Frequently Asked Questions About Ranked Choice Voting

What are we proposing?

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Ranked choice voting is a small and simple change that requires no amendments to the current ward boundaries or structures of City Council. The system we are proposing is also often called "instant runoff voting" or the "alternative vote" in the UK. The system uses ranked ballots, also known as "preferential ballots."

Despite all the confusing names, the concept is quite simple and is already used across Canada and across the world. Voters simply mark their choice on the ballot, ranking the candidates in order of preference. It's as easy as 1, 2, 3!

We are proposing the City of Toronto elect its councillors and mayor using ranked choice voting.

What does ranked choice voting do?

Answer

Ranked choice, or instant runoff, voting ensures that no one can win with less than 50% of the vote. It eliminates the risk of "vote splitting", where two or more candidates "split" the votes of a certain group. It also means that no one has to vote strategically – you can vote for the candidate you want each time.

Ranked choice voting strongly discourages negative campaigning tactics, as candidates are trying to achieve "second choice" status from all their opponents' supporters. With ranked ballots, candidates aren't forced to drop out of a race to prevent vote splitting. That means voters have more options to choose from – and more diversity. 

Click here for more about the benefits of ranked choice voting.

How does our current system work?

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Right now, voters choose one candidate on their ballot for each position available (Mayor, Councillor, and School Trustee). On election day, the votes are added up and whoever has the most votes is the winner. This system allows someone to "win" the election even they only have 20% of the vote. Vote splitting and strategic voting play a major role, forcing candidates to drop out early and encouraging negative campaigning.

How does ranked choice voting work?

Answer

Ranked ballots allow voters to choose multiple candidates, ranked in order of preference. It's easy as 1, 2, 3.

On election day all of the first choice votes are added up (just as we do with our current system). If someone wins 50% or more of the vote, they are declared the winner and the election is over. However, if no one receives more than 50%, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated from the race.

In a conventional runoff, a second round of voting would take place at this point and all the supporters of the eliminated candidate would vote for their second choice. With ranked ballots, there is no need for costly multi-round voting because voters have already marked their second choice. If your preferred candidate is eliminated from the race, your vote is automatically transferred to your second choice. Again, the votes are counted and if someone has a majority, they are declared the winner.

If not, another candidate eliminated and it repeats until there is a majority winner. 

Is this an obscure system? Who uses runoff voting?

Answer

Runoff voting is quite common, and is used all around us.

In 1996, the Ontario Liberal Party held a leadership convention. Hundreds of delegates had to choose between seven candidates. When they counted all the votes, a man named Gerrard Kennedy had the most votes. Trailing far behind, in fourth place, was a fellow named Dalton McGuinty. If they were using Toronto's election system, the race would have been over. But no one had a majority of the votes, so they proceeded to have a series of "runoff" votes, with the least popular candidate removed on each round. Dalton McGuinty was declared the winner on the fifth ballot because he was able to build the broadest level of support from the voters.

All of Canada's parties, and all of Ontario's parties use runoff voting to choose their leaders. They also use runoff voting to nominate their candidates in every riding, in every election.

In the McGuinty example, they were using a "multi-round" model, where participants had to vote five times. With a ranked ballot, they only would have voted once.

Over the last decade, all of our federal parties have implemented use of a ranked ballot. This allows all members to vote (in advance) not just those attending the convention.

How popular are ranked ballots? In 2010, even the Academy Awards adopted ranked ballots to choose Best Picture! This was done to avoid a situation where a movie could "win" with only 20% support in the Academy. The NHL and NBA also use ranked ballots for their awards.

Cities all across the USA use runoff voting to elect their mayor and/or city council. Recently, many of those cities (including San Francisco and Minneapolis) have modified their system, switching to a ranked ballot and an instant runoff (full list here).

Why instant runoff voting, rather than multi-round runoff voting?

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There are a few reasons why instant runoffs are preferable to multi-round runoffs. The main factor is the cost. Having two or three citywide elections, instead of just one, is quite expensive.

More importantly, however, is the impact on voter turnout. It's hard enough to get people out to ONE election. With multiple rounds, participation will likely decline with each round.

Does ranked choice voting give us proportional results?

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No. The Ranked Ballot Initiative is proposing a small and simple change that does not replace our "winner take all" system.

Proportional elections are used all across the world and are the best way to ensure fair results. Proponents of voting reform have long advocated for proportional models at the federal and provincial levels.

At the municipal level in Toronto, however, we don't have official parties, so most proportional models don't apply (including any "list" system, such as Mixed Member Proportional). The only proportional model that could be used in Toronto is a multimember ward model, such as STV (Single Transferable Vote). Wards would be clustered into much larger wards, with multiple Councillors representing the area. For example, we could have 9 wards, each with 5 members – instead of our current 44 wards with 1 Councillor each.

These wards would provide an element of proportionality (where a group representing 20% of the vote could win one seat out of five). But there are also drawbacks – such as the size of the wards. Each ward would have over 300,000 voters, making it impossible for a candidate to knock on every door or run a small, independent campaign. The financial cost of running a campaign in a large ward could become an obstacle, reducing choice and diversity.

We shouldn't close the door on proportional municipal government. But it needs a lot of thorough discussion to ensure that the change would be a step forward not backwards. In the meantime, ranked choice/instant runoff voting is small and easy change we should implement as soon as possible. It's easy to explain, it's commonly used, it has broad-based multi-partisan support, and it would greatly improve our elections and our political culture.

Should we use ranked choice voting for our provincial and federal elections too?

Answer

Not necessarily. Since we have an established party system at the national and federal levels, there are more options to explore.

Ranked choice/instant runoff voting is not proportional and wouldn't fully address the problem of distorted results. In fact, in a multiparty system, instant runoff voting could potentially compound the problem and distort the results even further. Proportional models include mixed member proportional (MMP) and single transferable vote (STV). To learn more about proportional representation, please visit Unlock Democracy Canada and Fair Vote Canada.

What can I do to help RaBIT?

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We can fix our system, but only with your support. The Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto is an independent, community-driven initiative. We don't have big budgets for advertising, so we are relying on you to spread the word! Please subscribe to our newsletter, join our Facebook page, follow our Tweets, become a volunteer, make a donation, and tell your friends about the project! Thank you!