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Ranking the Lesser of All Evils

September 14, 2014

So we finally know exactly who will be on the ballot for mayor of our quiet little town of Toronto.
It’s not who we expected, which isn’t surprising in a strange way, but it is done.
In a sane world the municipal campaign wouldn’t start until now. Six weeks is more than enough time to hear from the main candidates and make a decision. If it’s good enough for federal elections why isn’t it good enough for city elections?

In all these months the main issues of this election have been discussed ad nauseum: Transit, Anyone But Ford, Taxes, Services, oh and Transit. So how about talking about something else? How about talking about the democratic machinery we are participating in as citizens?

Wow, boring right? Or maybe it’s too complicated? Journalists, politicians and pundits tell us that citizens don’t have time or interest for such things.

Well tough.

This entire four year slow motion train wreck was enabled by some structural failures in our democratic system. From a close two-and-a-half-way election four years ago, to the lack of impeachment powers at the municipal level, to wasted years and millions due to a lack of central decision making on long term, regional transit planning.

A few days ago, before Friday’s big news about the Ford family playing musical chairs at the last second, some current and former candidates for mayor addressed one simple way of improving our democratic system. David Soknaki and Olivia Chow pledged support for ranked ballots in city elections and for reform to make democracy more representative at all levels of government. John Tory says he’d rather wait for a report from the province on democratic reform. Prudent and cautious as usual for Tory, but unnecessary. Admitting the fact that our current system is flawed and committing to fight to fix it does not require a report from a Royal Commission. You’d think someone who has lost so many elections would be more willing to change the system. Rob Ford did not reply to that article’s request and no one knows what Doug Ford thinks of such a proposal, but I suspect the answer is ‘not much’.

The idea of ranked ballots is very simple and described well by the Ranked Ballot Initiative (RaBIT) which is trying to get this change adopted. Ranked ballots are not without controversy. One of the other major democratic reform groups active in Toronto, the national Fair Vote Canada (fantastic organization, sign their Declaration of Voter Rights!), is opposed to ranked ballots and other instant runoff systems. This is because simply ranking candidates and doing runoffs does not guarantee that election results will match the proportion of votes in the population. This is true, but they do provide less ambiguous results as the winner will always have at least half the city’s votes. Even Rob Ford’s landslide win last election only amounted to 47% of the votes. A clear win but not what many journalists lazily continue to call a ‘majority’. Meanwhile around 10% of the vote from that election went to a third candidate who, it turned out, could never win. In a ranked system at least those voters would have had a second shot to influence the real contest between Smitherman and Ford, perhaps leading to the same result. Another benefit could be to discourage candidates from burning bridges by disparaging similar candidates to themselves whose second and third choices they would like to get in the instant runoffs.

You could say that in normal years, the Toronto Mayoral election already has a flavour of ranked ballots as candidates self-select and drop out before the deadline when it becomes clear they can’t win. I’d rather the voters make that choice, but no matter. Of course, this is not a normal election year with the deadline this year seeing the incumbent drop out while his brother jumps in to the race for the final stretch. Now more than ever we need to acknowledge that an election choice is more subtle than any winner-take-all contest can ever capture. Voters are forced to choose the lesser of all evils and vote strategically about who they want as well as keep in mind who they are afraid might win. Why not let the voters rank the evils directly and stop worrying? It would be more honest.

Good for Olivia Chow for supporting democratic reform so directly.

Government and democracy are about more than just finding efficiencies, lowering taxes or even getting people moving. Informed and responsible citizens of a democracy need to work to make the system better, more representative and more responsible. Just because the media and many politicians find that too boring or pretend it is too complicated is no excuse.

So let’s get on with it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2014 12:22 am

    Actually Fair Vote Canada is NOT opposed to a preferential ballot for mayor. But when you refer to the lack of impeachment powers at the municipal level, this suggests we should also consider other options for choosing a mayor, like making the mayor accountable to Council and chosen by Council, the normal method in the most UK cities.

    When it comes to electing councillors, changing from one winner-take-all system to another will not make council reflect Toronto’s diversity any better. In fact, it is more likely to reduce it: the preferential ballot tends to elect the lesser of evils. Turns out vote splitting is how minority groups or minority opinions win seats, in our skewed winner-take-all universe; look at Naheed Nenshi. Ranked ballots in multi-member wards would fix the problem, the method used to elect councils in Glasgow, Dublin, Edinburgh and Belfast. Vancouver would be a great place to start that, since they elect all ten council members at large by a winner-takes-all-ten system.

  2. Andrew Eisenberg permalink
    September 15, 2014 5:17 pm

    The nice thing about preferential ballots is that it is simple to understand and there’s little math behind it. I do think that STV’s failure in BC is partially due to the complexity of the system.

    However flawed it is, it’s better than what we’ve got.

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