As a former city councillor, Doug Ford has strong feelings about municipal democracy. One of the first things he did after becoming Premier of Ontario in 2018 was slash the size of Toronto city council, accomplishing at a stroke what his late brother Rob could not. He even threatened to use the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution to push through the change, which came in the midst of a municipal election campaign.
Now he has turned his sights on local democracy again, except this time he isn’t stepping in to change the system. He is stepping in to keep it just as it is.
The innovation that troubles him is ranked-ballot voting. The previous government, under Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne, gave cities the option of adopting this system, which asks voters to rank their preferences on the ballot: first choice, second choice and so on. It is used in many countries around the world and backers say it more accurately reflects the wishes of voters.
Mr. Ford apparently doesn’t like it. This week, out of the blue, he snuck amendments to the Municipal Elections Act into a bill concerned mainly with pandemic recovery. The changes would ban ranked-ballot voting. Why? Mr. Ford didn’t really explain except to say that “We’ve been voting this way since 1867” and “We don’t need any more complications.” If it was good enough for dear old Sir John A., in other words, it should be good enough for us.
His hostility is strange. He himself was elected Progressive Conservative Leader through a form of ranked balloting. He was behind in the early going but eked out a win on the third ballot.
London conducted a ranked-ballot election in 2018 with no fuss or muss. Kingston voted in a plebiscite that year to adopt the system for its municipal votes. Toronto was thinking about making the change, though not till at least 2026.
Pressed for an explanation, the Ford government said that “now is not the time for municipalities to experiment with costly changes to how municipal elections are conducted.” In other words, the pandemic made us do it. That makes no sense. The Premier is using the health emergency as cover for doing away with ranked balloting and getting even with his old foes down at city hall, who tend to favour it.
The cost of introducing it is negligible in a province that is shovelling billions out the door to fight the coronavirus. London’s 2018 election cost half a million dollars more than the one before, but much of that increase was due to one-off start-up expenses and regular price rises unrelated to the switch. A report by proponents of the change says that the extra fixed cost is just $24,500, or less than 10 cents a taxpayer.
The benefits, on the other hand, are considerable. The trouble with our current winner-takes-all system is that, in races with several candidates, the winner can be elected with far less than a majority – just 17 per cent for one councillor in a 2014 Toronto vote. Most of the voters are left with a representative not of their choosing.
Ranked balloting fixes that by distributing the second- and third-choice votes of the last-place contenders to the remaining ones. The last man or woman standing can then usually claim a majority. It is a compressed version of party leadership contests, in which contenders that do badly in early balloting drop out and voters choose again from a narrower field.
Advocates argue that ranked balloting discourages strategic voting and makes for a more diverse array of candidates. They also say it produces more civilized, less divisive campaigns. Candidates won’t hurl insults at a rival if they hope to be the second or third choice of the rival’s supporters.
If Mr. Ford doesn’t believe those arguments, let him argue back. Instead he took the option away from cities without debate or even warning, the same bulldozer approach he used on Toronto council in 2018. London will not hold another ranked-ballot vote. Kingston and Toronto will stop talking about it. A worthwhile experiment in democratic reform will be over. Everything will remain the same. Wonderful.
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