Coun. Andrew Knack is at a grey bungalow in Crestwood saying nothing much at all. Knack is campaigning for re-election in Ward 1 but tonight, the older female homeowner he has summoned with his knock to her door is not a supporter. Knack stands wordlessly absorbing views on subsidized housing (does not belong in Crestwood, she says) and property taxes (too high, she says) while, nearby, three boys play catch beside a white BMW. Crestwood’s average household income is $165,668, or nearly double Edmonton’s average, and it will be a central door-knocking target for Ward 1 candidates. Finally, after 15 minutes, Knack bids the woman goodnight. “I kind of make a terrible politician because I listen, even if I know, like her, they aren’t going to vote for me”, he says, once at the sidewalk.
Knocking on doors can win an election. In 2016, an unpopular Ted Cruz beat a popular Donald Trump in the Iowa Republican Party leadership primaries by hitting more front doors. For municipal politicians, who lack the political parties that help voters navigate toward or away from candidates and platforms, door-knocking is doubly-important. Fittingly, Knack is door-knocking tonight primarily to re-win his seat. It is serious business. As we walk, Knack opens Canvasser, an iPhone app he pays $100 a month for to organize his plan to knock on all 18,000 or so single-family, row-house and duplex doors in his ward, and crosses the woman’s house off the list. But Knack says there’s more to it. Door-knocking gives him a too-rare chance to hear peoples’ concerns face to face. It is a democracy moment with the purity of apple pie. “I care whether you can vote or whether you can’t—I talk with permanent residents who can’t vote, and I care equally as much about their opinion as someone who can go vote,” he says.
Let’s assume Knack is right, and that door-knocking is essential for potential city councillors to hear the concerns of residents. What does it mean, then, that up to half the doors in our city will likely not get a knock? According to Statistics Canada, about 49.3 per cent of Edmonton’s housing is multi-unit, from condo towers to low-rise apartments to mid-rise rental buildings. But these doors and the people who live behind them are effectively terra nullius during a campaign. According to Knack and several other council candidates I spoke to, it is hard to get inside multi-unit buildings to meet people. Once in, many residents—leery of marketers—do not want you there. And what is worse, Alberta’s election rules only allow you there for a short period, anyway.
Add these factors up and you understand why one candidate who is aggressively targeting multi-unit housing puts his odds at getting inside buildings at less than one in three. Knack, who lives in a multi-unit condo himself, says he has not had a candidate knock on his door during any election campaign. And as he walks toward his next door to knock on, he says his 18,000-door tally does not include multi-unit doors and that the pattern concerns him. “It’s a struggle. You actually technically can’t access [a multi-unit] building until nomination day [on September 18]. Think about that. I’ll be lucky, having started door-knocking at the beginning of July, to hit every door once—and that’s just every single-family house door. You add in all of the multi-unit dwellings and the ability to try and hit every door in four weeks, it’s impossible. You won’t connect with everyone.”
For candidates to come first, Knack has sketched out why those living in multi-unit housing in downtown, Oliver and throughout Edmonton could be coming last. Given so many of us live in buildings with multiple doors, how can it change?
Back in August, on another door-knocking night, Knack says he came to see what disengagement really looks like. He was in the Canora neighbourhood, where the average household income $59,976 and where many rent, often in multi-unit housing. At the doors, he says three individual people living in rental housing shared that they feel invisible. Knack says one resident told him, “as a renter,” she was “not allowed to vote”— (“I have no idea where she was taught that,” he says)— while two others told him their opinion did not count. “They said, ‘I just rent, so I don’t want to waste your time.’”
Knack has a compelling theory for why. To win elections, politicians door-knock and engage voters predominantly in areas with a history of high voter turnout. Those high turnouts are, traditionally, clustered in the high-income areas of wards where the doors are easily reached. And to Knack that embeds the cycle. “It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he says. “The spots where we have, by far, the largest voter turnout are some of the wealthiest communities with some of the highest percentages of detached-home ownership. And so if you’re a candidate, it’s not that you want to ignore areas [with multi-unit renters and owners] but you’d better go to where the highest voter turnout is first.”
Next, add the time-crunch created by rules that limit legal protection from being told to leave multi-unit buildings until a month before the vote. That amplifies things, he says. “If you’re short on time, something’s not going to get done, and often times it’s those areas that have low home ownership or low voter-turnout. Because nobody engages them, very few people go out and vote, which means the turnout is low, which means the next crop of candidates see that and say, ‘Well, why would I go there first?’”
“They said, ‘I just rent, so I don’t want to waste your time.'”
Edmonton historian Shirley Lowe says there are other amplifications of the pattern and that they link to historic election laws. Lowe points to Jack K. Masson and Edward C. LeSage’s book, Alberta’s Local Governments, where the authors write: “Election rules are seldom neutral; they operate to the advantage of some people and the disadvantage of others.” In Alberta municipal elections, the authors argue advantages have been created by laws such as one that allowed British citizens living in Canada to vote in municipal elections even if they were not Canadian citizens. Another, dashed only in 1983, discriminated against non incumbents by allowing a candidate’s occupation to be shown. Incumbents would simply write, “Mayor,” or “alderman,” as their job and look far more electable on the ballot as a result. It made incumbency then—and arguably now—an iron-like qualification for Edmonton City Council.
