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How ranked ballots could change Toronto elections in 2018

Talk of strategic voting and vote splits has dominated the discussion around Toronto’s municipal election, making many voters feel they need a minor in political science just to make the trip to the ballot box on Monday.

But changes may be coming to local elections in Ontario that could end all that, as the province moves to make ranked ballots an option for municipalities in time for the 2018 elections.

Toronto, and all of Ontario’s 444 municipalities, use an electoral system called First Past the Post, but the Liberal government hopes to update the Municipal Elections Act to include ranked ballots as an alternative.

Ranked ballots allow voters to choose more than one candidate. If no one candidate wins a majority of votes, the candidate with the least votes is cut and the votes are redistributed until a clear winner can be declared. That cut and redistribution can be done immediately, in an instant run-off or with follow-up elections.

A run-off system would redistribute votes until one candidate has at least 50 per cent of popular support.

Activist Dave Meslin, who works with the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto, calls the proposal “historic.”

“If any of those 444 municipalities exercise this new right, they will be the first government in Canada in a century to abandon First Past the Post,” Meslin said.

“That’s very exciting for people who think that our current system doesn’t actually work.”

Meslin says ranked ballots would end strategic voting, something he calls a big distraction.

“You could vote for [Toronto mayoral candidates] Ari Goldkind or Morgan Baskin as your first choice and your ballot still counts. If they don’t win and get dropped off the race, your vote gets transferred to your second or third choice,” Meslin said.

Olivia Chow, the apparent third-place candidate in Toronto’s current mayoral race, effectively addressed strategic voting with her late campaign call to vote out of hope, not fear.

Negative campaigning, mud slinging and attack ads could also become a thing of the past, said Meslin, as ranked ballots have been shown to create friendlier campaigns.

“You want to make sure that your opponent’s supporters like you enough to at least put you second,” he said.

Ranked balloting could also ensure a candidate has a clear mandate by ensuring no candidate wins office without a majority of the votes.

Meslin points to Coun. James Pasternak (Ward 10, York Centre), who won his council seat with only 19 per cent of the vote. In fact, he said, half of city council, including Mayor Rob Ford, won their seats with less than 50 per cent of the vote.

“It kind of defeats the whole point of having an election and calling it a democracy,” Meslin said.

The process

Premier Kathleen Wynne requested in her mandate letter to Ted McMeekin, the minister responsible for municipal affairs, that he make ranked ballots available in time for the 2018 municipal elections.

McMeekin has already met with more than 40 municipal councils to discuss potential changes to the Municipal Elections Act as part of a regular review, though they are not addressing ranked ballots specifically, Mark Cripps, a spokesman for the minister, said.

The process for changing the Act to include the ranked ballot option will begin in earnest after the election and will include public consultations, Cripps said.

Once changes to the Act are in place it is up to individual municipal councils to vote to adopt the new system.

The last session of Toronto city council already voted in favour of asking the province to change the Act to allow ranked ballots and instant run-offs in future elections.

But that doesn’t mean the new council will vote in favour of ranked ballots when and if given the choice.

“Usually politicians are reluctant to change the system that got them elected. So voting reform has never been driven by those in charge,” Meslin said.

That’s why he’s counting on citizens to agitate for change and press their city councillors to allow ranked ballots in the next election.

If all the political players support ranked ballots, the next step would be updating Toronto’s voting machines. The current machines do not have the capability to crunch the numbers for instant run-offs.

Where the current candidates stand

Chow has already come out in favour of ranked ballots. John Tory has said he is in favour reviewing potential electoral reforms, but declined to “preempt that process” by speaking in favour of specific reforms. Doug Ford voted against city council’s item asking the province for the option to use ranked ballots.