her citizenship: “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.”
And yet, participants in the research identified many barriers to voting. They include questioning which politician to trust, not understanding the political process, finding it hard to get to the polls amidst competing priorities, not knowing how to vote, not being eligible to vote, not knowing enough about the candidates or finding a candidate that represents them.
In the words of Jacqueline Nyiramukwende, “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 emerged that are important for low-income residents in the upcoming municipal election: affordable housing, affordable and safe transit, employment especially for immigrants and youth, and access to good food.
“From the research, we identified four strategies to increase voter turnout among residents living on low-income. We invite the community to join us in making them happen,” said Tong Zhao-Ansari from CAWI.
These strategies are: make it easy to vote; make it fun to vote; ignite the passion to make a difference; and build bridges between elected officials and residents.
“In this way, Ottawa can hope to benefit from the insights of people living on low-income, as they actively engage in the electoral process and civic life of our city”, said Maria Friis, community developer at the Western Ottawa Community Resource Centre.
To view the full report, visit: www.coalitionottawa.ca/en/advocacy/sustainable-social-infrastructure/making-votes-count-where-we-live.aspx.