A better way to vote?

Changes could be coming to Toronto elections, with council expected to consider ranked ballots next month


A proposal to change the way Toronto conducts elections will be on council’s agenda next month, even though a City Hall committee failed to endorse it on Monday.

At a meeting of the government management committee, Councillor Paul Ainslie tabled a motion to pursue ranked ballot voting as a replacement for our current “first past the post” system. The motion died on a three-three tie, with the committee split evenly between the mayor’s conservative allies and centre-left councillors.

But city procedure dictates that a staff report on voting reforms will go before council on June 11 without recommendations, and Ainslie says he will put forward his motion again.

“I think there’s a lot of politics at play around the table today,” Ainslie said. “Hopefully there will be less politics on this matter at city council as a whole.”

Several other motions that also lost on a tie, including one that would ask the province to allow non-citizen permanent residents the right to vote, are also expected to resurface at council.

David Meslin, leader of the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (RaBIT), has been championing electoral reform for the past several years, and is thrilled the issue is finally on the city’s agenda. He claims that 23 of council’s 45 members have pledged to support it if it comes to a vote.

“We’re pumped. We’re really excited that it’s moving forward,” he said outside the committee meeting Monday.

“This is a topic that three years ago no one was talking about. And now it’s on the radar, people are talking about it in City Hall.”

Under the ranked ballot (also called instant-runoff) system RaBIT advocates, instead of choosing a single candidate, voters list their top three choices in order of preference.

When the ballots are counted, if no one achieves a majority of first-choice votes, the candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated and their support transferred to voters’ second choice. The process continues until there is a clear majority winner.

Supporters of ranked ballots argue that the system would not only ensure that no one could be elected with less than 50 per cent of the vote (21 of 45 council members won without a majority in the 2010 election), but would also fundamentally improve campaigns by eliminating strategic voting and allowing candidates to run without being accused of splitting the vote.

Ranked ballot voting is used in several U.S. cities, including San Francisco, where it was instituted for board of supervisor elections in 2004 and mayoral votes in 2011. Meslin would like to see Toronto adopt it for the 2018 mayoral race and then, if all goes well, the 2022 elections for both council and the mayoralty.

But some members of the committee were skeptical that ranked ballots would be an improvement over the current system. Councillor Vince Crisanti said the run-off method would produce a “fabricated majority” that didn’t reflect the real will of voters.

Councillor Doug Ford, Mayor Rob Ford’s brother, said the only reform council should be focusing on right now is creating a U.S.-style “strong mayor” system. He moved a motion to have city staff look into doing so, but Ainslie ruled it out of order.

City staff have also raised several concerns about implementing the system, which is substantially more complicated than our current method.

The city would have to order new voting equipment and hire more workers to monitor election stations, according to the staff report that went before the committee. Experts would likely have to be hired to assist with the “complicated algorithms” involved, and vote counting would take days, instead of hours. The process “could be confusing to electors,” and lead to “frustration and longer line-ups,” the report said.

But Meslin dismisses the idea that the system is too complicated for the public to comprehend.

“Data from cities that use ranked ballots clearly shows that people understand the system and, as we’ve said before, it’s easy as one, two, three,” he said.

“People do way more complicated things when they pay their bills, balance their home budgets, when they bake a cake. I think they can figure it out.”

If council does approve Ainslie’s ranked ballot motion next month, it won’t immediately change how Torontonians vote. Only the provincial government has the authority to amend the Municipal Elections Act that governs votes in all Ontario cities.

Ainslie’s motion would ask Queen’s Park to change the law to permit ranked ballots, and a second council vote sometime in 2014 would determine if the city was willing to go ahead.

The idea would also likely have to be approved by a city-wide referendum.

Asked in an email whether the province would consider changing the act, a spokesperson for Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Linda Jeffrey responded: “The government reviews the Municipal Elections Act after every municipal election… Though the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing has not received any requests from the City of Toronto on the [issue], we carefully consider any recommendations the City makes.”

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