‘There should be local choice’: London fights to keep ranked-ballot voting

The province wants to axe ranked-choice voting. London wants to keep it. Does the city have any options?
By Mary Baxter - Published on Oct 30, 2020
A poll worker gives a voter her ballot at a polling location in London’s city hall on October 22, 2018. (Geoff Robins/CP)

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LONDON — Shawna Lewkowitz doesn’t understand why the Ontario government is axing ranked-ballot voting. “It didn't seem, and it still doesn't to me, to fit under what they should be concerned about, particularly at this moment, when we are in the COVID-19 pandemic,” the London resident says of the proposal contained in Bill 218, Supporting Ontario's Recovery and Municipal Elections Act, 2020, which was tabled earlier this month.

Deputy mayor Jesse Helmer, who pushed for the city to adopt ranked-choice voting, was also alarmed. On Tuesday, he and Councillor Josh Morgan urged council to oppose the change and ask the province to exempt the city from the legislation: their motion passed 14 to one. “People are pretty happy with the change [to ranked ballots],” he says of the motivation behind the motion. “But the second reason is that it should really be up to municipalities whether they want to switch to ranked ballots or not.” It’s the principle that's important, he says: “There should be local choice; London made that choice.” Other municipalities, such as Kingston and Cambridge, are also interested in the system.

London is the only jurisdiction in Canada that elects its municipal council using a ranked-choice voting system — all other municipalities and levels of government use first-past-the-post, which awards the win to the candidate with the most votes. Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank a number of candidates depending on their preferences, and awards the win to the first candidate to receive more than 50 per cent of the votes — or, when a majority vote can't be reached, the candidate with the greatest number of votes. London introduced the system, which can involve several rounds of vote counts, for the 2018 municipal election (voters in that election could vote for up to three people for both mayor and councillor).

The process is used in several jurisdictions in Europe and the United States (New York City plans to adopt the system for primary and special elections in 2021). Proponents say it is more democratic than first-past-the-post because it ensures that elected candidates have majority votes and prevents vote splitting between candidates with similar perspectives. Studies in the U.S. indicate that the approach helps diversify representation because it creates greater civility among candidates as they’re campaigning, says Lewkowitz, who is president of the Urban League of London, an umbrella organization of neighbourhood groups and grassroots organizations, and founder of Women and Politics, a local advocacy group. (Both groups supported the local effort to introduce ranked ballots.)

In the 2018 London municipal election, the approach encouraged greater diversity among candidates in certain areas, Lewkowitz says, pointing to the fact that Arielle Kayabaga, the city’s first Black female councillor, has cited ranked ballots as a factor in her decision to run. Lewkowitz also notes that a diverse roster of nine candidates competed in Ward 8 for a seat vacated by a long-term councillor. Ed Holder, the city’s mayor, notes that, while he led the vote in both the first and final count (as all councillors did as well), what the system did do was give him a majority mandate. “I got something like 36 per cent on the first ballot, and on final ballot I got 60 per cent of those who voted,” he says. “That's huge.”

Zack Taylor, director of the Western University Centre for Urban Policy and Local Governance, says that some of these claims, such as those related to improving diversity and civility, are hard to prove. “You can't run the same election without ranked ballots at the same time, so you never know what would have happened if you ran it under first past the post,” he explains, adding that it’s difficult to draw conclusions after a single election: “You need to have a pattern before you can make strong judgments about what the effects are.”

In at least one way, London’s election process didn’t appear to increase candidate diversity. Twenty per cent of candidates were women, for instance, compared with 22 per cent of candidates in 2014. Voter turnout didn’t see a bump. And vicious attacks on candidates — one candidate’s signs were vandalized, and anonymous websites smeared two other candidates — marred the election.

One claim that cannot be disputed, Taylor says, is that the system wastes fewer votes than first-past-the-post because it provides more opportunity for people to make voting choices.

Both Taylor and Helmer wonder why the province took issue with ranked ballots. “It’s not the province that’s on the hook for those [election] costs,” Helmer says. “It's just creating a problem where they don't need to create a problem,” says Taylor. “And the architecture of the regulation of municipal elections remains intact — fundraising, all that kind of stuff.”

Other than asking the provincial government to change its mind, there is not much the municipality can do: “It can get mad, and it can mobilize the public and send petitions — but it really has no legal means of resisting legislative change any more than Toronto did,” Taylor says, referring to the province’s move to reduce the size of that city’s council. “Municipalities are creatures of the province under our constitutional arrangement.”

He and others question Premier Doug Ford’s claim that the process was confusing. “The citizens of London understood what they were doing,” Taylor says. According to a recent Unlock Democracy Canada report that examined the outcome, 68 per cent of ballots used the ranking process.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing told TVO.org via email that the proposed reform is part of a larger effort to streamline the elections process and save municipalities money. Earlier this year, the province introduced changes to create a single voters’ list by 2024 that could be used for municipal and provincial elections. The current proposal will establish a consistent electoral process across all three levels of government, they said, adding that “the City of London’s ranked ballot election in 2018 came at an additional $515,000 cost to taxpayers, and would have achieved the exact same electoral results as it would have under the previous first-past-the-post system.”

According to a recent Western University Centre for Urban Policy and Local Governance study, of the added costs, 39 per cent went to consultation and outreach to evaluate the system before its adoption and to prepare the community for the change. An external audit, much of which was a one-time expense, accounted for a further 28 per cent of the additional costs. At the time of the election, Cathy Saunders, city clerk, also said that the extra expense included costs related to population growth.

Holder says that council will send a letter to the premier and the minister of municipal affairs and housing urging that municipalities be allowed to make their own decisions about their electoral processes. Staff have not yet calculated the cost of switching back to first-past-the-post, he says, but, regardless, the expense won’t be one of the points raised. “I don't want to argue the money, because I don't want them to promise to write a cheque and say, ‘Go away.’ What I want them to do is to have us maintain our system.”

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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