by Michael Lehan Thursday October 28, 2010

On Monday citizens went to the polls in municipalities across Ontario to elect new
representatives to their city councils. In Toronto, the result was a new mayor and changes to city council. This early on, the only thing we know for sure is Toronto wanted something different for the next four years.

Toronto journalist Patrick Cain posted some informative maps on his blog illustrating the vote breakdown Monday.  I've reposted one of this maps, but you should visit his site to see the rest!

Investigating the maps reveals a number of interesting trends in the election. Although Rob Ford won the mayoral race with a plurality of votes, his margin of victory was larger in some wards over others. In fact, in at least 13 wards, the mayoral runner-up, George Smitherman, received more votes.

It may seem obvious that different people support different candidates, but have you ever considered why?

Choosing who to vote for is a complicated decision-making process, which involves balancing many conscious and subconscious perspectives within the minds of each voter.
A study performed after the 2000 federal election yielded an informative breakdown of the choices we all make internally when selecting our favoured candidate.

You might be surprised to discover that a lot of that process isn’t actually up to you. We make a lot of choices without even realizing it.

The base-level evaluation of who you’ll vote for is described as sociodemographic characteristics. That’s a big word that refers to where you were born, where you live, and even the background of your family. These are factors that shape who you are, even if you don’t realize it. They play a large role in the next category, your personal beliefs and values.

Some people support the same political party their whole life, often that of their parents. That’s because the positions of political parties in this province are mostly built around underlying values and beliefs. While the political parties aren’t officially involved in municipal politics, mayors and councilors are often closely connected to the parties that share their values and beliefs.

Sometimes very closely connected: Ward 19 (Trinity-Spadina) in Toronto elected Mike Layton to be their councillor. He’s the son of federal NDP leader Jack Layton. Olivia Chow, the elder Layton’s wife, and the younger Layton’s step-mom, is the federal MP for the very same riding.

Consider how the sociodemographic breakdown of Trinity-Spadina, an urban, middle-class, and ethnically diverse neighbourhood, might share the same values as the Layton-Chow family.

From here on in, however, the reasons behind choosing a candidate become more likely to change from year to year. Economic perceptions are very subjective to your own personal financial situation, and very influenced by the state of the economy at the time of election. But the overall tendency is to re-elect an incumbent government in economic good times and give them the boot during recessions. As the current deputy mayor, mayoral candidate Joe Pantalone was the closest we had to an incumbent, and he fared quite poorly at the polls city-wide.

Sometimes a single major issue will be the focus of an election race. Your opinion on that issue, again the result of your underlying beliefs and sociodemographic background, will influence your selection of a candidate. While no single issue dominated the candidate rhetoric during the election race, perceptions of the current mayor’s performance was often front and center to the debate.

That brings us to the leaders, the mayoral candidates themselves. The media tends to focus on public perceptions of candidates, often embellishing their personalities into caricatures. In fact, the study revealed that the likability of candidates mattered less than the needs and opinions of the voter.

The final factor in voter’s minds on election day is the hotly debated issue of strategic voting. You may realize that your preferred candidate is unlikely to win, but if you vote for them anyways you’re hurting the chances of another acceptable candidate winning. This is called a vote-split, where a number of candidates with similar platforms receive only a portion of the votes that could have gone to a single candidate. When this happens, a candidate can win an election even if the majority of voters do not share their positions or values: They simply had less competition for potential voters.

What do you do? The choice is yours. There’s no right or wrong way to vote.

Expect post-election analysis by the media to debate whether or  not a vote split occurred between the second and third runners-up in the Toronto mayoral election. If you add up the total votes that George Smitherman and Joe Pantalone received, it’s greater than the votes mayor-elect Rob Ford received by just 1,800 votes, or less than half of one per cent of the total votes cast.

But really, that’s a meaningless fact. There’s no way to know for certain who Torontonians would have voted for had either candidates dropped out of the race prior to election day. It’s entirely possible that Pantalone fared so poorly because Torontonians chose to vote strategically for Smitherman. Or it’s entirely possible that, because of all the various factors we’ve discussed above, many Pantalone voters found Smitherman to be an unacceptable choice.

Whatever the case, 53 per cent of the eligible voters showed up at the polls on Monday. In the 2006 municipal election in Toronto, only 39 per cent voted. That’s good news for democracy!