Ranked ballots vs. first-past-the-post: Which is fairer?

The debate over how to elect local councillors across Ontario is back in the headlines after the Wynne government tabled a bill at Queen's Park on Monday allowing the province's municipalities to use ranked ballots in elections.

'A lot of people resist it largely because they prefer the devil they know versus the devil they don't know'

Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Ted McMeekin, tabled legislation Monday that would allow Ontario municipalities to use ranked ballots as early as 2018. (CBC)

The debate over how to elect local councillors across Ontario is back in the headlines after the Wynne government tabled a bill at Queen's Park on Monday allowing the province's municipalities to use ranked ballots in elections. 

That move has politicians, activists and experts facing off over which is fairer: a system that allows voters to rank as many as three candidates in order of preference, or the current first-past-the-post-system that allows them to choose just one?

Toronto has come down on both sides of the debate. Back in 2013, city council voted to ask the province to bring in the option of ranked ballots for municipalities. But last October, councillors voted again, saying no to the idea.

"Make it a ballot question," Justin Di Ciano told CBC News Monday.  Di Ciano, who is skeptical about ranked ballots, was the councillor behind the last minute motion to reverse the 2013 vote. He insists public consultations on ranked ballots are more important now than ever.

First-past-the-post not widely used

"Consult the public, study the process, give councillors the right information on which to vote, but ultimately have the people of Toronto [decide] in the next election how they would like to see their councillors voted in in the future."

But at least one political expert has a very different view from Di Ciano on ranked ballots.

Is it fair that a government can have a majority... even though the majority of people did not vote for them?- Prof. Nelson Wiseman, director of Canadian Studies at the University of Toronto

"Is it a fairer system? A lot people think it is," the University of Toronto's Canadian Studies director Nelson Wiseman told CBC News.

"Among those who study electoral systems, the preponderance of opinion is that the least fair system is first-past-the-post and that's why it's actually not used in many countries."

In 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.

Proponents of the system say it's a fairer process than what the city currently uses.

"If you look at the way we currently do it under first-past-the-post you actually find that you are not always electing somebody who has a lot of support," said Katherine Skene, co-chair of the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (RaBIT).

Katherine Skene, co-chair of the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto, welcomed the announcement by the Wynne government Monday and says the current first-past-the-post voting system isn't fair. (CBC)

"With ranked ballots... you need as many votes as you can possibly have… You often have to have second place votes and third place votes in order to actually get elected."

Contrast that to the current system, in which the Liberals won the last federal election with just 39.5 per cent of the vote — a perfect example of how first-the-post voting means that a party that doesn't win a majority can end up in power, according to Wiseman. In 2006, then-Conservative-leader Stephen Harper took the government with 40.3 per cent.

'No magic majority'

But for Di Ciano ranked ballots solve nothing.

"[It] essentially replaces people's first choice with people's second choice," he said. "There is no magic majority."

Di Ciano also contends not everyone's second choice counts equally under a ranked ballot system. "It might just be a very small fraction of the electorate whose second choice matters because you're only taking the second choice from the first candidate that has the fewest firsts then the second candidate who has the fewest firsts."

Ward 5 councillor Justin Di Ciano was behind a last-minute motion in October 2015 that saw Toronto city council reverse a 2013 decision asking the province to allow for ranked balloting. (Justin Di Ciano)

"There's actually more strategy and more confusion in this race," he said.

Wiseman says he often hears the argument that the system is too complicated when he lectures about ranked balloting. "A lot of people resist it largely because they prefer the devil they know versus the devil they don't know."

His response: "Is it fair that a government can have a majority, pass anything it wants even though the majority of people did not vote for them? If you have a ranked ballot, you can say the majority of people didn't vote them for number one, but a majority of people did prefer them over others."

'Didn't we elect people?'

Under the legislation, which could be in place as early as 2018, no municipality will be required to adopt rank balloting. And neither will the province, something Di Ciano finds peculiar.

"I'm actually confused that if it's such a good system that the province brought forward for the municipalities why aren't they bringing it forward for Ontario?"

In 2007, a similar reform was proposed for provincial elections, but voters rejected it in a referendum.

On that point, Wiseman agrees with Di Ciano. But as for public consultations? He says there's no point.

"Should the public vote on the budget? Should the public vote on Smart Track? Didn't we elect people? If we don't like what they do, vote against them the next time."