Why vote today? Because Toronto’s future is still TBD

With early voting numbers down from 2014 and polling consistently showing John Tory holding a wide lead over challenger Jennifer Keesmaat in the mayor’s race, there’s some indication that some Toronto residents may see the result of today’s municipal election as a foregone conclusion.

But it’s not.

Looking beyond the mayor’s race, there’s a whole lot of uncertainty going into today’s vote, which means Toronto’s political future is very much TBD.

The real action will be in the council races. After Premier Doug Ford’s cut to the size of Toronto council created a number of incumbent-versus-incumbent matches, there are more too-close-to-call races than there have been in recent memory. Several of the 25 councillors elected Monday are likely to get in by razor thin margins.

In these races, every vote will matter. And the outcomes will matter too.

Weak mayor system means mayor won’t have final say

Here’s the reality of being the mayor of Toronto: if what you’re after is power, the job isn’t great. You have influence, sure — and you get to wear a gold chain, if you’re into that kind of thing — but you don’t have a lot of real, actionable, policy-making power. Under the city’s weak mayor system, it is council that has final say when making the city’s most significant decisions.

That means even if the mayor really, really, really wants something to happen, a simple majority of councillors can stand in the way and say no.

With the new, slimmed down council standing at 25 councillors plus the mayor, the threshold for success will be 14 votes (council motions lose on a tie vote).

And so the ideological make-up of those elected to council seats will matter a whole lot. One of the key things to watch as the results come in Monday night will be the ideological composition of the new council.

How many will be of a more conservative mould? How many will have political views that skew left? And how many will best be described as centrists or swing votes?

And then the biggest, most important question: how might these new councillors come together as a 14-member majority on the issues that matter most?

Council’s history of close votes

I track significant votes during council debates on my city council scorecard. Over the last four years, 36 of the 132 votes I tracked were decided by a margin of four votes or less. That means one out of every five votes I tracked could be called close.

The small margins determined council’s position on a bunch of important — and expensive — items.

Jennifer Keesmaat wants to replace the eastern portion of the Gardiner with a ground-level boulevard, as opposed to Tory’s plan to build a more-costly ‘hybrid’ style expressway. (Matt Llewellyn/CBC)

For instance, the decision to maintain, rather than replace, the eastern section of the Gardiner Expressway was decided by a 24-21 vote.

A vote on whether to fully fund the city’s climate change mitigation program in 2017 was decided by a two vote margin.

And a vote this summer on whether to grant $364 million in tax credits to developers failed on a tie vote — if just one councillor had voted differently, those tax credits would have been granted.

With fewer councillors in the chamber, the margins are likely to get even smaller. An item previously decided by two votes under the larger council could, this time around, could come down to just one vote.

One person — elected today by Toronto voters — could make all the difference.

Voters should carefully consider their pick for councillor

Within the next year, Toronto’s new council will consider issues like the Scarborough subway, the King Street transit pilot and, through the budget process, the city’s fiscal iceberg — the estimated $30 billion in approved projects and programs that currently lack funding.

The decisions council ultimately makes on these issues will be determined tonight.

To help voters navigate their local council races, try CBC Toronto’s Vote Compass. This year, thanks to a partnership with the Urban Policy Lab at the University of Toronto, the Vote Compass includes data from my Council Scorecard to tell you how your incumbent candidates voted on the issues.

It’s worth every voter’s time to do the research and think carefully about their council vote. The mayor matters, but the councillors who make up the majority on the issues will matter a whole lot more.

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