Why Ranked Ballots are the Right Reform, Right Now, for Toronto

Rhys Goldstein is a voting systems enthusiast who has developed a number of educational resources on electoral reform. Rhys generally advocates for proportional representation, but believes ranked ballots could significantly improve municipal elections in Toronto. (Thumbnail photo credit: Jérôme Decq)

Not a fan of vote splitting? Then you’ll agree Toronto needs a new voting system. But what type of system should we adopt for our municipal elections? The answer is — at least at the present moment — that we should switch to ranked ballots, even if it doesn’t get us all the way to proportional representation. To understand why, read on…

Ballots and Districts

Broadly speaking, there are two aspects of Toronto’s voting system that could change: the ballots that we mark and the districts that our councillors represent.

Aspect #1: Ballots: Toronto’s current ballot allows us to indicate our support for only one candidate. This is problematic for a variety of reasons that are well covered in a previous blog post. One way of eliminating these problems is to switch to ranked ballots, which would allow us to indicate our 1st, 2nd, and 3rd choices instead of just one. In other words, if there are two candidates you like, you could give them your 1st- and 2nd-choice votes. If your 1st choice is eliminated, your vote transfers to your 2nd choice.

Aspect #2: Districts: Toronto’s current districts — or “wards” — are each represented by one councillor. In theory, we could replace these single-member districts with larger multi-member districts which would be represented by more than one councillor. Doing so could move us toward a more proportional voting system, where the percentage of representatives with a certain set of priorities more closely matches the percentage of voters with those same priorities.

Examples of Voting Systems in Use

The table below illustrates the 4 categories of voting systems arising from the two types of ballots and two types of districts I’ve just described. In each category I've provided three examples of jurisdictions which use that type of system.

 

 

Ballot Type

 

 

1st Choice Only

Ranked Ballots

District Type

Single-Member Districts

1. Toronto

2. Ontario

3. Canada

1. London, ON

2. San Francisco

3. Australia

Multi-Member Districts

1. Zurich

2. Sweden

3. Netherlands

1. Cambridge, MA

2. Tasmania

3. Ireland

 

Toronto currently uses the first past the post system where voters mark an “X” to elect a single representative from their district. The same system is used for all provincial and federal elections in Canada.

Ranked ballots in single-member districts are used in the Australian House of Representatives and in a number of US cities, including San Francisco and Minneapolis. The city council of London, Ontario, has recently voted to adopt this system, taking advantage of recent provincial legislation that allows municipalities to choose to use ranked ballots for their local elections.

Sweden, the Netherlands, and the city of Zurich are among the many jurisdictions that use multi-member districts, but without using ranked ballots.

Tasmania, Ireland, and the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, are among the jurisdictions that use ranked ballots in conjunction with multi-member districts.

Why Ranked Ballots?

Using ranked ballots without multi-member districts would mean putting in place a better system for Toronto, but it still wouldn’t be a proportional one. Nevertheless, at this moment in time, we should switch to using ranked ballots for Toronto and defer the conversation about moving to multi-member districts for now. Why do I believe this is the right thing to do? There are two main reasons:

Ranked ballots are more likely to actually be adopted in the near future

The reality is we are not going to see Toronto switch to multi-member districts any time soon. In fact, even groups such as Fair Vote Canada, an electoral reform group that advocates for proportional representation, are currently focusing their efforts on higher levels of government.

A big part of the reason why moving to multi-member districts would be much harder than switching to ranked ballots is because transitioning to multi-member districts would require councillors to agree that their wards should double or triple in size, and that they should have to compete directly with fellow councillors for re-election. While this might be a good outcome from the perspective of citizens, we are nowhere close to convincing councillors to voluntarily make their lives harder in this way.

By contrast, ranked ballots have been gaining public and political support over a number of years. They require a fairly minimal degree of sacrifice on the part of city councillors, and the provincial legislation enabling this reform has already been passed. As previously mentioned, London, Ontario, has already decided to adopt ranked ballots and will be using them in the upcoming municipal elections in October 2018. There is a very real possibility that Toronto City Council could be convinced to switch to ranked ballots for the 2022 municipal election.

Multi-member districts are of greater benefit at higher levels of government

The other reason that multi-member districts are a less important priority at the municipal level is the lack of official parties at Toronto City Hall. One of the key advantages of multi-member districts is that they make it more difficult for parties to focus their campaigns and policies on a small number of competitive districts, ignoring voters in other districts. This is why manyincluding myselffeel proportional representation is the way to go at the provincial and federal level.

In Toronto, however, city councillors are not officially affiliated with political parties. The absence of parties makes multi-member districts less urgent, meaning that ranked ballots, which are a reasonable and readily achievable improvement over the status quo, ought to be our first priority.

A Time and A Place for Every Voting System

Ranked ballots have gained a lot of support since the campaign began in Toronto about a decade ago, and from across the political spectrum. From the media, National Post columnist Andrew Coyne, a dedicated advocate of proportional representation who gave a keynote speech at Fair Vote Canada’s 2017 Annual General Meeting, has written in support of ranked ballots for Toronto. Toronto Star columnists Edward Keenan and Royson James have done so as well.

From a more left-wing and activist perspective, Leadnow, an organization that campaigns for proportional representation at the provincial and federal level, has also advocated for ranked ballots at the municipal level in Ontario.

Multi-member districts have many advantages, and we certainly could use a lot more of them in Canada at all levels. But right now, ranked ballots are the right reform for Toronto.