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Ranked ballots in single member wards: Change without a difference

In politics, quick fixes and magic bullets usually represent change without a difference.  The emerging left-to-right coalition organized by the “Ranked Ballot Initiative” (RaBit) in Toronto is just such a case.

Now that PR-opponent Toronto Mayor John Tory has hopped on board, it is worth revisiting a debate that has caused a lot of confusion and division among progressives.

What’s the confusion?

a) Ranked ballots

RaBit elevated the phrase “ranked ballots” to the level of a voting system. Ballots are a tool, not a “system.” They cannot produce representation when used in single-member wards or electoral districts.  Ranked ballots can be used in both proportional and winner-take-all voting systems.

I’m astounded by some of the folks who have signed on to ranked ballots in single member jurisdictions, and by how many of my friends assume I would support this. 

“Ranked ballots” in that context are a minor tweak of the current winner-take-all system. It “improves” first-past-the-post by actually setting the post at 50 per cent + 1. Eeveryone else remains unrepresented losers. Just like now. It formalizes negative voting rather than reducing it, and seeks to entrench monolithic “centrist” representation and rule. In Toronto’s last municipal election, with the exception of a couple of wards, the results would have been exactly the same.

b) Who do politicians represent?

Politicians may pretend, but they can’t honestly represent everyone in their ward or district. They may help any constituent with a sewer backup, pothole or speed bump, but that’s service -- not representation. Conflating the two blurs the fact that one politician cannot be for and against the Scarborough subway, safe injection sites or building a casino on the waterfront.

c) Majority rule

In a democracy, all voters should be able to obtain representation of their choice. Then a majority of representatives has a democratic claim to govern. It is the (mathematical) majority (of voters, not ridings or wards) who legitimize the mandate. The democratic deficit so apparent with winner-take-all legislatures and governments is evident at the federal (Harper: 39 per cent) and provincial (Wynne: 38 per cent) levels but the principle pertains at all levels. It is not enough that individually elected representatives receive 50 per cent +1 while legions of voters have no representation of their choice. Politicians and parties win and lose. Voters are entitled to representation whether they support the governing party or opposition. 

Auspicious timing

“Ranked ballots” are being presented in Toronto as an alternative to proportional representation. This is occurring just as we head into a federal election in which, Justin Trudeau campaigned in the leadership race in support of “ranked ballots” in single member ridings. However it should be noted that Resolution 31, sponosred by the federal Liberal caucus and passed at the Liberal Party's 2014 Policy Convention indicates a healthy and vigourous debate taking place within the party with the inclusion of PR and of the "and/or" statement below. 

AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT immediately after the next election, an all-Party process be instituted, involving expert assistance and citizen participation, to report to Parliament within 12 months with recommendations for electoral reforms including, without limitation, a preferential (ranked - ed) ballot and/or a form of proportional representation, to represent Canadians more fairly and serve Canada better.

It’s not hard to imagine some Liberals saying: “Olivia Chow, Mike Layton and nearly every New Democrat on Toronto Council support the ranked ballot. Surely if they say it’s good enough for Toronto, it’s good enough for Canada.”

Even if Mulcair’s NDP comes out of the federal election with more seats than the Liberals in a minority situationf, the chances of getting a proportional representation voting reform through the next Parliament will remain a huge challenge. 

Progressives in the NDP, Greens, Liberals and independents who are clear about proportional representation should not be promoting the use of ranked ballots in single member wards. A healthy debate in the Liberal caucus and party more generally will do a lot ot raise awareness about electoral reform and why PR is the better choice. 

What does Fair Vote Canada have to say?

Fair Vote Canada, the leading multi-partisan, non-partisan advocate for proportional representation has long held that,

Fair voting systems are based on the core democratic principle – voter equality. Fair voting systems to elect legislatures get as close as possible to treating all voters equally, regardless of their political beliefs or place of residence… Only when every voting citizen has a representative of his or her own choosing does the democratic majority in Parliament have a legitimate mandate to govern.
The Alternative Vote (or Instant Run-off Voting) (2009)

You can also read this myth-busting piece on the NO2AV website.

These principles were affirmed in a national referendum conducted by FVC in 2012 to decide whether to support RaBit’s call for single-ward municipal ranked ballots. FVC re-affirmed its exclusive focus on equal effective votes and proportional representation for legislative bodies at all levels of government including municipal councils.

Wilf Day covers that fractious debate here.

Ranked ballots in single member wards do not meet FVC’s democratic test. They are shiny and alluring because it is true that some councillors (and MPs/MPPs) are elected with less than 50 per cent of the vote. The political air we breathe night after night from the mainstream news, validates the model. Electing MPs is like Hockey Night in Canada. Of course there must be losers. Of course they must get nothing.

The truth is quite different. When there’s a legislature of any size to be chosen, nearly every voter can have a representative of their choosing. That’s proportional representation. That’s representative democracy.

Can PR work municipally?

Absolutely. Many cities around the world use forms of PR for municipal governance including Glasgow, Dublin, Stockholm, Berlin and Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was used extensively in about 20 Canadian municipalities including Winnipeg (1920-71) and Calgary (1916-61). It was squelched largely as a way to silence minority views and voters who were beginning to get themselves elected to the consternation of the powers that be.

Can PR work municipally without political parties?

Yes. Some jurisdictions like Wellington NZ have municipal PR without parties – but anti-party rhetoric is much overdone. In Toronto, for example, the reality is that the parties are present but not formalized, disciplined, overt or regulated. The political allegiances of most councillors are well known and. the party machines mobilize for their candidates during municipal elections. Often the same volunteers are out on the hustings for all levels of elections.

If our goal is to have democratically-elected, coherent, local government with discernible policy options among the contenders, then alliances among groups of candidates for Council are necessary and a helpful guide to voters. Since they exist, we should want to bring them into the full light of day.

If we could see them, and they were elected democratically, we could then have a useful public debate about how their fundraising and spending should be regulated and how much public financing they should get.

Multi-member wards

Many people will remember that until ten years ago, Toronto had multi-member wards with two representatives. Vancouver councillors are elected at large -- no wards. Incumbent Toronto city politicians may be fond of their fiefdoms -- but there is nothing foreign to Canada about multi-member wards.


Either we believe in the democratic principle of equal votes at all levels of government, or we don’t. Either we believe that all voters are entitled to representation of their choice -- in every election -- or we don’t. Either we believe that the power to legislate, tax, spend and enforce the laws belongs to representatives of a majority of voters -- or we don’t.

Progressive supporters of the RaBiT ranked ballot campaign are undermining the federal NDP and Green Party push for proportional representation -- and providing ammunition for Justin Trudeau’s proposed re-packaging of the undemocratic status quo.

It’s not too late to reconsider.

Further reading

The Alternative Vote (or Instant Run-off Voting) (Fair Vote Canada)

Why change Fair Vote Canada's Statement of Purpose? (Wilf Day)

Governing Toronto: Let’s Try Civic Democracy (Toronto Democracy Initiative - 2009)

Alternative Vote Myths (NO2AV)

Moving forward on municipal voting reform in Toronto (Larry Gorden, 2010)

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