Don't care about the municipal election? You're not alone, but here's why you should vote

Historically, municipal elections see lower voter turnout than provincial or federal elections, but local politicians explain why people should care and cast a ballot in October.

‘We’re looking at the possibility of turnout at the local level really crashing,’ London, Ont., prof says

Councillors attend a committee meeting in the Region of Waterloo council chambers in August 2019. Regional council is made up of the regional chair, eight elected councillors, and the mayors of the three cities and four townships in the region. Six of the eight elected councillors aren't seeking re-election this fall. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC)

When people tell Helen Jowett they don't really care about local politics, it makes her "a bit sad."

"Local government does matter," Jowett, an outgoing regional councillor for Cambridge, Ont., told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

"We're the most accessible. We're right there living where the people we serve are living," she said.

People at the grocery store or on the street will stop her to talk about local issues.

Tenille Bonoguore agrees and says municipal politics touches everyone's lives daily.

It's "hugely important and hugely interesting," and that's why Bonoguore, the councillor in Waterloo's Ward 7, says people need to vote.

In announcing she wouldn't seek re-election after one term on Waterloo's council, Tenille Bonoguore says she ran her 'term at a sprint. Now it’s time to pass the baton.' She says there was high workload with the part-time job, and it was 'an absolute honour,' but not running again was the best decision for herself and her family. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

"From when you step onto the sidewalk or get on the bus, to the design of the road, the look of the city, the feel of the park, even the flushing of your toilet — it's all municipal," she told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

Historically low voter turnout

It's an important message a month out from the October municipal election. Historically, municipal elections tend to see the lowest voter turnout compared to provincial and federal elections.

Across the province, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario said average voter turnout was 38.3 per cent in the 2018 municipal election, the lowest since 1982.

Voter turnout in all of Waterloo region's cities and townships fell below that average in 2018 (see numbers for last four elections below).

Meanwhile, the Ontario election in June set a new record for lowest turnout — 43.5 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot.

Jacquie Newman, a political science professor at Western University in London, Ont., said that could signal even lower interest in the Oct. 24 municipal election.

"We're looking at the possibility of turnout at the local level really crashing," Newman said.

Portrait of woman with glasses.
Jacquie Newman, a political science professor at Western University in London, Ont., says there are concerns October's municipal election might see low voter turnout because voters are tired from a federal and a provincial election in the past year. (King's University College at Western University)

One reason is voters are tired from two elections — federal and provincial — in the past 13 months.

Another big reason is many people don't realize the impact municipal governments have on their daily lives, Newman said.

"It's always been a very interesting phenomenon, this sense that local elections don't matter as much because they don't see municipalities as having a lot of power because the municipalities are actually beholden to the province," she said.

"But while municipalities may be seen not to have a lot of power, they do have a lot of responsibility. Most of what happens at the municipality level is going to have a real impact on your life."

  • LISTEN | Jacquie Newman on whether Ontario voters are ready for another election:

Need to engage voters

More needs to be done to engage voters, to help them understand why they should vote municipally, Newman said.

"Most of what happens at the municipality level is going to have a real impact on your life."

Part of getting voters engaged starts with encouraging more diverse candidates to put their names on the ballot, Newman said.

"There has to be a sense of trust around the relationship between people and their governments and unfortunately, municipal governments, even though they are closest to the people, still don't look like Canadian society. People are going to have much more trust in their governments when they see people like themselves in government," she said.

"You're going to get more engagement when people feel that the issues that they're concerned with are being talked about at the council level."

Regional Coun. Helen Jowett, who represents Cambridge, says she hadn't intended to leave the seat she's held since 2014, but was offered a new full-time job that will allow her to work on issues important to the community. (Helen Jowett)

Jowett is not running again because she has decided to take on a job she says was just too good to turn down. She said she hopes the races in Waterloo region will get people interested, because many new candidates and several incumbents at the regional level, like herself, have opted not to seek re-election this time around. 

"It's a race, right? Inherently, it will bring more interested individuals out that perhaps might not have been as interested before. I hope that happens."

'We need to make it as easy as possible'

Sean Strickland is a regional councillor for Waterloo who also isn't seeking re-election because of a new full-time job (and who thinks the job of regional councillor should be full time rather than part time).

Regional Coun. Sean Strickland, who represents Waterloo, started in local politics as a school board trustee in 1993 and has served as a regional councillor for 25 years. He was recently appointed executive director of Canada's Building Trades Unions. (Sean Strickland)

He said he'll be interested to see what impact the region's sign bylaw has on the municipal election — candidates cannot place signs along regional roads.

"I bet you even more people aren't even aware of this municipal campaign underway right now because of the lack of election signs," he said. 

Strickland said he'd like to see more opportunities for people to vote. Make elections more than just one day — maybe a 10-day voting period, he said. Advance polling days have increased, which he says is good, but municipalities should also be embracing online, telephone and mail-in voting.

"The security of the internet has increased tremendously," he said. "We need to make it as easy as possible for the electorate to participate in the election. And right now, we're still basically running on a system that was designed in the 1800s."

Bonoguore, who announced in March she wouldn't seek re-election largely because of the immense time commitment of the part-time job, said the pandemic has shown the impact local decisions have on their day-to-day lives.

"It's opened many people's eyes to issues they might have otherwise not [been] noticed. Meanwhile, global challenges are being felt right here. It's sparking a lot of people to not just pay a bit more attention, but to want to have a say as well."

She encourages voters to pay close attention, talk to candidates, and watch or listen to debates.

In municipal councils, no one person can enact platform promises, she said, but it's still important to know where a candidate stands on issues.

The municipal election is Monday, Oct. 24, but how and when people vote depends on where they live in Waterloo region. Read more here.

  • Read more of CBC K-W's municipal election coverage:

Below is voter turnout throughout Waterloo region for the past four elections.

In Cambridge:

  • 2018: 32.24 per cent.
  • 2014: 29.89 per cent.
  • 2010: 28.71 per cent.
  • 2006: 26.33 per cent.

In Kitchener:

  • 2018: 28.22 per cent.
  • 2014: 29.94 per cent.
  • 2010: 27.41 per cent. 
  • 2006: 25.48 per cent

In North Dumfries:

  • 2018: 37.6 per cent.
  • ​2014: 39.63 per cent.
  • 2010: 48.64 per cent.
  • 2006: 26.81 per cent.

In Waterloo:

  • 2018: 34.22 per cent.
  • 2014: 35.93 per cent.
  • 2010: 41.16 per cent.
  • 2006: 28.66 per cent.

In Wellesley:

  • 2018: 31.97 per cent.
  • 2014: 29.3 per cent. 
  • 2010: 11.49 per cent​ (all members of township council were acclaimed; people voted for regional chair, school board trustees).
  • 2006: 31.37 per cent.

In Wilmot:

  • 2018: 37.82 per cent.
  • 2014: 40.6 per cent​.
  • 2010: 47.15 per cent.
  • 2006: 24.7 per cent.

In Woolwich:

  • 2018: 31.3 per cent.
  • 2014: 37 per cent.
  • 2010: 36 per cent.
  • 2006: 27 per cent.


Kate Bueckert


Kate has been covering issues in southern Ontario for more than 15 years. She is currently a CBC News reporter/editor working for CBC Kitchener-Waterloo. Email: