Ranked Ballots: Coming soon to a city near you?

OPINION: Ranked ballots produce more positive elections and more diverse, representative councils. But will any Ontario municipality take the province up on its recent decision to allow them?
By Dave Meslin - Published on October 27, 2016
a municipal election sign reading, "vote here"
Ontario’s municipalities now have the option to switch to ranked ballots. (Allendria Brunjes/Canadian Press)



While the media is currently focused on federal electoral reform, especially in light of Trudeau's recent backtracking on the issue, there is a lesser-known change taking place right here in Ontario. In an unprecedented move, the province recently revised the Municipal Elections Act to allow all local councils to use ranked ballots for their elections.

Canada currently holds the unenviable position as the only country in the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) that uses the first-past-the-post system — in which the candidate with the greatest number of votes wins, even if they only have, say 20 per cent support — for all of its elections, at all levels of government. This leads to distorted election results, can create governments that are not aligned with overall public opinion, and often forces citizens to vote strategically. It's a system that also encourages negative campaigns: Since candidates do not need a broad consensus in order to be elected, they often simply appeal to a smaller political base.

All these conditions only serve to feed a growing sense of cynicism about, frustration with and apathy towards our electoral system.

Ontario’s 444 municipalities, however, now have the option of avoiding these issues and help Canada catch up to its peers, by switching to ranked ballots.

The truth is that there are many reasons for mayors and councillors to be reluctant to implement any kind of reform. Brampton’s city council, for example, recently voted against ranked ballots — unanimously — with councillors citing concerns about the system being “too difficult” for voters to understand. This, despite the fact that Brampton’s  bylaws require its own city council to use a runoff system (which relies on the same premise as ranked ballots) when it has to appoint an interim councillor.

In other words: it’s good enough for them, but not for us. It’s simple enough for them to use, but not for us.

The uncomfortable truth politicians won't admit is that they don’t like to change the systems that got them elected in the first place. Even if they once promoted reform, after being elected they become quite fond of the status quo. Let’s call this what it is: self-serving opportunism. 

Ranked ballots are, in fact, quite simple to explain and to use. In an election voters rank their choices in order of preference. A minimum threshold is set which candidates have to exceed in order to win. (For a single-winner race, like mayor, the threshold is 50 per cent). On the first round of voting, votes are counted using only the first-choice candidate on each ballot. If one candidate has passed the threshold, they win. If no candidate does, then the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped from the race and their votes are transferred to the second choice on each ballot. This process is repeated until someone passes the threshold.

Sound familiar? This is how the Liberal Party chooses its leader, and all of its local candidates. So does the Conservative Party, the NDP and the Greens.

Ranked ballots offer many benefits. First, they ensure that elected officials actually have the support of a majority of voters.

Ranked ballots also make it easier for anyone to run for office, without being accused of being a spoiler or a vote-splitter, and voters can correspondingly vote with their hearts rather than worrying about wasting their ballots — they can select a first-time or lesser-known candidate as their first choice, but then a frontrunner as their back-up second choice.

Candidates are more likely to run positive campaigns in ranked ballot systems, as they need to try to convince a broader pool of supporters, beyond their committed bases, to at least rank them second.

In a multi-member ward, or an at-large council, ranked ballots also provide proportionality, which would likely increase diversity on local councils that are currently dominated by white men. There is no doubt that our voting system is at least partially responsible for the under-representation of women and visible minorities across Ontario.

Of course, politicians can't admit they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, so they have come up with a whole menu of fabricated concerns about ranked ballots, none of which are accurate. Indeed, some of these worries border on the absurd.

We hear that ranked ballots are unfair, even though it is one of the most common voting systems in the world and is recommended by Robert’s Rules of Order.  Or we hear, as was the case in Brampton, that ranked ballots are just too complicated. Let’s be clear: the insinuation is that some voters might have trouble counting to three. Not only is this incredibly patronizing, but it reveals a deep sense of superiority, since many councils use runoff elections themselves.

Three years ago, I hopped into a car with a few colleagues and we drove for 13 hours all the way to Minneapolis, to witness a ranked ballot election first-hand. We spent a week there, watching the final days of the election: interviewing voters, candidates, politicians and journalists. It was the city’s second time using ranked ballots, and the reviews were universally positive. We were told, repeatedly, that the election campaigns were more positive, that the ballots were easy to use, that candidates reached out to communities that used to feel left out of the electoral process and that the candidates were focusing on substance rather than attacking each other’s character.

We even produced a short video so voters in Ontario could see the benefits of ranked ballots by hearing directly from those who use them. On that Minneapolis election night, we witnessed the election of a female mayor, in addition to the city’s first-ever Somali, Latina and Hmong councillors.

The door is open for Ontario’s 444 municipalities, but who will walk through it first? Our councils are required to make a decision about whether to implement ranked ballots for the next election cycle before May 1, 2017. The next six months will reveal which councils are looking out for voters, and which are simply looking out for themselves.

Dave Meslin is the Creative Director of Unlock Democracy and is currently crowd-sourcing 100 Remedies for Broken Democracy, forthcoming from Penguin Canada.

Thinking of your experience with tvo.org, how likely are you to recommend tvo.org to a friend or colleague?
Not at all Likely
Extremely Likely