Why We Need Ranked Ballots

RaBIT volunteers often get asked why we want to change a system that some people think is “working just fine”. This is an important question and one we need to be able to answer clearly and persuasively.

Between now and the Toronto elections on October 22nd, we’ll be using this blog to answer that question and to build the case for switching to ranked ballots. Every couple of weeks we’ll be bringing you research, analysis, and first-hand accounts from a diversity of perspectives that clearly demonstrate how switching to ranked ballots will improve our local democracy and help make Toronto a better place to live.

This post is the first in that series and in it, we tackle the big overarching question we just raised: why should Toronto change the way it votes?

Why Ranked Ballots?

As we will make clear over the course of 2018, there are many different reasons why we want to change how Toronto votes. In the next few posts, we’ll explain how switching to ranked ballots would bring a whole host of benefits including:

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

However, given that this is our first post, we wanted to set the stage by highlighting the most fundamental reason why switching to ranked ballots would be a tremendously positive step for Toronto politics: that the current system is simply not democratic enough and, because of this, it is hurting the most vulnerable people in our city.

What is voting good for?

To properly understand what’s wrong with our current system, it’s worth taking a step back to think about why we vote at all.

The basic idea behind voting in a democratic society is that, because everyone in our society is equal and we all possess the same  human rights and fundamental dignity, we should all have an equal say in how our community is governed. In a representative democracy like we have in Toronto, this takes the form of a vote for the representative whose platform and character combine to best express our vision for how we want our community to be governed. Ultimately, when all the votes are tallied, the person who best represents the combined vision of the community is elected and they go on to implement that combined vision.

Or at least, that’s what is supposed to happen.

In the real world, no voting system is perfect and no system is able to produce a perfectly democratic outcome. But some systems are much better at using votes to faithfully translate people’s visions for their community into government action than others. Unfortunately, our current system is particularly poor at accomplishing this.

Too often under our current system, voters do not feel like they can use their vote to express their vision because they believe that their preferred candidate doesn’t have a chance of winning. Because of this, voters vote for their second, third, or fourth choice instead, thinking that at least the third-choice candidate that they’re okay with has a chance and will hopefully beat that other candidate that they REALLY don’t want to win. This is dispiriting and undermines people's faith in politics. Indeed, sometimes voters feel so unable to use their vote to get what they actually want that they don’t even bother to vote at all.

(On the other hand, some people say that our current system works well because the first choice is the most important one. Try telling that to voters who never really get to vote for their first choice because they know that doing so would waste their vote.)

What’s more, the current system also enables candidates to win without a majority of even those votes that do get cast. In Toronto, just in the last election, we had candidates get elected with 28%, 25%, even 17% of the vote. It’s hard to see how a system that allows elections to be won with such low percentages is doing a good job of translating the visions of as many voters as possible into representation in their government.

Unfortunately, the current system also has some even bigger problems.

Turning Losers into Winners

Under our current system, it is often the case that the “winning” candidate isn’t a real winner. In fact, many of these “winners” would actually lose if they were forced to run one-on-one against the second or third place finisher. It’s hard to reconcile this fact with the idea that living in a democracy means that the person who wins an election is the person who best represents the most voters and best embodies the voters’ vision for their community.

How could this happen? Well, consider the following, albeit symplified, hypothetical election in which the main issue is whether the new community centre should be painted purple or yellow. A strong majority of voters (say 72%) want it to be painted purple and there are 3 candidates who are running on promises to do so. One wants to paint it mauve, another wants to paint it violet and a third prefers periwinkle. A final candidate wants to paint it yellow. The results of the election are as follows:

  • Mauve Candidate (23%)
  • Violet Candidate (24%)
  • Periwinkle Candidate (25%)
  • Yellow Candidate (28%)

Under the current system, the Yellow candidate is the winner. Consider that: despite 72% of voters wanting the community centre to be painted purple, what they’ll get is a yellow one. Moreover, that’s what they’ll get even if every single one of the voters who voted for a Purple candidate would rather any one of the three Purple candidates to win instead of the Yellow candidate. That’s what they’ll get even if the Yellow candidate would lose a one-on-one election against any one of the three Purple candidates.

Now imagine this was a real election and, instead of colour selection, the issue was transit, housing, property taxes, or homeless shelters. Even if it’s only 60% vs 40% or 55% vs 45%, how is it fair or democratic that the minority gets to impose its preference on the majority?

Some might argue that, sure that might seem unfair, but rules are rules. They might even say that the Purple candidates should have gotten together before the election and decided that one or two of them should have dropped out. (Sometimes this is what actually does happen.)

These may be the rules right now, but they don’t have to be - we’re allowed to change them if they aren’t doing a good job. And why shouldn’t we when there is a better system that automatically avoids these kinds of unfair results?

Moreover, why wouldn’t we change a system that discourages good candidates from running? Think about those Purple candidates deciding which of them should drop out of the race. You can probably guess which candidates are the ones that usually get pushed out in real life. It’s the female candidates, the Indigenous candidates, the candidates who are people of colour, the candidates from the LGBTQ community, and the younger candidates. Basically, they’re any candidate who doesn’t come from privilege. Every wonder why City Council doesn’t look like Toronto? This is a big part of the answer.



A Time for Change

Why do we want to change the way we vote? Because too often the current system produces results that are undemocratic and do not reflect the will of the people. Because the current system is often profoundly unfair and produces results that are unrepresentative of what and who Toronto really is and disconnected from what Toronto really wants and needs. And, most of all, because there is a better system out there that can help solve these problems that will be easy to implement.

Toronto is facing a slate of critical challenges ranging from an inability to build the transit that we desperately need, to an out-of-control housing market that is making Toronto an un-affordable place to live for more and more people, to increasingly divided communities that are losing faith in the institutions that are supposed to serve them.

Ranked ballots cannot solve all these problems by themselves. But by ensuring that the Mayor and City Council we elect actually represent what most people really want, switching to ranked ballots would give us a lot more confidence that real progress is possible.