In the wake of beloved councillor Cynthia Lai’s death just days before Monday’s municipal election, her staffers are speaking out against an electoral system that is denying her constituents who voted in advanced polls an opportunity to revote and have their voices heard in a byelection.
They say this is all the more important since they say her ward, Scarborough North, saw a 44 per cent increase in advance polling from the previous election, with around 4,300 votes cast this time around compared to just over 3,000 in 2018.
“The will of the people should be the will of the people,” said Lai’s campaign manager Hratch Aynedjian, adding an election that doesn’t count votes cast for Lai won’t give an accurate picture, calling the Municipal Elections Act “flawed.”
Lai hadn’t been feeling well for a while, Aynedjian, said, but chose to keep details “hush-hush” because she was a “private person.”
Still, despite being in and out of hospital, she was determined to continue with her bid to represent Ward 23 for another term, and remained involved with the campaign how ever she could. On Thursday, the Star reported she was campaigning from her hospital bed.
The councillor and businesswoman — described by those who knew and worked with her as a passionate community member, dedicated leader, steadfast advocate for immigrants and an excellent singer — died Friday afternoon. By mid-afternoon Saturday, flowers and messages of condolence were seen placed outside her community office in Woodside Square. A celebration of life is being planned for Lai by her family on Oct. 28 at 10 a.m., though they are still finalizing the location.
Late Friday, the city issued a statement saying the election will proceed and Ward 23 voters will be publicly advised that Lai is ineligible, although her name will be on the ballot because they have already been printed and can’t be changed before Monday.
Whichever of the other three council candidates in that race — Phillip Francis, Virginia Jones and Jamaal Myers — gets the most votes will be declared the new Ward 23 councillor.
People who already voted through mail-in ballot or advance voting will not be able to change their vote — something Aynedjian called a flaw in legislation that prevents Lai’s constituents from participating in the democratic process if they voted for her and those votes are now void.
“They would have counted the votes (for her) if she passed at 8:01 p.m. on Monday,” Aynedjian said.
John Mascarin, a municipal lawyer at Aird & Berlis, said a byelection in Ward 23 is unlikely to happen, despite philosophical arguments from her camp.
Section 39 of the Municipal Elections Act says if a candidate for an office either dies or becomes ineligible before voting closes on election day their votes aren’t counted. The city clerk could, however, call an emergency in the ward under Section 53 of the Act — similar to a recent situation in Cambridge where two of six certified trustee candidates for the Waterloo Catholic District School Board were left off the ballot.
But as the death scenario is outlined in the Act, “I don’t see a challenge (to this rule) being, in any way, successful,” Mascarin said.
Lai’s chief of staff, Jim Murphy, said it’s unfortunate votes for Lai won’t be counted and some electors will be disenfranchised. He remembers her as an example of the “Canadian dream” — the first Asian woman to head the Toronto Real Estate Board, a champion of marginalized people and a fierce supporter of economic development in her ward.
“She had a real social conscience and wanted to help people, to see them succeed,” adding her successor has big shoes to fill.
Food security and anti-poverty advocate Courtney Fisher said Lai was an integral member of the community, recently helping him procure over 3,000 pounds of food for constituents in need.
“She was someone you could sit down and have a conversation with whether you agreed or disagreed (with her politics),” Fisher said. “We’re going to miss her.”