Municipal elections always make Zoey Zhou feel like she’s a kid in the back seat on a road trip.
“Just riding along. I don’t get to call like, where we’re gonna go,” Zhou said. “It’s just the sense of lacking … engagement in our community.”
Zhou is a permanent resident who’s lived in Fall River for 10 years — but because she’s not a Canadian citizen she can’t vote in elections for any level of government.
But a push to give permanent residents the right to vote in municipal elections is now being revived, thanks to the boundary review of Halifax’s electoral districts.
A panel of residents and staff have proposed new boundaries, with public and councillor input, to better balance the voting power of electors across Halifax’s 16 districts as the region grows.
But permanent residents like Zhou, who can’t vote, aren’t counted as electors. The overall population of each riding is considered, but elector numbers in each district have to fall within a certain range — and are more heavily weighted when the Utility and Review Board (UARB) decides whether to approve any changes.
Coun. Pamela Lovelace said that system means the UARB isn’t working with accurate numbers of Halifax’s population.
“The [UARB] is actually skewing what’s happening in each of these districts,” Lovelace said in an interview. “We know that new immigrants or newcomers who are here in Halifax — and there are a lot — we should also be considering them.”
Lovelace said permanent residents pay taxes, own property, and use municipal services, so they should be able to have a voice in local politics. Regional council members are elected to represent everyone living in Halifax including children and immigrants, Lovelace added, not just those who vote.
As of last December about 459,000 people lived in the municipality but about 372,200 are currently considered electors, according to a staff report on the boundary changes.
New Canadians are a significant contributor to Halifax’s rapid growth. According to census numbers, more than 17,900 immigrants moved to the municipality between 2016 and 2021.
“I think this has been a great opportunity for us not only to rethink public policy but to also provide opportunities for new relationships … with organizations and individuals and community groups that have been marginalized or have not felt heard at regional council in the past,” Lovelace said.
Although Zhou said she can always call her councillor to weigh in on an issue, there’s no real “leverage” she has without voting power.
She said it’s also easy to feel disengaged, something she often hears from others through her work as an immigration consultant.
“Whether you pay attention or not, it’s not gonna make a difference. So why? Why bother?” Zhou said.
It’s up to the province to expand municipal voting rights, but it has so far declined to take that step despite calls to do so from past Halifax councils and Mayor Mike Savage. Former NDP MLA Lisa Roberts tabled a private bill on the issue but it never moved forward.
Province says change not in ‘current mandate’
Provincial spokesperson Krista Higdon said in an email Monday that while she could not speculate on any legislative changes that may be considered in the future, the issue is “not part of the current mandate.”
New Brunswick is on track to approve municipal voting rights for permanent residents by 2026 — which could make it the first province in Canada to do so.
Halifax’s proposed boundary changes will be presented to regional council Tuesday and sent to the UARB for approval in the new year. The next municipal election for Halifax, and municipalities across the province, is in 2024.