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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks to the media at Queen's Park in Toronto on Nov. 14, 2013. (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks to the media at Queen's Park in Toronto on Nov. 14, 2013. (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)

Wynne’s chance to take a bold step for democracy Add to ...

It would not remove Rob Ford from office; would not put an end to the ongoing circus that follows him everywhere he goes; would not change the system on the fly just to address the epic failings of one man.

But if Kathleen Wynne is looking for an invitation to do something about the state of Toronto’s politics, about problems that go way beyond its current mayor, she already has one.

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Even as the Ontario Premier says she would be open to a request from city council to allow Mr. Ford to be suspended, a far less reactive and more forward-looking motion is gathering dust on her desk.

More than five months ago, councillors voted 26 to 15 to ask the province for the ability to switch to a “ranked ballot,” in which municipal voters mark their first, second and third choices. The candidate in last place would be eliminated and his or her supporters’ votes would go to their alternate choices, with this repeated until a candidate had more than 50 per cent.

So the eventual winner would need support from a majority of voters.

Conversations with Ms. Wynne’s Liberals this week indicate they do not consider the potential reform a priority as they prepare for a likely provincial election next spring. But one might expect that a premier whose political roots are in civic activism would see an opportunity to take a bold new step in Canadian democracy, addressing a troubling phenomenon that is especially pronounced in her hometown.

Between low voter turnout and sophisticated methods of voter targeting, it is increasingly easy for politicians to get elected by narrowcasting their messages. If you need relatively few votes to win office, and you have a pretty good sense of what potential supporters want to hear, there’s little incentive to address – or, if elected, try to please – the entire electorate.

Municipal elections are especially susceptible, because they tend to have even lower turnout than federal and provincial ones, while the lack of a party system can make for a multitude of candidates splitting the vote. And in Toronto, divides between the urban core and the suburbs – which persist 16 years after amalgamation, and if anything, seem to be growing – exacerbate the danger.

While Mr. Ford’s re-election prospects are not the issue – the activist group Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto was pushing preferential voting before he became mayor, and in no scenario could a change be implemented before next year’s municipal campaign – they offer a case in point. Even as polls suggest a strong majority of Torontonians would not consider voting for him, a crowded field could allow him to win on the strength of a relatively small but dedicated base in a couple of suburbs while he ignores downtown.

It is no better, of course, that a downtown candidate could get elected by ignoring much of the suburbs. While the urban-suburban split has become more obvious since Mr. Ford was elected, few familiar with the city’s politics would suggest it will ever cease to be a factor as long as there is no incentive to try to speak to both.

Even if Ms. Wynne wants to do something about that, there is no guarantee she could. Preferential balloting tends to favour centrists, and, if it is viewed as a potential precursor to a similar change at the provincial level, the Progressive Conservatives and the New Democrats might not go along.

If so, let them explain why they do not want politicians to have to speak to all residents of the province’s fractious capital. And in the meanwhile, let Ms. Wynne explain her selective interest in deferring to city council’s wishes.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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