Ottawa·Election 2018

Ranked ballots a reality for 1st time in Ontario municipal elections

For the first time in Ontario, an electoral system other than first-past-the-post will decide the results of one of this fall's municipal elections.

London has adopted ranked voting, while Cambridge and Kingston hold referendums

London held a mock election earlier this year to show people what ranked ballot forms would look like ahead of the Oct. 22 municipal election. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

For the first time in Ontario, an electoral system other than first-past-the-post will decide the results of one of this fall's municipal elections.

London, Ont., will make history in October as the first Canadian city to use a ranked ballot to elect both councillors and its mayor.

Meanwhile, Cambridge, Ont., and Kingston, Ont., are each holding referendums on implementing the system for the next elections in 2022.

The rest of the province will be watching.

Paul Hubert, London's deputy mayor, initially opposed the switch, but it ended up being implemented after a council vote that saw the majority of incumbents vote in favour.

Hubert, who is not running for reelection, said the switch to the new system is expected to cost the city an additional $350,000.

"Of course, we're the first. The new model always costs more than the model that's been out for a few years," Hubert said.

Those costs included designing ballots where voters can rank candidates by preference and informing the electorate how casting a ballot has changed.

"Quite frankly I'm going to have to do some work in September and October to determine who my choices are," Hubert said.

"And so the electorate has to engage more and be a little bit more aware so they can make those choices."

Bryan Paterson is seeking reelection as Kingston's mayor. He said city council decided unanimously that electoral reform should be put directly to the electorate. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

How the systems work

Here's how the two voting systems differ from one another:

  • In the current first-past-the-post system, voters tick just one box for mayor and their councillor. 
  • In contrast, with a ranked ballot system, voters would mark their first, second and third choice of candidates. If no candidate wins a majority, the person with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated. The second-place choices of those who voted for that candidate are then counted — and so on — until one candidate wins a majority.

Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson said his council chose to put changing the electoral system to voters rather than decide themselves.

"It was passed unanimously because I think most people felt that was the fairest way to make the decision," Paterson said.

The referendum, however, will probably not be binding as it's unlikely to meet the legal threshold for voter turnout, which is more than 50 per cent, according to Paterson.

"Even if it's not binding in a legal sense, my feeling is it would be binding in a political sense," he said.

Paterson, who is running for reelection, said he hasn't taken a position on ranked ballots versus first-past-the-post.

But if he wins, he has promised to abide by the results of the referendum.

Colum Grove-White, spokesperson for Ottawa 123, says electoral reform advocates will be closely watching the referendums in Cambridge and Kingston, as well as the implementation of ranked ballots in London. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Possible campaign issue in Ottawa

While ranked ballots aren't being put to a vote in Ottawa this year, advocates in the nation's capital say they'll be closely watching both the London election and the referendums in Kingston and Cambridge.

"I'm really interested to see if other cities like Ottawa or other Ontario cities would want to take a different approach — maybe with something like a citizen's assembly or something along those lines," said Colum Grove-White, spokesperson for Ottawa 123.

Grove-White said voting reform could still become an election issue in Ottawa: Jim Watson, the city's incumbent mayor, has come out against ranked ballots, while main challenger Clive Doucet supports the change.

He also said ranked ballots can more accurately represent the public's will in candidate-laden ridings like Ottawa's Orléans ward, where 17 people are running.

In an evenly-split 17-way race under the first-past-the-post system, a candidate could win with as little as six per cent of the vote.

Ottawa 123 has sent a survey to all candidates, Grove-White said, asking them to stake out a position on the issue.  

Toronto scramble

Toronto's city council has come down on both sides: Councillors voted in 2013 for the province to give municipalities the power to change their voting system, but came out against making the change in 2015.

Toronto council also voted against studying the issue through an independent body in 2016, after the province granted municipalities the power to change their system. 

Recently, however, the Ontario PC government reduced the size of Toronto city council from 47 to 25 — and the issue of voting reform has since fallen out of the discussion.

With files from Joanne Chianello