Meet the London city councillor who made history because of ranked ballots

Arielle Kayabaga only has to look at her own experience in politics to say with certainty that ranked ballots helped make her the first Black woman to sit on council in London. She spoke to London Morning's Rebecca Zandbergen this week about why the government should reconsider a bill to scrap the voting option at the municipal level. 

Arielle Kayabaga is the first black woman ever elected to London's city council

Ward 13 Coun. Arielle Kayabaga photographed at city hall Feb. 4, 2020. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

London, Ont. called its first ranked ballot election in 2018 a success. It was the first city in Canada to implement electoral reform at the municipal level. And city officials said it went off without a hitch.

So when Premier Doug Ford's government slipped an amendment into a COVID-19 recovery bill this week to do away with ranked ballots, the outcry in London was swift. Arielle Kayabaga led the charge.

The downtown city councillor only has to look at her own experience in politics to say with certainty that ranked ballots helped make her the first Black woman to sit on council in London. Kayabaga spoke to London Morning's Rebecca Zandbergen about why the government should reconsider.

Q: How did ranked ballots influence your decision to run? 

I attended an information session at City Hall when they were trying to explain the system and how it was going to work. I asked a few questions and the questions were around the civility of the campaign. You know, a lot of women get involved in politics and often get attacked on their gender, on their ability to be politicians because they either have families or small children and things like that.

I walked in that room not being sure whether I was going to run or not. But I walked out knowing that I was going to run based on those answers. So right now, it did really influence a lot of decisions. We were going to be focusing on our policies and what we have to present to our voters, instead of focusing on how we can attack each other.

It was a reassuring factor knowing that this election was going to be about your policies, about your ideas and not about your gender or your skin colour. So it was a huge factor in my decision.

Q: You believe ranked ballots allowed people to focus on policy versus the other things you've mentioned? 

Absolutely. We focused on appealing to all the voters and proposing policies that were focused on municipal work and not focused on our gender. I remember in 2014 when the campaign was happening; I did hear people ask questions about women who have smaller children, whether they were fit to be in politics or not. This was not part of the 2018 election. And I think it has a lot to do with. 

Q3: What's wrong with the current system? 

First past the post is flawed. What it really focuses on is bringing back the incumbents. And not only that, it elects people who are often not everybody's pick. This system [ranked ballots] actually increases more participation. You get to vote for three people. And if you look at the percentage of our election results, the first past the post numbers were much lower.

We went through all rounds of balloting and realized that we could get a greater percentage of the vote and be more legitimate as an elected official. 

Ward 13 Coun. Arielle Kayabaga photographed at city hall Feb. 4, 2020. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

Q: We've learned the province wants to get rid of ranked ballots because it's more costly. The 2018 election cost London about $515,000, some of that for one-off expenses to implement the new system. What do you make of the government's argument?  

I don't agree because I think that elections cost money anyway. We have to pay for them. So I think that we're in a place right now where we have to continue to make the right changes. If we're paying for them, why don't we do it better? 

Q: Why do you think the Ford government is scrapping it? 

I'm totally unsure. I don't know why they're doing it. I absolutely do not believe that they should be getting involved in this process. And I think that they should leave it to municipal politicians to decide. 

Q: Do you think the first past the post system is a deterrent for Black women and men to run? 

You know, if you look at Toronto, they've grown and have more Black voters and Black candidates than anywhere in the country. Toronto has a higher population of Black people than any other city in Ontario. And yet there are there's no representation of their municipal council. And that's because of the incumbent system.

So again, first past the post really favours the incumbent and it deters other people from running. And I think that rank ballots would be the better way to go. 

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.