On the road to overdue reforms of voting system

Proposed changes to the Municipal Elections Act are unlikely to have much impact in the townships, but they should be welcomed nonetheless.

Among changes that include shortening the campaign period and regulating third-party spending, the province will give municipalities the option of shifting to ranked ballots. Under a ranked-ballot system, voters number their choice of candidate. If no candidate wins a majority of number-one picks, then voters’ second and third choices are tabulated until a candidate achieves more than 50 per cent of the vote.

The goal is to ensure winners have some measure of support among a majority of voters.

Under the current first-past-the-post system, a candidate running in a field of five could conceivably win a seat with 20 per cent of the vote. In some races, that allows for a divisive politician with a small, but ardent base to win an election, especially at the municipal level where voter turnout is low – sometimes less than 20 per cent.

While ranked ballots are one of many longstanding election reform options, the idea really took off in earnest prior to the 2014 municipal election. In Toronto. Where there just happened to be a mayor in power (the late Rob Ford) who ruffled many feathers but was adored by a faction of the electorate (Ford Nation). Under a ranked system, it’s unlikely someone like Ford would ever make it to the mayor’s chair.

It was purely coincidental, of course, that the provincial Liberals began consultations about these reforms at that time.

Suspicious motivations notwithstanding, it would be hard to argue against such changes. Woolwich and Wellesley townships sometimes have difficulty fielding candidates, so the kind of vote splitting that propels fringe candidates up the middle is unlikely. Nor are there major financial incentives to game the system. (Given the plethora of legal woes related to poor paperwork, Woolwich might benefit from simplified campaign finance rules, however.)

Even at the cities and regional government, we’ve seen little of the drama more commonplace in Toronto and larger centres – though a ranking system might have done a better job of clearing out the deadwood at the region, though perhaps next time as the poor choices (LRT) put voters in the mood for change and/or retribution.

Which brings us to keeping an eye on which way local officials will lean. The provincial legislation would give the choice to individual municipalities. With the regional structure here, all eight municipal entities may have to be onboard with the changes – there’s a meeting next week to get the ball rolling. Concern for incumbents, who have a large edge in municipal politics, shouldn’t enter the picture.

Advocates of reform point out that ranked ballots make elections more democratic. The system eliminates vote-splitting and reduces the importance of strategic voting. It can also lead to more positive campaigns, as a scorched-earth blitz that rallies true-blue supporters isn’t effective when a candidate is trying to woo opponents’ supporters as the second or third choice.

Ranked ballots are in essence an instant runoff vote, favouring inclusive candidates over divisive ones. It can also help prevent the victory of “oopsie” candidates who periodically win seats despite appearing to bring little, if anything to the table.

Not perfect, but any step towards real reform should be  embraced rather than smothered by a reluctant bureaucracy and entrenched politicians.

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