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Election workers unload ballot boxes at City Hall in London, Ont. on Monday, October 22, 2018.

Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press

Ontario Premier Doug Ford defended his surprise move to quash the ability of the province’s municipalities to adopt ranked-ballot election systems on Wednesday, saying the current model – known as first past the post – has worked since Confederation.

Asked why he would strip municipalities of the option to bring in ranked ballots, even though his own Progressive Conservative Party used such a system when it chose him as leader in 2018, Mr. Ford suggested the change would confuse voters.

“We’ve been voting this way since 1867," Mr. Ford said during his daily COVID-19 briefing on Wednesday. "We don’t need any more complications.”

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The proposed amendments to the Municipal Elections Act were tacked onto a bill introduced on Tuesday that would also limit the legal liability of businesses and organizations, including long-term care homes, from COVID-19.

The amendments would strike out a provision brought in by the Liberal government in 2017 that allows municipalities to choose to switch to one of two ranked-ballot systems, which give voters the option of ranking candidates in order of their preference, instead of choosing just one to support.

Advocates say ranked ballots, common in other countries, ensure the winner can more often claim to have won a majority of votes – unlike the current first-past-the-post system, which only requires a plurality and can crown a winner much less than 50 per cent of the vote.

Only London, Ont., used ranked ballots in 2018. But in a plebiscite that year, more than 60 per cent of voters in Kingston cast a ballot in favour of making the switch. Toronto was contemplating the new system for its 2026 vote.

Mr. Ford’s surprise proposal prompted opposition critics, municipal politicians and electoral-reform activists to accuse the Premier of meddling in local affairs and undermining democracy, just as they say he did in 2018, when he cut Toronto’s city council almost in half in the middle of its election campaign.

Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath accused the government of making the move "under the cover” of COVID-19, calling it frightening and ham-fisted.

“It’s once again Doug Ford, and the Conservatives, showing how disrespectful they are of democracy,” Ms. Horwath said. “Why does Doug Ford think he can be king of everybody again and prevent people from exercising their democratic rights?”

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Last month, Toronto city council put off switching to ranked ballots until 2026 instead of 2022 because of the pandemic. Mayor John Tory said he is disappointed with the province’s decision, as ranked ballots produce fairer elections and encourage a more diverse field of candidates.

Activist Dave Meslin of the advocacy group Unlock Democracy Canada has been fighting for electoral change for years and said he would try to mobilize support to change Mr. Ford’s mind.

“It’s a pretty sneaky move. Obviously, it’s not related to COVID-19 in any way," Mr. Meslin said.

Mr. Ford’s House Leader, Paul Calandra, said municipalities should focus on responding to COVID-19, not voting systems. He pointed to the added costs of London’s 2018 election and Toronto’s plans to spend $1-million studying a switch to ranked ballots.

(London spent $1.8-million on the 2018 vote, compared with $1.3-million in 2014, but the added costs include inflation as well as one-time expenditures to switch over to the new system.)

Mr. Calandra also pointed out that in London, all of the candidates who won would still have done so under a first-past-the-post election.

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But Arielle Kayabaga, who took her seat as London’s first Black female councillor after the 2018 vote, says the new system changed the tone of the campaign, making it more about the candidates' ideas and less about personal attacks.

“It just seems like this is an attack on our democracy,” Ms. Kayabaga said of Mr. Ford’s move.

London’s mayor, former MP and federal Conservative cabinet minister Ed Holder, said he was disappointed with the news. Mr. Ford’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Steve Clark, called him Tuesday morning to let him know, Mr. Holder said, and it did not appear the government was open to reconsidering the change: “It was not a negotiation.”

However, Mr. Holder said he would press the province to reimburse the city for any extra costs it incurs in switching back to first past the post.

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