Ranked balloting would not only ensure winners of municipal election campaigns get a majority of the vote, they would also encourage positive campaigning, says Dave Meslin of Unlock Democracy.
The group has been fighting for electoral reform at all levels in Canada, and welcomed the province's announcement last month it was considering bringing in ranked ballots in time for the 2018 municipal election.
While some residents are confused about exactly what that would mean to them, Meslin says the system is already used by all the major political parties when they elect their leader or riding candidates.
"Some people call it an instant runoff,” he said in an interview Wednesday morning. “You can instantly calculate where everyone's choices would go on a second or third or fourth count."
How it works
The way ranked balloting works is relatively straightforward. You would vote as you normally do, but instead of just choosing one candidate, you rank your first three choices. In the first round of counting, only voters' first choices are counted. If no one receives 51 per cent of the vote, the person who finishes last is eliminated from the race. Their supporters' votes are counted again, with their second choices going to the remaining candidates.
The process is repeated until someone gets a majority. Ranked balloting brings a new dynamic to campaigns, Meslin said, since your goal is no longer only to reduce the number of votes your opponents receive, but to appeal to as many of your opponents' supporters as possible.
"I want my opponents' supporters to like me enough to put me second — all of them,” he said. “If I start attacking my opponents, obviously I'm not going to be ranked second. So it really encourages friendly campaigns."
It also eliminates the need for strategic voting, where a constituent might vote for someone they don't like, just to ensure the person they hate doesn't win. So instead of negative campaigns, ranked balloting means there's more room for real debate on issues.
"Because you're not worried about strategic voting, it really opens up a lot of space for actual dialogue about city politics," Meslin said. "I think it would be absolutely transformative."
It also puts pressure on incumbent council candidates, who otherwise could win a ward seat with as little as 20 per cent of the vote.
"Say you're a councillor, and 80 per cent want me gone,” he said. “So if you run against me, I'm in trouble. But if 10 people run against me and split that 80 per cent into a bunch of 8s, I win with 20 per cent of the vote.
"And that happens. We have people here in Toronto who won with as low as 17 per cent of the vote – that means 80 per cent of the voters didn't like you."
What happened in October
In the October municipal election, just two councillors received a majority of the vote – Ward 12 Coun. Joscelyne Landry-Altmann (52.98 per cent, with four candidates running) and Ward 7 Coun. Mike Jakubo (50.90 per cent, with five candidates running.) Ward 2 Coun. Michael Vagnini came close (49.36 per cent) as did Ward 4 Coun. Evelyn Dutrisac (48.10 per cent.)
Mayor Brian Bigger garnered 46.32 per cent of the vote, in a crowded field of 10 candidates.
On the low end, Ward 9 Coun. Deb. McIntosh won with 35.28 per cent of the vote (with seven candidates running), while Ward 5 Coun. Bob Kirwan won his ward with 35.78 per cent of the vote (with five candidates running.)
Under ranked ballots, Meslin says everyone who wins gets the support of the majority of voters, even if they're the second or third choice.
"That's the main benefit, mathematically,” he said. “When you win a race, and most people didn't vote for you, it really raises questions about your mandate."
Under the current system, he said, wards that are most engaged in local politics can be punished if there are lots of candidates. Unpopular incumbents can still win, even if the vast majority of residents want change.
"That's because if only one person runs, you can beat the unpopular incumbent. But if 10 people run against the incumbent, they almost have no chance."
Is this a distraction?
When asked whether he thought the Liberal announcement was really just an attempt to distract voters from controversies such as Hydro One sale and the Sudbury byelection scandal, Meslin said he was convinced otherwise.
"Oh yes, they're 100-per-cent sincere,” he said. “They're working very hard on it. The materials they put online are amazing. I know the staff who are actually drafting the legislation are working really, really hard — they're being very thorough.
"They're reaching out to people and saying they want to hear everyone's voices."
More importantly, it won't be imposed on municipalities.
"It's going to be optional,” he said. “There are 444 municipal elections in Ontario, and each one will be able to decide whether they want to do it or not. I think that's really important."
His group is working on establishing local branches in as many communities as possible in Ontario, including Sudbury, where a fledgling branch is in place.