Let’s fix everything about how Toronto elects its mayor

The case for the ranked ballot
Ivor Tossell

There are 2.6 million people in Toronto, and most of them are running for mayor.

Thanks to Mayor Rob Ford’s possible removal from office, the floodgates have opened to rumoured contenders: Councillors like Shelley Caroll, Adam Vaughan, Karen Stintz and even Giorgio Mammoliti, to say nothing of outsiders like Olivia Chow, Kathleen Wynne and John Tory, who is very good at maybe-running for things. The mayor himself loudly declared his candidacy, before disappearing on a pre-Christmas-vacation vacation ten days ago.

“There’s a running joke: there’s so many of them, maybe we should cut to the chase and have a 44-member game of Survivor,” said Carroll, the former budget chief and suburban centre-leftist, who’s one of the few to have actually declared. Meanwhile, at an event last week, Vaughan was busy sardonically handing out buttons he’d made, so that half the room ended up badged “I’m Running For Mayor Too!”

For as long as Rob Ford has been in power, the conversation about the next election has been about how many people will run against him, instead of what they’ll be running on. The man is so polarizing that the question isn’t whether an opponent can draw support from his fervent base, but how his opposition will split their vote.

In this latest poll’s scenarios, for instance, Chow would beat Ford and a range of competitors. Without her in the race though, Ford would beat a range of three- or four-way splits against him. The poll’s results are exasperating in their attempts to puzzle through all the permutations: Chow, Ford, Vaughan, and Carroll; Chow, Ford, Tory, Vaughan and Carroll; Chow, Chow, Chow, eggs and Chow; Ford, Vaughan, eggs, sausage and Chow, and so on.

These are not the makings of a fruitful conversation. Canadians like to grouse about our first-past-the-post elections, but have been reluctant to abandon their simplicity. Four provincial referenda on full-scale reworkings of provincial governments have failed. In Toronto, though, a more manageable change might be in the works.

In Toronto, Dave Meslin, a kinetic, well-known public advocate, has spent the past year lining up support for ranked ballots, a system that could bring election results more in line with what the majority of voters would prefer. Meslin has assembled a roster of city councillors who’ve endorsed his drive, including some of Rob Ford’s staunch conservative allies, who’ve taken both Meslin and and his proposal to their town halls, where the idea seems to have been warmly received. The logistics of preparing for an election has ruled out 2014, but in order to prod the provincial government into rewriting election laws to open the door for 2018, Meslin and his allies hope to see a council vote that will get the ball rolling this coming spring.

It works like this: Instead of voting for one candidate, voters would instead rank the candidates in order of preference. When the votes are counted, if a single candidate has 50% of the first-choice vote, they win. If nobody reaches 50%, then the last-place finisher is dropped from the ballot, and their supporters’ second-choice votes are distributed. The votes are counted again, and the process repeats itself until someone has secured 50% of the vote.

In this way, a broader consensus is needed to get elected; strategic voting becomes a secondary consideration; and candidates have more incentive to be less polarizing. After all, a highly divisive figure makes a good first choice for their supporters, but is unlikely to be a popular second choice. While our current system favours those who can divide their enemies, ranked ballots tilt the playing field towards moderates and coalitions.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about ranked ballots is how unremarkable they are. They’re in widespread use in cities across the United States, including Minneapolis and San Francisco. Brian Tanguay, a professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University, notes that ranked ballots were common in Manitoba until the mid-1950s. The upcoming federal Liberal leadership race will be decided by ranked ballots. Australia has used it nationally for almost a century, and has yet to dissolve.

For all that, the system is hardly a slam-dunk amongst students of electoral reform, who have been discussing the merits of various voting systems for decades. (Among other pontificators, Winston Churchill famously slammed it in 1931 for deciding elections on “the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates” – namely, the last-place finishers. But then, Churchill also called the status quo a provider of “fluke representation, freak representation, capricious representation.”) And today, some voting-reform advocates see it as an inadequate half-measure that will hold back progress towards truly proportional representation.

But if it’s a cautions step, then so be it. It’s acheivable. There’s little suggestion that, for all the ranked ballot’s quirks, it’d be a step backwards. It might even whet voters appetites for more ambitious schemes, such as moving to a system of at-large councillors, like in Vancouver. The ranked ballot’s draw to the centre may not appeal to radicals of any stripe, but Toronto—jolted by its ongoing experiment in gonzo mayoring—has acquired a taste for conciliation. Let’s not let the moment pass.