Was the ranked ballot system the reason for the low voter turnout in London?

Some thought the new voting system scared off Londoners. But others believe there were several factors that might have kept people away from the polls.

Unofficial turnout was about 39 per cent, lower than the 43 per cent turnout in the 2014 election

The polls closed at 8 p.m. in what will be a historic municipal election, with London becoming the first Canadian city in modern history to move to ranked choice voting. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC London)

As the results emerged for the 2018 London municipal election, one thing was certain from the city's first foray into the world of ranked ballots; fewer people voted.

City Clerk Cathy Saunders told CBC Radio's London Morning on Tuesday that the unofficial turnout was around 39 per cent.

That's about a drop from the 43 per cent of eligible voters who cast a ballot in the 2014 election.

One caller to the radio program on Tuesday blamed the ranked ballot system for the lower turnout. "Scared a lot of people. They weren't accustomed to it," decried the caller named Rob.

It was a sentiment also expressed on social media.

Officials at London City Hall resume counting for a second day in the first municipal ranked ballot election. (Kate Dubinski/ CBC London )

But Jacqui Newman, an associate professor of political science at King's University College in London, doubts that ranked ballots would have been a "huge deterrent" for would-be voters. 

"Percentage-wise that is still pretty close to what it was (in the last election)," she said.

Instead, Newman thinks the lower turnout was more likely the result of the nature of the campaign that saw a close race between four front-runners. 

"It may not have grabbed people as much as they felt they could make a firm choice when they walked into the polls," said Newman.

"There are so many factors that affect voter turnout," said Dave Meslin, creative director of the pro-ranked ballot group, Unlock Democracy. 

"We just voted in the spring for a provincial government. Some people are like, okay, once a year," said Meslin. "You have to take time off from work, line up, so there is an issue of voter fatigue."

Municipal turnouts lag

Zack Taylor, an assistant political science professor at Western University, said he wasn't troubled by the voter turnout in London.

"It's even high by Ontario municipal standards, where in recent cycles we've seen turnout rates in municipal elections of 30, 33 per cent, 35 per cent across Ontario." 

The exception, he noted, was in Toronto, where in the last election turnout exceeded 50 per cent.

Taylor points out the city hasn't released the official number of eligible voters in London for the 2018 election. He said that number gets adjusted on election day because people can show up and register on the spot.

The Minneapolis experience

A drop in voter turnout was also the experience in the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2009. That was the first year it used ranked ballots.

"The first election saw the turnout drop as voters were tentative to embrace the new method of choosing representatives," said Minneapolis City Clerk Casey Carl. 

Carl said that in subsequent civic elections, also employing ranked ballots, the voter interest increased.

London's recent electoral engagement not strong 

Voter turnout has been volatile in the recent elections in London, according to official election numbers.

  • 2014: 43.2 per cent
  • 2010: 39.9 per cent
  • 2006: 43.9 per cent
  • 2003: 35.9 per cent 
  • 2000: 32.7 per cent
  • 1997: 43.2 per cent
  • 1994: 43.4 per cent

The next municipal election in London is scheduled to happen in 2022.

City administration will provide a report to the new council on the use of ranked ballots, which cost an estimated $500,000 to implement. 

It will be up to the new council to decide whether to continue with ranked ballots four years from now.


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