Ranked ballots at the municipal level

Today, Toronto City Council has an important choice to make: to move one step closer to a ranked ballot election in 2022 or to pass, once again, on implementing electoral reform.

Responding to the non-partisan grassroots advocacy of Ontarians who wanted more choice, and building on the private members’ bills of Mitzie Hunter and Jonah Schein, former Minister of Municipal Affairs Ted McMeekin and his Parliamentary Assistant Lou Rinaldi paved the way for all 444 municipalities in Ontario to have the option of using ranked ballots.

My own city of London was the only municipality to make the change for 2018.

Ranked ballots give voters more freedom to fully express their preferences. In London, instead of choosing just one candidate, voters were able to rank up to three candidates for councillor and for Mayor. London Mayor Ed Holder was ultimately elected, starting with 34% of first-choice votes and ultimately receiving 59% support.

Ranked ballots promise to increase civility during elections as candidates vie for second-choice support. In a ranked ballot system, candidates can’t rely on just discrediting or criticizing an opponent as being a viable campaign strategy. Instead, the system incentivizes candidates to build a broad base of support on the basis of their own merits and leaves open the possibility for common ground between folks running for office. 

Most importantly, ranked ballots can also broaden the range of candidates who seek elected office. In London, my former student and friend Arielle Kayabaga said she would not have run for council under a first-past-the-post system. But under the new ranked ballot system, she did run. She received the most first-choice votes in a crowded field and was ultimately elected with 52% support in the 7th round of counting. At 27 years old, she became the first Black woman ever elected to London’s City Council.

We know from research that when women run, they win in equal proportion to men. However, it can be much harder to persuade women to put their names on a ballot. There are many factors that keep women from running for office, most of which are societal, cultural, and complex. But if we want to see more women run municipally, something we can change, at an institutional level, is the first-past-the-post system that keeps challengers out because of concerns about vote-splitting.

Although London is a leader in Canada, ranked ballots are more common south of the border, including cities like Minneapolis and San Francisco. Kingston and Cambridge have signalled they are moving towards ranked ballots for 2022 and New York City just voted to use ranked ballots in special and primary elections.

Using a ranked ballot is simple. It’s as easy as ranking 1, 2, 3.

But implementing ranked ballots requires political courage. Many incumbent politicians will find reasons to avoid making the change. Often they say the system is “too complicated,” which insults the intelligence of voters. Or they say that the extra cost of gathering much more information from voters about their preferences is too expensive.

There is a role here for the provincial government. Providing municipalities with the option of using ranked ballots was a great step forward. But also providing modest provincial funding to municipalities, on a per capita basis, for public education about ranked balloting and the elections themselves, would assist municipalities as they transition to ranked ballots. As a candidate for Leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, I will commit to that collaborative approach.

Electoral reform is possible. London has shown that it can be done, and done successfully, at the local level here in Ontario. This week, I hope Toronto City Council steps closer to joining this growing movement for more freedom for voters to choose, more diverse candidates, and a better electoral system.