Ontario is mulling legislation that would give municipalities the option to switch to ranked ballot voting systems, The Globe and Mail has learned.
The idea would, if enacted, represent a sea change in the way elections are done in Canada, opening the door for the first votes in this country to be conducted without the traditional first-past-the-post system in decades.
Sources familiar with the discussions say Premier Kathleen Wynne is keen on the idea, and there have been talks within the governing Liberals about moving the matter forward, likely as a private member’s bill. Any changes would not come into force until the 2018 election.
The plan, however, faces hurdles. Some Grits are uncomfortable enacting the policy now for fear it could become a hot potato in the runup to municipal elections this fall, sources said. The party also controls only a minority of seats in the legislature, meaning it would require support from opposition members to pass. A private member’s bill, however, would likely allow for a free vote in the Assembly, making it easier for Grits who aren’t sold on the idea to vote against it, while supportive Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats could vote in favour.
Under a ranked-ballot system, voters number their choice of candidate. If no candidate wins a majority of number-one picks, then voters’ second and third choices are tabulated until a candidate achieves more than 50 per cent of the vote.
Toronto city council voted last June to ask the province for the power to switch from first-past-the-post to ranked balloting. But Ontario is now looking at going further to allow all municipalities to change their method of voting. Whether legislation would offer a choice between the current system and ranked balloting only or whether other methods of voting, such as proportional representation, would also be allowed, is not clear.
Dave Meslin of the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto, the group that successfully campaigned for council to embrace voting reform, said he’s had “positive reaction” from all three provincial parties to the idea.
He points to the fact that party leadership campaigns and nomination races already use such a method to argue it is not a particularly radical concept. Municipalities should ultimately have the right to choose the system they want, he said.
“The province should let every city in the province have this flexibility,” he said in an interview. “It’s such a normal concept we’re using all the time.”
RaBIT volunteer Chris Drew, who is also a Liberal Party activist, contends Ms. Wynne has set a precedent by granting the wishes of local councils on other matters, such as when she replaced a planned light-rail line in Scarborough with a subway extension this summer after Toronto councillors asked for it.
“Our Premier … listened to the wishes of council on other issues, such as transit,” he said.
Ranked balloting was used in some Canadian provincial elections until the 1950s, but is currently not used. It is employed in other parts of the world, including in Australian federal and state elections, and in some U.S. cities.
It is not clear when a bill on the matter will be brought forward. The government already has an ambitious legislative agenda this spring, with plans to table bills to create a new provincial pension system, peg the minimum wage to inflation and create a dedicated source of revenue for transit. It also must put forward a budget, which could trigger a spring election.
Changing the rules would also take some time on the legal and policy side, as it would entail extensive rewriting of existing laws, which are all crafted under the assumption that first past the post is the only voting system allowed.