Province gives cities green light to adopt ranked ballots

Changes to the Municipal Elections Act will now allow cities to opt for different voting systems and ban corporate and union donations.

Proposed changes include banning corporate and union donations, shorter election campaigns

The City of Ottawa will be allowed to adopt ranked-ballot voting after the province proposed changes to Municipal Elections Act on Monday, April 4, 2016. (CBC)

The City of Ottawa will be allowed to adopt ranked-ballot voting, as well as ban corporate and union donations, after proposed changes to Municipal Elections Act were announced by the province early Monday afternoon.

For Ottawa123, the lobby group that's been pushing for electoral reform at the municipal level for years, it's the first of several hurdles to clear before the new voting system can be implemented.

"We're really happy with the announcement made by the province today," said Colum Grove-White, the frontman for the group. "We think it's a game changer for both Ottawa and cities across Ontario now that they'll be able to choose what voting system they can have."

However, it's up to council to decide whether to adopt ranked ballots. A number of councillors — including Mathieu Fleury, Catherine McKenney, Tobi Nussbaum, Jeff Leiper, Marianne Wilkinson and David Chernushenko — have said they support ranked ballots, while others have expressed interest in learning more about the system.

Even Mayor Jim Watson, who isn't completely supportive of the idea, said in the past he'd be "quite happy to have the issue before council and to have a debate on it."
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson has said he'd welcome a debate at council on switching to a ranked-ballot system. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

The province says the new legislation will call for consultations before a municipality changes its voting rules, but that cities should be able to use ranked ballots in time for the 2018 municipal election.

"We hope that councils all across Ontario have the wisdom to embrace this obvious positive change," said Ted McMeekin, the minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

How it works

With a ranked ballot, voters indicate their first, second and third choices for mayor or other elected official. Whichever candidate gets the fewest votes is eliminated.

If your candidate is dropped off the list, then your vote goes to your second choice. This process continues until someone has more than 50 per cent of the vote. There is only a single round of voting and the votes are usually tabulated by computers.

It's not a new concept: In the U.S., San Francisco, Calif., and Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., have embraced the ranked ballot.

The system is used in municipalities all over England, and members of Australia's House of Representatives are chosen by ranked ballots.

What people like about ranked ballots

The obvious benefit is that the winner has more than a mere plurality of support from the voters. Consider that in 2013, the mayor of Boston was elected with less than 20 per cent of the vote — hardly an overwhelming mandate from the people.

Also, ranked ballots effectively put an end to strategic voting. Currently, someone who may want to mark an X for, say, a long-shot environmentalist candidate, worries that her vote could indirectly help a candidate who doesn't share her view. So she votes for her second choice, a safer, middle-of-the-road candidate.

But with ranked ballots you can vote with your heart on the first ballot and with your head on the second, without the fear of unintended consequences, say proponents.

And because all candidates are vying to be voters' first and second choices, the ideas and platform policies of less popular candidates could help influence the winner's agenda. That wooing factor is also the reason that ranked-ballot voting tamps down negative campaigning.

Supporters of ranked ballots also argue that the system leads to higher voter turnout, more voter engagement and more respectful campaigns, points all echoed by McMeekin at his news conference Monday. 

"Our current electoral system is really based on competition and mud slinging, and so a lot of potential candidates might not even sign up to be candidates in our current system because they don't want to deal with that type of politics," said Grove-White.

"What we see with ranked-choice voting is a more positive type of politics. So we may attract different types of candidates with different types of ideas ... which can inspire a new generation of voters."

Other changes to Elections Act

The proposed legislation will also allow municipalities to ban corporate and union donations, as Toronto currently does.

This issue may be a harder sell at Ottawa city council. Although there are a number of councillors who did not accept these sorts of donations in the 2014 election, there seems to be little appetite to change the rules.

Coun. Tobi Nussbaum tabled a motion last year to ask the province to give the city the power to ban corporate and union donations, but it failed. Now that the province has given cities the power to ban the contributions, the issue is back in council's court and Nussbaum is expected to take up the cause once again.

Watson, who in the past has staunchly defended the practice, raised more than $97,000 from corporate and union donors in 2014.

The province is also shortening the campaign period for municipal elections. Candidate nominations will now begin on May 1 instead of Jan. 1. 

As well, municipalities are now officially responsible for removing barriers that could affect electors and candidates with disabilities.