Seen and Heard: RaBIT, Toronto on the Threshold of Electoral Reform

Matthew Higgins

Local activist Dave Meslin and his Ranked Ballot Initiative Toronto (RaBIT) team commandeered the School of Public Policy and Governance on Monday evening to deliver their message of hope and change. I think of it as systemic change we can agree on.

Here is what I learned.

The mayor of Toronto is a fraud. (Well, not this mayor specifically, but many mayors generally.) Oh, and so are the councillors. Well not all the councillors. Just the ones that aren’t supported by a majority of their constituents. Which also applies to our present mayor. So, yes, the mayor of Toronto is a fraud. But it’s no one’s fault.

Let me explain.

Presently, in Toronto and pretty much everywhere else in Canada, we elect our mayors, councillors and trustees using a first-past-the-post system. Dave Meslin, intensely optimistic and democratically-minded, takes issue with this archaic voting system. He has taken it upon himself to fix it. Dave is an excellent explainer of injustices (see his other ongoing democratic reform project the Fourth Wall), and as he demonstrated to his audience on Monday night, the best way to educate the public on anything is through quilts.

Enter the RaBIT election quilt, which you can see in action by clicking here.

As Dave explained, with help from the quilt, the status-quo voting system works quite well when there are two candidates running. To demonstrate, volunteers from the audience were selected to run for council. The candidate wearing a red shirt was running in favour of red shirts and he had 40% support. The woman running in favour of black shirts had 60% support. (I anxiously await a pro-plaid candidate.) Naturally, the black shirt won with a majority of the votes.

But hold on. A more realistic scenario illustrates the dreaded pitfall. A third audience volunteer, also in favor of black shirts, decides to run. The majority of the constituents are enthusiastic about black shirts (hence the plurality of pro-black-shirt candidates), but both black shirt candidates have strong electoral appeal and the overall black shirt vote ends up split 25% and 35%, leaving the red shirt candidate with the most votes, but still only 40% support. He wins. Society bestows upon him the privilege of a mandate. It’s unfair, but we accept it for no other reason than we’re used to it.

Winning with potentially much less than 50% is the fraud part Dave was talking about. But that’s not the main concern.

Dave and his team are more troubled by the effect that vote splitting has on the way people participate in the election. For example, individuals may vote for someone other than their prefered candidate in order to prevent a candidate that really grinds their gears from winning. Candidates who are perceived as front-runners and have strong organizations often succeed in forcing out candidates with similar ideological leanings. Unfortunately, the people pushed out are more often women, visible minorities and young people. This is bad.

Then there is the incumbency effect, whereby vote splitting amongst the challengers combined with the support that incumbents manage to dust up simply from name recognition results in unpopular incumbents getting re-elected with as little as 20% support.

Finally, since the current system is winner-takes-all after a single round, the election tends to be a race to the bottom. I can go negative and sling mud at my opponent all day long with the comfort of knowing that it will probably hurt his chances more than it will hurt my own. But what if all the negativity turns people off from voting? Meh. As a politician, I primarily care about winning, not the democratic deficit. And who can blame me? I certainly don’t blame me.

Ranked ballots have the potential to minimize or eliminate these critical flaws. Under the RaBIT proposal (which is being studied by city staff who will present their findings in a report to Council), voters rank up to three candidates in order of preference. A computer instantly tallies all the first choice votes. If no candidate has gained at least 50% of the vote, the computer drops the candidate with the least votes, takes the second choice votes from the freed ballots, and adds them to the totals. This continues for as many rounds as it takes for a candidate to reach 50%.

The simple beauty of ranked ballots is that only the candidate with the broadest support will win. He or she could be a runaway favorite who wins in the first round, or, in a tighter or more divisive race, the candidate who cobbles together the most secondary support.

This changes a lot. Suddenly, the more candidates of similar stripes the merrier, since vote splitting is non-existent and each additional candidate will likely engage additional voters. The debate becomes more positive as candidates reach out for second choice votes by finding common ground with their opponents.

(No. After you. I insist.)

Perhaps most significantly, no one is pressured to drop out, meaning less established candidates have less fear of alienating ideological allies. This means greater potential for diverse representation. In the City of Oakland’s first instant-runoff election in 2010, not only was there a major spike in voter turnout, but the city elected their first ever female mayor, a Chinese-American.

But seriously, how big of a deal is all this technical voting stuff in the grand scheme of things? Chris Selly of the National Post sums it up this way: “I don’t think it will necessarily be utterly transformative. But it doesn’t have to be. To my mind, it is just self-evidently fairer.” And that should be reason enough to do it. But, sharing some of Dave Meslin’s eternal optimism, I believe I see even greater potential in this reform.

As geographic and social inequalities have risen, cities have become highly polarized places. Movement toward a decentralized and globalized state has put cities in a position of vulnerability and opportunity, with high stakes and fierce competition. Cities are more responsible than ever for their own prosperity and equality, and the increasing exposure to global economic forces means that both decline and growth can be intense and prolonged. In other words, municipal government is more important than ever. From the Miller to Ford eras, Toronto has witnessed the whiplash results of a highly polarized electorate and its expression on council. The ranked ballots system, which favours moderation, consensus, participation and engagement, should dampen to some extent the highly charged ideological environment that restricts Toronto’s policy-making capacity.

Will the reform succeed? Dave Meslin, optimist, believes it will. It appears that the necessary number of councillors support it, including several that won their wards without a majority, and there’s no reason to fear that city staff will produce a largely negative report. Meslin also believes that the initiative has support in the current provincial legislature, a critical factor since corresponding changes will be required in the Municipal Elections Act.

How soon then? RaBIT is hoping that at least the mayor can be elected using a preferential ballot in 2014, but the feeling is that changes are more likely to occur in 2018.

Head to RaBIT.ca for more info.

Matthew Higgins is a 2013 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance and holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineer from the University of New Brunswick. Matthew has worked as an asset management engineer with electricity utilities in Toronto and as a policy analyst with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. He spends his free time performing with Toronto/Montreal indie band The Bawdy Electric.

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One response to “Seen and Heard: RaBIT, Toronto on the Threshold of Electoral Reform

  1. The system proposed by RaBIT, AV or Alternative Vote, has never been shown to increase the representation of women or minorities. In fact, its use in the last Toronto election would have increased representation of only 5% and made very little difference in ward-by-ward outcomes. It is not a step towards a truly representative system either. It is called by many a cosmetic reform.

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