Ranked Ballots Mean Better Choices for Voters

In our first blog post we explained how our current voting system is seriously flawed and how a ranked ballot system would be better. We also mentioned some of the benefits that ranked ballots offer compared to our current system. They include:

  • An end to vote splitting
  • Better choices for voters
  • Less negative campaigning
  • Drastic reductions in strategic voting
  • Election winners that actually have majority support

You can check out a brief overview of these benefits here, but we also wanted to provide a more comprehensive explanation of how ranked ballots help to produce these benefits. So, in this post, we examine how ranked ballots end vote splitting, why that’s a good thing, and explore how this leads to voters getting better choices at the ballot box. In a later post we’ll explain how ranked ballots decrease negative campaigning, drastically reduce strategic voting, and ensure that election winners actually have majority support.

Together, these posts will lay out our “theory of change” for how ranked ballots will improve Toronto’s politics. In other words, these posts will show how using ranked ballots will shift the incentives and systems that currently structure how politics happens in our city for the better.

An end to vote splitting

Vote splitting - that is, when candidates with similar political positions, platforms, or backgrounds divide the votes in support of those platforms or positions between them - is a major problem in our current system. As discussed previously, vote splitting often leads to highly undemocratic outcomes. For instance, one candidate with concentrated support from a minority of voters can win an election even though the majority of voters actually prefer the exact opposite of what that candidate is promising. As we discuss further below, the threat of vote splitting also has poisonous effects on who runs in elections, something that ends up really hurting both candidates and voters.

Ranked ballots solve the problem of vote splitting because they ensure that people’s votes provide a much fuller picture of what they want than is currently the case. This is because ranked ballots enable people to vote for their first choice as well as their second and third choices. When the voting is done, all the ballots are counted according to voters’ first choices. If one candidate achieves a majority of the votes in this first round of counting, they win the election - just as they would under the current system.

But if no candidate gets a majority in this first round of counting, then the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated from the race. Next, the ballots for the eliminated candidate are redistributed to the remaining candidates according to the second choices marked on the ballots being redistributed. All the votes are then counted again to see if any of the candidates has achieved a majority. If a candidates has achieved a majority, they win the election. If no candidate does, then the elimination/redistribution process repeats itself until a candidate achieves a majority of the remaining votes.

What this process means for vote splitting is that it no longer matters if the votes of one group of voters are initially split between numerous similar candidates. If this block of votes actually represents a majority, ultimately these votes will group together behind a candidate that represents their views. Candidates that do not have majority support will not be able to win - a major difference from today where candidates with ideas supported by only a minority often get into office and get to undemocratically implement their unpopular ideas.  

This point is a really important one because in addition to the fact that it makes our system much fairer and more democratic, it is also very important for the health of our democracy. This is because when candidates who don’t actually have majority support win elections, and then start implementing their unpopular policies, it erodes the legitimacy of the system which imposes these unpopular policies on voters, the majority of whom actually wanted something else.

Better choices for voters

One of the most important impacts of eliminating vote splitting is that it opens up our political system and reduces the power of the backroom power-brokers that heavily influence our politics behind the scenes. Because of how they do this, ranked ballots can make a major contribution to improving the diversity and quality of candidates in elections. This in turn can help to improve engagement with politics and raise voter turnout.

In a city like Toronto, where our City Council remains overwhelmingly white and male while our population is majority female and visible minority, greater diversity on City Council would be a major step forward. Thankfully, we know how to improve this. Recent research has found that in the places in the USA where ranked ballots are used, the representatives that get elected tend to be more diverse and more reflective of the communities they represent.

Anecdotally, we hear about how ranked ballots increase the diversity of representatives all the time. In Minneapolis, for example, once they started using ranked ballots, they quickly elected their first Hmong, Somali, and Hispanic councillors. More recently, when St Paul Minnesota used ranked ballots for the first time in 2017, they elected their first ever African-American mayor. Similarly, Oakland, California elected their first female and Asian-American mayor using ranked ballots and San Francisco elected their first Asian-American mayor after switching to ranked ballots.

The fact that ranked ballots help to ensure that elected representatives are more reflective of the populations they serve is one of the side-effects of ending vote splitting. One of the biggest reasons why candidates from less privileged backgrounds don’t get elected today is because they never even get on the ballot. This is because less privileged would-be candidates tend to have less access to the “old boys” networks that run the city.

Conversely, candidates who do come from more privileged backgrounds tend to be already well connected with these critical networks through family and social connections. In fact, the political power-brokers - who are so essential to helping candidates organize and recruit the volunteers they will need to run successfully - tend to favour potential candidates with whom they are already more familiar, namely those well connected individuals from privileged backgrounds. Consequently, candidates from less privileged backgrounds are often told to “wait their turn” and are pressured not to run to avoid splitting the vote with other candidates who have similar political position, platforms, or backgrounds.

Ranked ballots change this equation. Because they eliminate vote splitting by enabling people to rank more than one candidate, political power-brokers and establishment candidates have much less ability and incentive to pressure other candidates into not running. That is good news because with more and better candidates voters get richer discussions at debates, new ideas and fresh energy on the campaign trail, and more choices at the ballot box. Moreover, the more open process means more competition during the campaign, something that keeps candidates more honest and makes them work harder for votes.

Ultimately, the end of vote splitting means that backroom deals don’t determine who gets to run - and by extension who gets to win. Think about that for a minute, and just imagine how many great leaders and representatives we’ve never even had a chance to vote for because they were pushed out of the race before it even began. Now ask yourself, how much better would our city be if that had not happened? Ranked ballots can help to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.