The dangers of voter apathy at the Law Society of Ontario

Political scientists describe voter apathy as the lack of interest among voters and a corresponding lack of participation by voters in the elections of representative democracies. High voter apathy causes poor turnout rates among eligible voters on election day. Several factors contribute to voter apathy. While some people are skeptical about whether their vote matters, others use non-participation to protest against a system that they condemn. Most commonly, apathy results from “satisfaction with the status quo” or “what the law society does has no impact on me” in the legal profession. While we would like to think that this is not what has been causing the low voter turnout we have seen in past elections for Convocation, if that is the reason, then it underscores the need for a substantial increase in turnout next year.

Regardless of the cause, low voter turnout is troublesome for any democracy, especially for those with self-governing bodies, like the LSO. After analyzing the turnout rates of Bencher elections over the last two decades, it is apparent that voter participation has been steadily declining since 1999 and hit an all-time low in 2019. Of the 53,899 lawyers eligible to vote in 2019, only 16,156 cast their ballots. That accounts for only 29.97 percent of eligible voters, down from 33.85 percent in 2011 and 37.12 percent in 2015.  

The LSO released a comprehensive study of lawyer participation in bencher elections from 1999 to 2019. They compared voter turnout rates of several different categories, including but not limited to gender, age, year to call, size of firm and region. The data revealed a negative trend in turnout over the past two decades across each of these groups. Notably, the highest voter turnout rate was in 1999, when 42.02 percent of lawyers cast their ballots. The participation rate steadily decreased in the years following. It is important to note that nearly all regions in Ontario experienced reduced voter turnout in the last three elections, proving that voter apathy is a widespread issue throughout the province.

The number of votes it took for some lawyer candidates to be elected in 2019 was marginal compared to the size of Ontario’s bar. In Toronto, where we saw the highest votes, lawyer benchers were elected with as few as 2971 votes. The most votes that a Toronto candidate received was 5017. Similarly, outside of Toronto, the greatest number of votes that a lawyer candidate received was 5184, while the lowest was 1606. For example, I was elected with 3922 votes in Toronto or about 7 percent of Ontario’s lawyers. Ontario’s bar should be concerned about these markedly low turnout rates, especially in light of the results of the 2019 election. We believe that the lack of participation among eligible lawyer voters in 2019 shaped who was elected and led directly to the StopSOP group’s success.

The Statement of Principles which I opposed, has now been replaced. It was a singular issue that appealed to many voters. Today what is at risk is much of the progress made on many equity, diversity and inclusion issues over the past years. Those efforts will be threatened by candidates who are directly opposed to the advancement by Convocation of progressive mandates, enhancements to programmes that will ensure competence and careful planning for the future of the professions. Common sense, practical leadership, and decision-making reflecting the breadth and depth of all professions across Ontario should be the concern of all licensees. Next year, if I run for a third and final term, it will not be as part of the StopSOP slate, a convoy of truck drivers or any party or organized group. I firmly believe that Convocation should include 40 elected individual leaders of the profession guided by their principles and not beholden to others.