Ranked ballots coming to Ontario cities
Ontario is launching a public consultation on ranked ballots but says it is committed to offering the voting system.
May 28, 2015
By David Rider
Get ready, Toronto, for a new voting system that should discourage negative campaigning, make city council look more like Toronto, and stymie polarizing candidates such as Rob Ford.
Ontario is consulting people on how - not if - it should let municipalities use ranked ballots in 2018, and Mayor John Tory and Toronto council are on record as eager to embrace what will be a historic, radical change.
“I would like to see it in place for the next election,” Tory said Thursday, minutes after Municipal Affairs Minister Ted McMeekin officially launched a review of the Municipal Elections Act. “I think it will encourage more people to come into politics.”
Consultations end July 27. McMeekin hopes the Legislature will pass necessary changes in plenty of time to let municipalities officially adopt ranked balloting and start preparations for October 2018 civic elections.
McMeekin urged Ontario’s 444 municipalities to consider a change he says should elect leaders “working together to serve their communities and debating issues ... rather than engaging in personal attacks.”
Requested by the previous Toronto council in 2013, ranked ballots would replace the “first past the post” system, used for more than a century, whereby the candidate with the most votes wins, even if that’s a small percentage of the total vote in a multi-candidate race.
Under ranked balloting, voters select candidates in order of preference - potentially first, second and third. A candidate with majority of first-place votes - 50 per cent plus one - wins, just as in the current system.
If nobody meets that threshold, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is knocked out. The second-place choices of that candidate’s supporters are added to the totals of the remaining hopefuls, and so on, until somebody has a majority.
So what can Toronto expect from ranked ballots?
A vigorous education campaign to sell voters on the change, and to teach them how it works and how to mark a very different-looking ballot. “The last thing we want is a ranked-ballot election that is rushed and that doesn’t work and that people don’t understand,” said Michael Urban, of Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (RaBIT). “We want it to be a success.”
Potentially, confusion at the polls. Ranked ballots are inherently more complex. And since Ontario is not, for now, offering ranked ballots to school boards, Toronto will have to decide if it wants one ballot with two voting systems, or separate ballots for council and school board.
Kinder campaigns. Ranked-ballot elections in U.S. cities, including Minneapolis, have seen less negative campaigning, because politicians do not want to alienate their rivals’ supporters for fear of not being their second choice. Katherine Skeen of RaBIT also predicts broader, more meaningful debate. “In Toronto now, when you can win with as little as 17 per cent of the vote, you don’t need to put forward big ideas that talk to a wide swath of people.”
More gender and ethnic diversity. Just over half of Torontonians are visible minorities, but among local elected officials the percentage is just 14 per cent. One-third of council is female.
Minneapolis in 2013 got its first female mayor, leading a half-female council that also includes the most visible minorities in that city’s history.
Polarizing politicians will find it tough to win. With first-past-the-post, candidates can, as Rob Ford did in 2010, win by appealing to a dedicated niche or parts of the city, while alienating a majority of voters. With ranked ballots, the winner must appeal to at least 51 per cent of the electorate. “We’ve seen this kind of divide-and-conquer, narrow-casting of support be effective,” said Ryerson University’s Myer Siemiatycki. “Ranked ballots do push more candidates more toward consensus politics than confrontational.”
No more strategic voting. Since voters can now pick second and third choices, there’s no need to aim your vote toward keeping your least-desired candidate from winning.