Ontario municipalities get alternative to ‘first past the post’ in next election

Posted on June 2, 2015 in Governance Debates

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
June 1, 2015.    Andrew Coyne

Slowly, slowly, achingly slowly, electoral reform is coming to Canada. Its progress is uncertain, its setbacks have been many, but the first cracks in the “first past the post” edifice are about to appear.

The government of Ontario last week confirmed it is pressing ahead with changes to the Municipal Elections Act that would allow cities to opt out of first past the post in favour of ranked ballots; Toronto, the nation’s largest city, has already indicated that it plans to do so, in time for the 2018 council and mayoral elections.

The difference between the two systems is, in one sense, small: instead of just marking an X beside one name, with the winner being the candidate with the most Xs, voters would now rank the candidates 1, 2, 3 and so on. After voters’ first choices were counted, the last-place candidate would drop from contention; his second choices would then be redistributed among the other candidates, and so on through successive rounds until one candidate had a majority. (It’s similar to the method political parties have traditionally used to elect their leaders at conventions, only instead of holding successive rounds of voting, the votes are compressed into a single ballot.)

A small change, as I say — and yet the change in outcomes it portends is potentially vast. The first difference has already been stated: whereas under first past the post the winner in a field of, say, five candidates can take as little as 20 per cent of the vote, under a ranked ballot system a majority is always required.

But it’s the changes in incentives, for candidates and voters alike, that really marks this as a revolution. Under first past the post, the advantage goes to the candidate with the most solid core of supporters. You don’t need a majority: what you need is a devoted 20 per cent that you know will turn out to vote.

It would be the first time a system of proportional representation had been seen anywhere in Canada in decades

So the incentive for the candidate is to do everything he can to divide people: to unite and motivate his supporters to turn out, in part by emphasizing how much they are despised by the others, and how much they despise them in their turn. Torontonians, in particular, will be familiar with this as the electoral modus operandi of Rob Ford, but it has ample parallels in provincial and federal politics.

Under a ranked ballot system, by contrast, victory goes to the candidate who can assemble a broad base of support. That’s rarely possible just with voters’ first choices. So that means reaching out to the supporters of other candidates for their second- and third-choices. You’re unlikely to succeed at that if you’ve been busy telling your supporters that the other candidates, or their supporters, bear the mark of the Antichrist, or sip foam lattes, or whatever other terms of abuse you prefer.

So the incentive for candidates under ranked ballots is towards more civil, less divisive campaigns. Voters, in turn, find themselves facing a different, less unpleasant calculus.

Under first past the post, voters often feel compelled to vote “strategically” — rather than vote for the candidate they like best, they feel they have to vote against the candidate they like least. (More negativity.) In the last election, for example, voters who might otherwise have marked their ballot for Olivia Chow worried that if they did, they might simply split the anti-Ford vote, allowing the mayor (or as it turned out, his brother) to slip in. So instead many voted for John Tory, a candidate they liked less, but who seemed, according to the polls, to have the best chance of defeating Ford.

Under a ranked ballot, there is no need for this sort of agonizing. You like Olivia Chow? Vote for her with your first choice, with a clean conscience. She finishes last? No matter: with your second and third choices you can still make your presence felt.

But perhaps the biggest impact of this change is simply that it is, in fact, a change. The biggest impediment to reform, where it has been attempted, has been the fear of the unknown — the public’s instinctive attachment, when forced to choose, to the status quo, as against some other system that, whatever frustrations they may have with the present system, can always be made out to be something worse: risky, untried, foreign.

That’s harder to maintain once the first past the post monopoly has been broken. Indeed, make one change and it may be easier to make others. For example, it is true, as some electoral reformers complain, that ranked ballots are not the same as true proportional representation (albeit a meaningless distinction, in the absence of political parties, as is the case in most municipalities). But they are a large step in that direction. Just add multi-member electoral districts, and you have the single transferable vote (STV) model that 58 per cent of British Columbians voted for in the province’s first referendum on electoral reform, in 2005.

That’s not just idle speculation. Buried in the Ontario draft legislation, I am told, is a provision that would allow cities, not merely to switch to ranked ballots, but to go the full STV. If it survives passage into law, and if a municipality were to take the province up on it, it would be the first time a system of proportional representation had been seen anywhere in Canada in decades.

No longer a theoretical curiosity, to be mocked for being Other Than What We Have Now, it would then be a living, breathing alternative — and on Canadian soil! — whose strengths and weaknesses could be examined first-hand, rather than guessed at. The game is well and truly afoot.

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