But it’s rules around property ownership that Lowe points to as we talk about the multi-unit engagement gap. Up until 1977, a bylaw explicitly favoured people who owned property over those who did not by allowing only them to vote on council candidates and fiscal rule changes. While the rule now only requires a voter to be a resident of your municipality on election day, and to have lived in Alberta at least six months prior to it, some of the property sentiments linger. And they disadvantage people in multi-unit housing. “It’s systemic,” Lowe says. “The City of Edmonton still sends out notices about developments, but they don’t do it for renters. That means even a temporary land owner, like a developer, has more rights than someone who’s lived around that property for a long time.” As a result, she adds, renters have long been “second class citizens.”
That feeling, directly expressed to Knack on the doorstep in Ward 1, is something being thought about in wards across the city as politicians campaign. That includes Ward 6, which covers downtown and Oliver.
The ward’s incumbent, Coun. Scott McKeen, says he’s run up against the barriers to door-knocking in multi-unit condo buildings similar to the one he lives in. In 2013, he says, he had volunteers inside a multi-unit building knocking on doors when they were challenged in the halls. “The resident told them they had to leave, but it turned out one of the volunteers was a former city hall lawyer,” he says. “He knew the legislation and explained it. The resident grudgingly let the volunteers continue.”
“If people are not voting, you’re caught in this silo of making decisions based o a very select group of individuals”.
Is this unexpected? No, McKeen says. “I don’t think this [reaction] is unusual. Most buildings don’t allow people in to canvas door to door. The election rules allowing entry are not widely known and so people can be upset with the intrusion. I live in a condo building and it’s weird to have someone knock on your door. As someone once said, the door to your apartment is unlike the door to a house. It’s more like opening your bedroom door to a stranger. You feel more vulnerable.”
One of McKeen’s main challengers in Ward 6, Tish Prouse, says he has encountered anger from people while trying to engage residents in multi-unit buildings and has resorted to different techniques as a result—from simple social media discussions to a series of barbecues near the larger buildings that people can come to and meet him at. He says that he recognizes candidates over-emphasize door-knocking on single-family homes and that it skews their take on what matters to their ward. “You want to have proper representation of a demographic,” Prouse says.
Voter turnout in Edmonton is low compared to the Canadian average, at less than 37 per cent in both the 2010 and 2013 municipal elections. And the least likely age block to vote is the 18 to 29 bracket. Matthew Redfern, who is running for council in Ward 7, has a term for that group. “Those are what I associate with the rental years,” he says.
For some in Edmonton, the rental years are transitional, while for others they are a lifestyle choice. Regardless, for a city where the median age is just 35, renters are a significant number of voters. Indeed, according to Edmonton’s 2016 census, 49 per cent of residents own their housing while 29 per cent rent it (though, a whopping 21 per cent provided no response to that census question). For context, the 2011 federal census put the owner-renter spread in Edmonton at 65 per cent and 35 per cent, respectively.
Redfern feels connected to the people living as renters in multi-unit voters. He identifies as Dutch and Cree (his mother, a residential school survivor, was born on a trapline near Moosonee, Ontario) and for much of his 20s and 30s lived as a renter in multi-unit apartment buildings. And this meant that he never interacted at his door with a municipal politician, he says. “It didn’t enhance my engagement in democracy and local politics.”
So, like many in the 2017 campaign, Redfern is trying to work around the traditional engagement gaps. His approach is to venture into Beverly Heights, the lowest income portion of Ward 7, to knock on doors and meet people. Many of the people living in the neighbourhood live in older detached housing, which they rent, though there are some low-rise apartments, too. The average household income in Beverly Heights is $68,749.
Redfern says the feedback can be stark. “I haven’t met a single person yet that told me they’ve had someone knock on their door [in Beverly Heights],” he says. “I’m the first candidate they’ve seen in any election— municipal, provincial or federal. In Beverly, it’s a lot of rental houses, a lot of…”— here, his voice changes and he grins—“…indigenous type people. They don’t get much attention. We’ll find out if it works. Those are home owners, renters and definitely voters.”
How can the engagement gap for Edmonton residents living in multi-unit housing change?
McKeen says it is “critical” to door-knock in multi-unit housing. “Though some buildings do a terrific job at creating a sense of community, apartment living can be isolating. So it’s important that candidates take on the challenge of getting in those buildings, knocking on doors and meeting people where they live.”
His solution is simply perseverance.
Redfern is actively seeking to engage a voting group that others have ignored, but is not sure it will lead him to victory. He admits he is doing it out of principle. “We’re missing their voice, a whole different perspective—people who are living a different life than your detached home homeowner,” he says. “Not everybody has a house and a dog and a wife and 1.8 children, whatever is ‘normal’ now. Most people in their renting years don’t vote, which is a shame because they use a lot of city services.”
He also says there is a need for more open venues for voters to engage with candidates, and laments that some community leagues have stopped offering candidate forums.“Maybe the elections office could hold forums,” he says. Knack says he has also thought about how to fix the situation but has not hit on the magic bullet. “There’s several things” to try, he says. “Could we open up the rules to allow candidates to get in [to multi-unit buildings] earlier?” But, do that, he says, and “you would run up against the issue of people just not feeling comfortable answering the door.”
Still, as he walks to knock on doors in Crestwood, Knack says he hopes to work to change the situation. “How do you start to break through it,” he asks. Canora, he notes, has a voter turnout below 20 per cent, which could mean as little as 10 per cent of households (some have more than one resident) are reaching the ballot box. Voter turnout in Crestwood, on the other hand, where he has just gotten an earful from a resident about taxes, is way higher.“You have to be careful to expand who you’re hearing from,”he says. “If people are not voting, you’re caught in this silo of making decisions based on a very select group of individuals.”