Toronto should move to a ranked ballot

Posted on December 10, 2019 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Editorials

In 2013 Toronto city councillors showed they can think beyond their own political self-interest by opening the door to democratic reform that would make municipal elections less divisive and give newcomers a better chance of winning.

In 2015 they lost their way and rejected moving to a ranked ballot system of voting.

Now, finally, they might be back on track and ready to do the right thing.

Council recently voted 14-11 to direct city staff to start the process of moving toward a ranked ballot for the 2022 municipal election.

This time Toronto council should stay the course.

We all like to complain about politics and politicians, most especially during election campaigns. No one likes how our system encourages negative campaigns, focuses on wedge issues and personal attacks, and gives incumbents at the municipal level where there are no political parties such an unfair advantage. Or that councillors can be elected with so little support from the electorate.

In Toronto’s 2018 municipal election, for example, only seven of the 25 councillors were elected with over 50 per cent of the vote. One councillor was elected with just 27 per cent. And even that was a significant improvement over the 2014 election, when one winner received just 17 per cent of the votes.

It’s long past time to try something different.

Here’s how a ranked ballot system works. Voters rank candidates in order of their preference — first, second, third, and so on. Any candidate who gets more than 50 per cent of the first-choice votes automatically wins.

But if no one gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated; the second-place choices on that person’s ballots are allocated, for a fresh total. The process of elimination and redistribution continues until one candidate crosses the 50-per-cent mark.

It’s a little more complicated that our current first-past-the-post system, and city staff will prepare a report outlining how it would work for council and the public to review.

But given that Toronto’s city clerk, Ulli Watkiss, managed to pull off last year’s municipal election, which Premier Doug Ford blew up midway through, this change is more than manageable.

A ranked ballot is certainly not a one-stop fix for all that ails politics. But experience elsewhere suggests it can help improve civility, reduce negative campaigning and may even increase voter turnout.

Right now, candidates, especially in a crowded field, can win by mobilizing their base even while angering most others in their ward. That’s a terrible outcome.

Ranked ballots would force them to expand their campaigns and thinking in order to reach out to other voters who might list them as their second or third choice, thus increasing civility and discouraging negative campaigns and personal attacks.

New candidates should also have more opportunity to break through the unfair advantage of incumbency to win office. That could help increase diversity on council, another important goal.

And ranked ballots give citizens a sense that their vote really does matter, something they too often don’t feel under our current system.

So it really is welcome news that Toronto has once again opened the door for this. Staff will report back on the next steps this summer.

Councillors have voted to go in this direction before, and then shamefully flip-flopped. But this time their vote for pursuing change already means more than it did in 2013.

That’s because the city actually has the power to implement it this time. The province gave municipalities the power in time for the 2018 election and London, Ont., has already done it.

Political parties have long used a form of ranked ballots to choose their leaders at the provincial and federal level.

It’s time municipal voters were given the same chance.

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