Winnipeg needs a ranked ballot: Time to vote positively, not defensively

One might look at Winnipeg's civic election and say democracy is alive and thriving here, but the way we vote for mayor and for councillors is wholly inadequate for producing the results that voters want, writes Alon Weinberg.
The way we vote for mayor and for councillors is wholly inadequate for producing the results that voters want, writes Alon Weinberg.

This year's Winnipeg mayoralty race has seen perhaps the greatest civic engagement in a campaign in the last 20 to 30 years, due to the wide-open race and both the number and diversity of the candidates seeking the city's highest office.

One might view the 2014 campaign and say that democracy is alive and thriving in Winnipeg, after the last decade of scandals at city hall, marked by elections with under 50 per cent voter turnout.

There is, however, a large elephant in the room that contradicts these impressions, and the aftermath of this election is the time for Winnipeggers to address this: The way we vote for mayor and for councillors is wholly inadequate for producing the results that voters want.

Despite having four to six viable mayoralty candidates, we are asked to mark only a single X on our ballots, leaving little room for nuanced preferences. Very likely, on Oct. 22, we will elect someone that the majority did not vote for, against the spirit of democracy.

Our elections more closely resemble the logic of gangs: the biggest bloc gets the whole territory, both on the councillor level and in the mayoral race, mirroring our provincial and federal elections.

That only the votes of the winner count is a large contributing factor in the poor turnout. If one supports a less popular candidate, the system inherently encourages them to stay home and not "waste their vote."

Altering the way we vote

The impacts of this system are not simply that we don't get what we voted for. Our first-past-the-post system actually alters the way we vote, as so often we vote strategically, based on polls, and out of fear.

The latest poll has just revealed a dead heat between Judy Wasylycia-Leis and Brian Bowman, and already I am hearing impassioned pleas from both "sides" to see the campaign as a two-horse race between left and right.

Our electoral system encourages this breakdown into a left-right choice, even if the candidates in the campaign don't entirely fit into these boxes.

It hinders democracy to vote according to polls, as though one were picking horses in a race. Polls have been wrong in several major elections across Canada over the past five years, one of the most striking examples being the last Alberta election.

In this election, I would strongly suggest ignoring the polls and voting for what you want rather than out of fear of the candidate you don't want being elected.

Municipally, the absence of parties allows for more nuance in policy. Candidates can create policy based on real civic needs and not in accordance with ideological left-right dogmas. Environmental issues, for instance, ought to be the domain of both left and right.

In this either-or logic, campaigns often become negative, and already these last two weeks the candidate of the left has released a flyer attacking the inexperience of the supposed leading candidate of the right.

One need only think of the negativity of the last few provincial and federal campaigns and the unending partisanship between them, when those elected ought to be governing together for us all. The politics of the least bad is not the politics of progress.

How about a ranked ballot?

However, we can repair the electoral system, shifting to a ranked ballot where we express our preferences (1-2-3-4, etc), eliminating strategic considerations.

In a ranked ballot, one is only elected once reaching 50 per cent plus one of the vote, and there are rounds of counting.

After each round, if nobody has reached the 50 per cent threshold, the last place candidate is dropped and the ballots distributed to those voters' second choices.

Already, federal parties elect their leaders this way, and a great advantage is that in a multi-round count, the winning candidate represents not simply their own bloc of voters, but rather a more diverse, broad segment of the population.

The micro-coalition that the winner embodies ensures that one interest does not control city hall, and it requires elected leaders to be more sensitive to the needs of the citizens as a whole. Is this not closer to what democracy is supposed to look like?

This idea is a simple repair to our elections on the municipal level. Already, Ontario's premier has committed to the 2018 municipal elections, employing a ranked ballot in response to a popular campaign, and Minneapolis's last two civic elections used a 1-2-3 ballot.

We can engage in debates over this policy or that candidate, but under a the first-past-the-post system, we are failing ourselves as a democracy. Until we can vote freely and positively, we will continue to get scantly democratic electoral results and remain mired in democratic mediocrity.

With problems like Winnipeg's, we need a city council led by a popular mayor that works co-operatively to solve our systematic problems. A ranked ballot would be one large step in moving us all in that direction.

Alon Weinberg is a lifelong student who has studied philosophy and recently completed an MA in Native Studies. He is currently pursuing ecological theology and is an active member of the fledgling group Fair Vote Manitoba.


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