Easy as 1, 2,3: Ranked Ballot Voting and Ontario’s Municipal Elections
by Ashleigh Weeden
October is municipal election season in Ontario, Canada; on October 27th, communities across the province will go to the polls to select their municipal leaders for the next four years.
In recent years, voter turn-out for all elections has been, well, not great – and municipal elections in Ontario are no exception. According to a report from the Association of Municipal Managers Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario, the highest voter turn-out in the 2010 municipal election was 66% in one community and the lowest was 0.6% in another – meaning, in the worst-case scenario, virtually no one voted in their local election and even in the best case scenario, approximately one third of eligible voters didn’t cast a ballot.
Voting By Carrier Pigeon
While the drivers behind voter turn-out are complex and varied, there is an argument to be made that the way that we vote has an impact on compelling people to vote. This includes both the technicalities of how we cast our ballots, whether that’s in person, electronically, mail-in, or carrier pigeon, as well as the mechanics of how votes are counted and how candidates are ultimately elected.
Currently, the first-past-the-post system has a monopoly on elections in Canada across all three levels of government. Voters choose one candidate on their ballot for each position available and on election day, votes are added up and whoever has the most votes wins. This means that someone can win the election even with a low percentage of the total vote.
As an example: let’s say Candidate A receives 25% of the vote against 4 other candidates who receive 18%, 24%, 20%, 13% of the vote respectively. In the first-past-the-post system, even though 75% of voters cast a ballot for someone else, Candidate A has the highest percentage and wins. Not only does this look and feel democratically squicky (i.e., “not quite right”) – it can leave a large proportion of voters effectively unrepresented. It’s easy to see how this could lead to cynicism of the “does my vote really matter?”-variety on the part of the electorate.
In this same vein, Dave Meslin and the team behind RaBIT (Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto) note that the nature of the first-past-the-post system can lead to vote splitting between similar candidates and “strategic voting” behaviour by the electorate (voting for a candidate just to prevent another candidate from winning).
Borrowing a Page from the Academy Awards
So what’s the alternative? Many would suggest ranked ballot voting (also called instant run-off voting/single transferrable vote/”alternate vote”).
While the idea of ranked ballot voting or instant run-off voting may not be new to you – as run-off voting and ranked ballot voting have been used in some American cities, including San Francisco and Minneapolis – and run-off voting is quite common for political leadership conventions, the Academy Awards and many other voting-type situations, it’s a relatively new conversation when it comes to elections for Canadian municipalities.
The idea has gotten some traction in Toronto via RaBIT and has started picking up support in other communities across Ontario, including London, Barrie, Sudbury and Ottawa. In response, Premier Kathleen Wynne has stated that ranked-ballot voting will be a priority consideration as part of a general review of the Municipal Act, which governs the way municipalities operate in Ontario. Premier Wynne has gone so far as to include ranked-ballot voting in a mandate to Minister of Municipal Affairs Ted McMeekin, stating that Minister McMeekin “will ensure that the act meets the needs of communities, and that it provides municipalities with the option of using ranked ballots in future elections, starting in 2018, as an alternative to first-past-the-post.”
So what is ranked ballot voting and how does it work?
For a wordier explanation from me, keep on reading:
In a deceptively simple turn, ranked ballots do exactly what they sound like they do: they allow voters to choose multiple candidates, ranked in order of preference. When votes are counted, all of the first choice votes are added up and if a candidate wins 50% or more of the total vote, they win the position. However, if no one receives more than 50% of the total vote, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated. Votes from the eliminated candidate are transferred to the next preferred choice, the votes are counted again and if someone has a majority of the vote, they win. If not, the process repeats itself until there is a clear majority winner. In the case of instant run-off voting, this process happens automatically, rather than through repeat election cycles with individual ballots.
What Does It Mean?
Since ranked ballot elections are won by majority, not just “who has the most votes,” vote splitting becomes a non-issue. Every vote is important for every candidate. Negative campaign tactics and mud-slinging don’t work because such tactics could alienate voters that might have otherwise placed a candidate higher on their ranked list – damaging a candidate’s chances of getting elected if the election goes through multiple rounds before reaching the majority vote. This could lead to more inclusive and diverse election environment.
From the management perspective, ranked ballot voting is a more complex and lengthy process that could make elections more expensive to run than the traditional first-past-the-post system. Detractors have also argued that ranked ballots would confuse voters – but I think that’s more than a little patronizing to the electorate. And ranked ballots still don’t really move the needle on proportional representation at the municipal level; to paraphrase Andrew Coyne’s article on the subject, 50% of the vote would still give someone 100% of the power. However, Ontario’s municipalities don’t operate on the party system and, as such, most proportional election models simply can’t be applied in a way that makes sense.
For the electorate, London blogger Thomas Thayer argues that, ranked ballots ask a lot more of the voter than first-past-the-post. In practice, ranked ballots don’t really require voters to rank all candidates – however, in an ideal ranked ballot election, voters would need to be familiar enough with all candidates running for all positions in order to rank them in order of preference. To steal from Yoda, with greater choice comes greater responsibility to be informed about those choices.
While ranked ballots won’t fix the problem of people just simply not showing up on election day, it certainly seems like they could be a meaningful and much-needed way to hit the refresh button on voter engagement in municipal elections. What better cure for the “does my vote really count?”-malaise that’s souring the civic spirit these days than an electoral system that ensures majority support through greater voter choice?
While we won’t get to see what happens with ranked ballots as an option in the 2014 municipal election, I look forward to seeing what happens in 2018. Until then: time to sharpen those pencils – happy election season from North of the 49th!
For more information, please see the great resources put together by the team at RaBIT.