There are few things so fundamental to our democracy—at every level of government—as our voting system. We currently have a first-past-the-post arrangement, where the election is simply won by the candidate with the most votes; an absolute majority isn’t required. This set-up appears to have served us very poorly. Voter turnout is low, often well below 50 per cent; candidates win sweeping mandates even when the majority of those who voted chose other candidates, as was the case with Rob Ford in Toronto, Stephen Harper in Ottawa, and Dalton McGuinty at Queen’s Park; and elections themselves are turned into divisive strategy games based not so much on articulations of principles and policy proposals but carving up the electorate into blocks with wedge issues.
Proposals to change this system usually stall in the gates. Talking about process is boring, and sometimes complicated, and in almost every case whoever is in power has seen the existing structure work in their favour, so they have little appetite for change. But, as the Toronto Star reported earlier this week, an electoral revision that could help repair our system and make it more democratic is now on the agenda at City Hall. Rob Ford’s executive committee has asked city staff to study a ranked-balloting system proposed by activist Dave Meslin’s organization, Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (RaBIT). And Ford ally Paul Ainslie says he hopes to bring the proposal to implement ranked balloting (a.k.a. preferential voting) in Toronto before city council by November. He wants to have it in place for the 2018 election.
And that’s a good thing. It’s possible, under our system, that the candidate a majority of voters like the least can actually win. Imagine a race in which one fascist is running against four democratic candidates. Only a small minority of the population likes fascism, and the rest are horrified by it; indeed, that’s partly why there are so many anti-fascists running. But if the four like-minded candidates split the vote of the freedom-loving majority, the fascist can win.
This is not some unthinkable, dystopian possibility. The combined votes of George Smitherman and Joe Pantalone in 2010 were higher than Rob Ford’s total. And, as the Star reports, councillor James Pasternak won in 2010 with only 19 per cent of the vote, Frank Di Giorgio with 27 per cent, Kristyn Wong-Tam with just 28 per cent.
Under a ranked balloting system, instead of just checking a box beside his or her choice, a voter ranks the candidates in order of preference. If, after the votes are tabulated, no candidate has a majority, there is an “instant run-off”: The least popular candidate is dropped from the ballot and the second-choice opinion of the votes of his or her supporters are counted and added to the totals. If, at that point, no candidate has a majority, another is dropped. The process continues until someone gets more than 50 per cent of the vote.
The result more accurately reflects the will of the electorate, ensuring that a majority of the voters at least gave some support to the eventual winner. The ranked system also transforms the process. Right now, many candidates are discouraged from running for fear of “splitting the vote,” and many who do run are essentially ignored as “fringe candidates,” since voting for a candidate who appears unlikely to receive broad support amounts to wasting one’s ballot. Consequently, the campaign focuses on a tiny number of perceived frontrunners, who debate a few prominent wedge issues and ignore whatever ideas other candidates might have brought to the table. Ranked balloting solves this problem, ensuring that a range of aspirants from similar points on the political spectrum won’t punish each other more than their ideological opponents. Each voter can support the candidate they like most, without fearing that selection will wind up benefiting the candidate they hate the most.
Ranked balloting is a transformative system that I normally wouldn’t write much about because, like a fringe candidate in our current structure, it’s seemed so unlikely to have a local breakthrough. But come this fall, we might actually start the process of implementing ranked balloting here. It would lead to better elections, and produce better results. I vote for that.