London, Ont., voters to make history with first ranked ballot election for a city in Canada

Monday is civic election day in Ontario, and for the first time in modern history in Canada, a municipality will use ranked ballots to pick its next mayor and council. Voters can choose up to three candidates in their ward and three candidates for mayor. A candidate needs 50 per cent plus one vote to win.

In Minneapolis, ranked ballot elections increased voter turnout and diversity on city council

This ranked ballot was used during a mock election held earlier this year to educate London residents about the new voting system. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Monday is civic election day in Ontario, and for the first time in modern Canadian history, a municipality will use ranked ballots to pick its next mayor and council. 

The full results of the historic London, Ont., election likely won't be known until Tuesday at the earliest. 

"We have to make sure we get it right," said City Clerk Cathy Saunders, who is running the $500,000 election. 

That cost is about double the city's first-past-the-post election four years ago because the tabulators used to count votes are more complex and cost more to rent, she said. 

Since March, the city clerk's office has been trying to educate voters about how ranked choice elections work. 

Voters can choose up to three candidates in their ward and three candidates for mayor. They rank each of those candidates as their first, second or third choices.

A candidate needs 50 per cent plus one vote to win. If no candidate reaches that threshold on the first ballot, the last-placed candidate is eliminated and his or her backers' second-choice ballots are counted. That process continues until one candidate reaches 50 percent plus one. 

Minneapolis example

Saunders' team has been in close contact with Minneapolis, Minnesota, which has run ranked ballot elections three times.

There, voter turnout has gone up and the composition of city council has changed, said Minneapolis City Clerk Casey Carl. 

"We elected our first Latina councillor, our first Asian-American, our first Somali-African-American, and the age range has changed. My council has 13 members, the youngest is 23 and the oldest is 63, so four decades between them," Carl said. 

Voter turnout was lowest in Minneapolis' first ranked ballot election as voters were tentative to embrace the new method of choosing representatives, he added.

London, Ont., City Clerk Cathy Saunders stands beside a voting tabulator that will count ranked ballots during Monday's election. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

That seems to be the case in London, where fewer people have voted in the advance polls compared to four years ago, Saunders said. 

But those who turned out to vote at advance polls said the ballot seemed easy to use, though not all ranked their ballots. 

In fact, ranking is not required, and three of four mayoral front-runners in London have said they won't rank their ballots. 

King's University College political scientist Jacquetta Newman said some are treating this election as a typical first-past-the-post system, and it might take a few years before the ranked ballots become second-nature. 

"You have three mayoral candidates who are similar enough, you'd think that they would say to their supporters, if you don't vote for me, vote for this guy, but they're not doing that," Newman said. "Still, it doesn't matter how altruistic a candidate is. Fundamentally, they want to win." 

In Minneapolis, it took 15 days to get the results of the first ranked ballot election. The counting had to be done by hand, Carl said. 

The most recent election there took just 24 hours to tabulate.

In London, Ont., Saunders said some results will come in quickly. Three of the 14 wards in the city have just two candidates, so those results will be known immediately. 

But some ward races are very close, and the top four mayoral candidates are in a statistical dead heat according to some polls, so those will likely go to a second or third ballot, Saunders said. 

Other Canadian cities are watching closely to see how the election is run and what the results are. Kingston, Ont., and Cambridge, Ont., are holding referendums about holding ranked ballot elections in the future. 

About the Author

Kate Dubinski

Reporter/Editor

Kate Dubinski is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in London, Ont. You can email her at kate.dubinski@cbc.ca.