When activists started tossing around the idea of giving permanent residents in Toronto the right to vote in municipal elections, I came to the issue as a skeptic. Citizenship as a natural prerequisite to voting rights is one of those things that just seems intuitive. But by the time Toronto City Council got around to approving a formal request to the provincial government to extend the municipal vote to non-citizens, three things had changed my mind. The first was the work of writer and activist Desmond Cole, who selflessly championed the issue all the way up to last week’s council vote. His relentless drive and super convincing arguments in favour of the idea made him into a kind of city hall rock star, proof that all you need to affect change at city hall is an advocate who isn’t prepared to back down.
The second thing was a belief that municipal government is exactly the place to take bold steps and even experiment. Like with other progressive electoral reforms — Internet voting, ranked balloting, and so on — it’s hard to imagine what we have to lose from trying. Cities don’t gain much when they cling needlessly to the past.
The third reason? Fairness. Take away our built-in assumptions about what citizenship means, and it’s hard to make a case for not giving permanent residents the right to vote.
There are about 250,000 permanent residents living in Toronto today. These are not people who have come to Toronto for a Blue Jays game and a quick ride up the CN Tower elevator. Many of them are on the path toward citizenship already, a process that takes about 23 months — and, with various hurdles, often longer.