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Ranked balloting: Wilfrid Laurier University prof Barry Kay explains the good, the bad and the different

The Ontario government has announced changes to the Municipal Elections Act that would allow municipalities to use ranked balloting in the 2018 elections, and the federal Liberals have said they want to move away from the current first-past-the-post system. So, what does that mean for voters?

Also called alternative vote, the new system would allow voters to rank candidates

The Ontario government has introduced legislation that would allow individual municipalities to decide if they want to adopt ranked balloting in their communities for the 2018 election. (CBC)

A switch to ranked balloting at the municipal or federal levels could mean the way you vote will change in upcoming elections.

Ontario has introduced changes to the Municipal Elections Act that would allow municipalities the option to use ranked ballots starting in 2018 – a change that could help voters feel like their opinions are being heard, said political scientist Barry Kay.

"The problem with our system currently is that our system creates artificial majorities frequently. Not always, but frequently," said Kay, who is an associate professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Only twice in the past 75 years has a federally-elected party earned more than 50 per cent of the vote, said Kay: In 1958 when John Diefenbaker was elected and in 1984 with Brian Mulroney. In every other federal election, no party was able to get the majority of the vote.

But Kay said with ranked balloting, "the person who will win the contest will, in fact, win a majority of votes."

How ranked balloting works

In the current first-past-the-post system, the person who gets the highest number of votes wins, even if it's not a majority.

Kay said he has even heard of elections where a candidate has won their seat with less than 20 per cent of the vote. 

With a ranked ballot, voters have the option of ranking candidates at the ballot box. A person could vote for just one candidate, or they may decide to vote for some or all of them. 

New Zealand used a ranked ballot when it asked residents to vote for a new country flag. It used this image on its website to explain how ranked balloting - or what they called preferential voting - works. (Electoral Commission New Zealand)

When the votes are tallied, if no single candidate has won at least 50 per cent of the vote, the last place candidate is eliminated. The ballots that listed the eliminated candidate are then counted and tallied according to which candidate was marked as the voters' second choice. If there still is no candidate with more than 50 per cent of the vote, the process is completed a third time, and so on.

"It's not unlike what happens actually at leadership conventions where you'll have a significant number of candidates typically and indeed you'll just keep having subsequent ballots until you get to somebody having an actual majority," Kay said.

Other changes

The new system may encourage higher voter turnout, Kay said, because people feel their vote carries more weight, especially if their first choice is unlikely to win. 

Strategic voting — like what was seen in the 2015 federal election where groups knocked on doors to tell voters which candidate had the best chance of beating a Conservative candidate in a particular riding — would become "insignificant" with ranked ballots, he said.

Kay also said there would be fewer wasted votes.

What's not to like?

Incumbents aren't likely to be big fans of the ranked balloting system, Kay said.

"People that are in power usually are happy with the system that elected them," he said.

It may also give moderate candidates an advantage; as a voter is unlikely to pick a candidate from a party on the opposite end of the political spectrum from where they usually vote. 

"Parties that are seen to be more towards the centre, the Liberal party in our federal system, probably would do somewhat better. As a result, the other parties probably have reservations," Kay said.

As well, he added, "No system is perfect. Every system is going to have flaws and problems."

Give it a go, then decide

There are examples of successful ranked balloting around the world.

Australia, where voting is mandatory, has ranked balloting (or alternative vote) at the state and federal levels. Ireland uses it for presidential elections, and it is used by some cities in the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

Kay said before deciding on a new system, governments should give ranked balloting a try for a trial period first, of 10 years. After voters have the chance to experience the system, they should solicit feedback and decide whether to continue on with a new system, or revert to the old one.

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