Can voters adapt to a more complicated ballot? London is counting on it

On October 22, London will become the first city in Ontario to use the ranked-ballot system — whether voters are ready for it or not
By Mary Baxter - Published on September 6, 2018
Two hands hold a paper ballot.
At a ranked-ballot information session in London, attendees could pick between such mock mayoral candidates as Mac Apple and Cavendish Banana. (Mary Baxter)

LONDON — In a cramped meeting room at a public library on a sweltering night in August, a dozen people turned up to learn how their votes would be counted during this fall’s municipal election.

 

Glynis Tucker, a city employee, handed out black markers and dummy ballots for attendees to practise with. In the place of mayoral candidates, they featured fruits — Mac Apple, Cavendish Banana, and Bartlett Pear — and for councillors, voters had their pick of cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny, Tweety Bird, George Jetson, and Fiona Shrek. 

 

Tucker then explained the new system that London will introduce for the October 22 vote. “You’re going to have the option of writing your first choice, your second choice, and third choice for mayor,” she said. Ditto for councillors. Voters can make up to three choices per office. “You can mark one, you can mark two, but up to three.”

 

Next month, London will become the first Ontario municipality to adopt ranked-ballot voting, a system also used in Australia to elect members to its house of representatives, as well as officials at the state and municipal levels; in Ireland to elect its president; and in U.S. cities such as  Minneapolis and San Francisco. (Earlier this year, Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives used ranked ballots to select their party leader.)

 

Voters will have the option to rank candidates by order of preference. The system uses instant runoff elimination rounds to determine winners: the winning candidate must have 50 per cent of the vote plus one to win; in the event that no one reaches that threshold in a round of voting, the bottom finisher is eliminated, and their voters’ second and third choices are redistributed in the next round.

 

Proponents of preferential voting say the system ensures that elected candidates have earned the support of a majority of voters — in the first-past-the-post system, a candidate can win with a count that falls short of a majority. (In the 2014 municipal election, this happened in six of London’s 14 wards.) Ranked ballots also offer voters the opportunity of seeing a second or third choice elected to office if their first choice doesn’t win.

 

In London, Ward 7 councillor Josh Morgan and local groups, such as Women and Politics, had long advocated the switch to ranked-ballot voting as a way of encouraging more people to run for office — and improving voter turnout. “It has proven that it helps get more women and minorities running for the election,” said Dharshi Lacey, a member of Women and Politics, at the August information session.

 

City surveys had also found a tiny margin of support for the approach. After the province changed the Municipal Elections Act in 2016 to allow ranked balloting at the municipal level, council voted in favour of making the change for this year’s election. Other municipalities, including Toronto, Hamilton, Sudbury, and Thunder Bay, also considered the system but ultimately rejected it.

 

London council’s May 2017 decision to make the change was far from unanimous: nine voted for, five against. During the special council meeting, staff also warned that the city might encounter a number of pitfalls adapting to a new and unfamiliar voting system.

 

One potential problem: spiralling costs. In 2017, staff estimated that the change in voting systems would add $500,000 to London’s election expenditures, which had been $1.7 million in 2014 [PDF]; the outgoing deputy mayor pegged the cost at $350,000. In an interview with TVO.org, London city clerk Cathy Saunders said that the city expects to spend $1.9 million on next month’s election, although she noted that the increase also includes costs related to population growth.

 

Saunders said one of the biggest challenges staff faced was developing and testing a specialized algorithm to count votes. By late August, though, that testing was well in hand.

 

Another worry is that voters won’t understand the new system or even know that it’s been put in place. But Saunders said the public’s awareness of ranked-ballot voting is growing. So far, the city has held 80 information sessions; it will put on as many as five per day into October. Turnout has varied widely. Some meetings have drawn as many as 150 people, Saunders said. (Instructions and videos are also available on the city's website.)

 

It’s not clear whether these efforts are reaching less engaged voters, who could be more likely to end up confused by the new system. Last month’s meeting at the library, for example, drew several people who could be considered politically savvy, including a city employee who had come with his wife, a council candidate, and a woman who had worked in the recent provincial election.

 

Compounding the possibility of voter confusion is the fact that London’s school-board elections will still be decided by the first-past-the-post system, because provincial legislation doesn’t allow ranked-ballot voting for school trustees. That means voters will have to navigate two different systems while casting their single municipal ballot.

 

Another problem is speed: counting ranked ballots can be a slow and complicated process. The traditional system, by contrast, typically offers results on election night.

 

In 2009, when Minneapolis first introduced ranked voting, the winners were established three weeks after election night. “We’re not anticipating that it will take that long,” Saunders said. First-round winners will be announced on election night, but to prevent fatigue-related errors, she said, staff will wait until the next day to count ballots in races that advance beyond the first round.

 

If London can successfully overcome these challenges, it’s possible that other Ontario cities will follow its lead. Michael Di Lullo, city clerk for nearby Cambridge, said his municipality is interested but wants to take the process “one step at a time.” Cambridge has included a referendum question on next month’s election ballot to gauge the public’s interest in a ranked-ballot system. Kingston has done the same.

 

Back at the library, participants were walked through the vote-tallying process using already prepared dummy ballots. The results were announced within minutes. In the third round of voting, Tucker declared Mac Apple the mayoral winner: the mock candidate was the first to obtain the required 50 per cent of the vote plus one.

 

What did attendees think of the experience? Retiree Lynn LaRouche believes that, in order to be worth the pains of transition, ranked-ballot voting will have to be fairer — and be perceived as fairer — than the old system: “Change for change’s sake is not really any good.”

 

On the other hand, Harry Cartner, who is also retired, and who plans to volunteer at the polls, said he likes the idea that a candidate must secure a majority vote to win. “I hope it works,” he said. “I think it will put us on the map.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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