Low turnout and uncontested elections: How healthy is municipal democracy in Quebec?

A total of 214 of municipalities in Quebec won't be having an election on Nov. 5, when voters in the rest of the province head to the polls to elect the mayors and councillors who will run their towns and cities for the next four years.

CBC News takes a close look at the numbers, and things may not be all bad on the local level

Marc L'Heureux was acclaimed as mayor of Brébeuf earlier this month when no one decided to run against him. In the last round of municipal elections in 2013, 47.2 per cent of the province's mayors and 56.3 per cent of its municipal councillors ran unopposed. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

More than three decades have gone by since a municipal election was held in Brébeuf, a small town in the Laurentians along the meandering Rivière Rouge.

This year is no exception. All of the councillors and the mayoral candidate were acclaimed earlier this month, just as they have been since 1986. 

The paucity of contested elections in Brébeuf is not from a lack of trying, according to Marc L'Heureux, the 61-year-old triathlete who recently became the town's newest mayor when no one stepped in to run against him. 

"We aren't cherry-picking people to sit on council," L'Heureux said during a recent interview at his home, which overlooks his horse ranch. "We have trouble finding people."

But along with the slim pool of candidates, L'Heureux said the town of 1,000 people is also cost-conscious. He estimated the price tag for a municipal election would run at least $15,000.

"It's a lot of money for us," he said. "People don't want to force an election even if they are interested."

The 'worrying' state of local democracy

Brébeuf is among 214 municipalities in Quebec that won't be having an election on Nov. 5, when voters in the rest of the province head to the polls to elect the mayors and councillors who will run their towns and cities for the next four years.

The high number of municipalities like Brébeuf — where there is simply no competition for elected positions, where the mayor and every councillor are acclaimed — contribute to the perception that local democracy in Quebec is in a sorry state. 

Of these 214 municipalities, there are 23 that haven't had an election since 2003, a period that will include four municipal election cycles by Nov. 5.

In the last round of municipal elections in 2013, 47.2 per cent of the province's mayors and 56.3 per cent of its municipal councillors ran unopposed.

Taken together, that means more municipal officials in Quebec were acclaimed than elected into office. The next four years will be no different.

Another concerning factor is the persistently low turnout rate for municipal elections.

Only 47 per cent of eligible Quebecers bothered to vote in the municipal elections of 2013, well below the turnout rates for the most recent federal (68 per cent) and provincial (71 per cent) elections. 

"That's very worrying for our democracy," elections chief Pierre Reid said as he launched an ad campaign to boost turnout. "Imagine if our municipalities also did things only half-way."

But is it all bad?

But data compiled by CBC News indicates that when it comes to the health of municipal democracy in Quebec, a more optimistic diagnosis is also possible. 

The 47-per cent turnout in the 2013 municipals was nevertheless an increase from the 45 per cent who voted in 2009 and 2005.

Turnout has also steadily increased in Montreal since the messy merger process of the early aughts. It's gone from a dismal 35 per cent in 2005 to a slightly less-dismal 43 per cent in 2013.

(In 2014 Vancouver and Toronto had municipal elections with turnouts of 43 per cent and 60 per cent respectively.)

There are also fewer Quebec municipalities that are seeing across-the-board acclamations; their number has decreased by 35 per cent between 2005 and 2017.

Acclamations, overall, have been on the decline since 2005. 

End of a dark period

To be sure, municipal democracy in Quebec went through a dark period.

Provincial reforms created a confusing patchwork of governing bodies in Montreal, making it so that voters in the city have to choose anywhere from three to five names when they step into the voting booth. 

A few years later, a provincial inquiry into Quebec's construction industry exposed wide-scale corruption in dozens of municipalities, including Montreal, Laval, Terrebonne and Mascouche.

One witness at the inquiry, Gilles Cloutier, claimed that over his career he had helped rig some 60 elections in the Montreal area at the request of Roche, an engineering consulting firm.

"That cast a shadow on the whole world of municipal politics," said Éric Forest, an independent senator who chaired the Union of Quebec Municipalities between 2010-2014. "It discouraged a lot of people from entering politics."

Justice France Charbonneau led the inquiry into Quebec's construction industry, which revealed widespread corruption in municipal politics in the province. (CBC)

But he believes Quebecers are gradually recognizing that municipal government is about more than just garbage collection.

This summer, the Quebec government passed Bill 122, which expands the powers available to local authorities for dealing with issues like the environment and economic development.

It passed separate laws increasing the powers of Montreal and Quebec City. 

By expanding what local governments can do, said Forest, citizens are more likely to take a vested interest in who governs them. 

​Municipalities are also experimenting with alternative ways of getting citizens involved in decision-making. A growing number are implementing participatory budgeting practices, which gives the public a chance to express their opinion on how municipal budgets are spent. 

Senator Éric Forest, a former chair of the Union of Quebec Municipalities, lauded experiments to get more citizens involved in municipal decision-making. (Éric Forest/Reuters)

Montreal's Plateau-Mont-Royal borough was, in 2006, among the first to try it out, but now even smaller towns like Baie-Saint-Paul and Saint-Basile-le-Grand are giving it a shot.

"It's a wonderful tool to help people become aware of all the latitude and autonomy that you can have at the municipal level," said Forest, himself a former mayor of Rimouski. 

'Bringing something new to council'

In Brébeuf, there doesn't appear to be any widespread concern about the town's lack of elections. 

Jean-Pierre Maillé, who owns a small-motors repair shop, admits he never goes to council meetings, but also doesn't have any issues with how the town is run. 

"The taxes seem normal compared to other towns, things seem normal here for a little village," he said.

Down the road from Brébeuf, Montcalm will be having its first election in 12 years, for one council seat (all the other positions were acclaimed). 

Kathy Monet is among the 78 residents able to cast a ballot. She says she's glad there is an election in the community this time around and intends to vote.

"There will be a bit more competition, and that will bring a little bit of something new at council," Monet said.


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