The Value of Votes: The Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto

In light of Toronto’s upcoming municipal election, the PPGR is dedicating this week to a special series of posts that focus on municipal policy issues. Be sure to check back tomorrow to read up on another topic of municipal interest.

Cayla Baarda

The Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (RaBIT) is a campaign to introduce ranked balloting – or ‘preferential voting’ – to Toronto’s elections in a bid to make the city’s electoral process more “relevant, inclusive and friendly.” The current ‘first past the post’ electoral system has voters choosing a single candidate on the ballot, with the candidate who receives the most votes declared the winner. In contrast, ranked balloting would allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference — rebuffing an ‘all or nothing’ decision.

In the proposed system, if a single candidate fails to win 50 per cent of the vote, an ‘instant runoff’ is activated; the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated, and his or her ballots are redistributed among the remaining candidates by order of preference. This continues until a candidate attains the requisite 50 per cent of the vote. It is a far cry from Toronto’s current electoral system, in which a candidate can be elected with as little as 20 per cent of the total vote.

Consider Toronto’s current mayoral race, in which it appears highly unlikely that one candidate will emerge with at least 50 per cent of the vote. In a recent sampling of public opinion taken by Forum Research, among 1241 Toronto voters, fewer than 4-in-10 will vote for one of the current frontrunners. John Tory (39 per cent), Doug Ford (33 per cent),  and Olivia Chow (23 per cent) round out the top three.

Under the current electoral system, if the election were held today, Tory would win the election with far less than 50 per cent of the total vote. But under a ranked balloting system, using the same estimates, John Tory would not immediately emerge as the victor. With no clear majority, the candidate with the lowest support (Chow) would be eliminated, and her votes re-distributed among the remaining contenders based on preferential ranking.

Evidently, such vote redistribution could have a significant impact on election results. It could also help to ensure that those who had voted for Chow do not consider their votes to be wasted, and force candidates to consider their approach to potential “second rank” voters throughout the campaign period — and thus leading to a greater diversity of policy platforms.

Advocates of the ranked balloting system maintain that it would make Toronto’s electoral process more fair, diverse, inclusive, and friendly. Voters would be given more options, thus discouraging vote splitting (where votes are split among multiple similar candidates, increasing the chance of winning for a dissimilar candidate who may not represent voters’ preferences). Proponents of the system also argue that it is a way to make Canada’s electoral system more democratic: while the current ‘first past the post’ system enables candidates’ to win elections by maintaining a strong group of loyal supporters, preferential voting necessitates appeals to a much larger and broader audience.

Yet opponents of ranked balloting worry that voters may not understand how the system works, and therefore use it incorrectly. In San Francisco, electoral officials have run into problems with voters ranking more than one candidate in a single voting-choice field (for example, marking two as their first choice), forcing their ballots to be discarded. Officials have also observed that voters were simply not using their other choices at all, possibly due to confusion — implying that preferential voting is not actually as easy as ‘1,2,3’.

In addressing these challenges, the City of Minneapolis, which first introduced ranked choice voting in 2009, conducted a test election geared toward education and public outreach. In a feedback survey, participants noted that various aspects of the draft ballot were indeed confusing — insight which ultimately informed the city’s ballot design. The subsequent November 2009 municipal election allowed voters to turn in a spoiled ballot and have it replaced with a new one in the event that they needed to clarify the voting process, resulting in a low percentage of spoiled ballots (4.1 per cent).

At this point, it is far too late to consider a ranked balloting system for Toronto’s upcoming municipal election. Yet the city should seriously consider adopting this system in the future, and should take lessons from cities like Minneapolis in doing so. A commitment to voter outreach and education is undoubtedly key — and aside from a test election, these goals could also be achieved through informational pamphlets, posters, and/or a visible online presence.

Queen’s Park is expected to vote this winter on whether or not to amend the city’s Municipal Elections Act to enable municipalities to introduce preferential voting into their electoral processes. A major goal is to use ranked ballots in the 2018 Toronto mayoral election, prior to rolling it out for all Council seats by 2022. This incremental timeline has proposed to allow for voter adjustment, which suggests there may be indeed be room for ‘test elections’ and outreach. But for now, voters will just have to wait and see whether Toronto joins a growing list of U.S. cities, including San Francisco and Minneapolis, in an attempt to stop making winners out of losers.

Cayla Baarda is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto. She holds a Bachelors degree in International Development from Guelph University with a specialization in Political Economy and Administrative Change. Cayla recently worked as a researcher with a social start-up in Copenhagen, Denmark. Her main areas of policy interest include education policy and foreign policy.

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