If the voters in Ontario municipal elections had been able to choose their mayors and councillors by a ranked or "preferential" ballot, Toronto might well have been spared the trauma – and sheer embarrassment – of the mayoralty of Rob Ford, which resulted from a three-way race.
Ted McMeekin, the province's Minister of Municipal Affairs, is right to call for giving municipalities the option of holding elections where voters would not make just one "X," but would rank candidates in order of preference. The lowest-ranking candidate would be eliminated, and his or her supporters would be transferred to these voters' second choice – and so on until there is a majority-approved candidate.
It would be a novelty, and a useful experiment. There are currently no ranked ballots in any Canadian elections.
In many municipalities, incumbents have a heavy advantage – partly because of name recognition. Councillors often can hang on long beyond their best-before dates, which breeds voter apathy, which results in low turnout, which makes re-election even more likely. A ranking of choices could re-energize local elections, giving citizens a sense of possibility, rather than a depressing inevitability.
Such reasoning does not apply in the same way to Parliament and provincial legislatures. Municipal elections are subordinate bodies, creatures of the province. In contrast, the first-past-the-post system to elect MPs and provincial politicians, though far from perfect, can often work well to form an effective government that will carry out a strong program and enact laws with broad consequences – as opposed, for example, to local zoning decisions and bylaws in cities, towns and villages.
The Liberal government of Ontario embraced the ranked-ballot idea, but has been slow to move. Now that the 2014 municipal elections are history, the government should act to offer this option to municipalities in good time for the next vote, in 2018. Let the experiment begin.