Better Ballots for a Better City Council
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Better Ballots for a Better City Council

Illustration by Brian McLachlan/Torontoist.

On Monday, just as hopefuls began filing their papers to run in the October 2010 municipal election, the Better Ballots Initiative launched its website. The initiative aims to spark a dialogue on how to make Toronto’s City Council elections more relevant, effective, fair, and participatory.

According to the group’s leader, long-time civic activist Dave Meslin, the city is not being properly represented by Council. In a recent blog post, Meslin wrote that “By any measure, our city elections are failing us. Voter turnout is astonishingly low, turnover of Councilors is extremely rare, and our Council is surprisingly white and male for a city that allegedly prides itself on its diversity.” Better Ballots wants to explore ways to more fairly reflect the city’s populace, starting with reform to the electoral system.
Like provincial and federal elections, Toronto uses the First Past the Post (FPTP) system, which rewards the candidate who has more votes than all the others. But Meslin told us that FPTP is a misleading term: “There actually is no post you have to pass. It should be called first to the post,” he said. Often, candidates for Council will win their seat with less than 30% of the total ballots cast—making the fact that they got more than the other hopefuls less than compelling.
Meslin says Better Ballots is not advocating for any one replacement of the FPTP system, but wants to get the discussion going on a variety of possible alternatives. One option the group is considering is ranked ballots, where voters rank their choices, and if no candidate achieves a majority then the candidate with the least votes is automatically dropped off and their votes are reallocated to the second choice listed on the ballot; this is called an Instant Runoff and continues until someone wins a majority. Another possibility is the Single Transferable Vote, a system that uses multi-member districts and ensures proportional results. It uses a ranked ballot and is similar to an Instant Runoff, except that it also has a mechanism where candidates can achieve a “surplus” vote that is proportionately transferred to other candidates, based on voters’ ranked choices.
Another interesting way to make representation fairer, Meslin explains, is to have Borough Councils as they do in cities like Montreal. In this system, Toronto would still have a mayor and council, but subdivisions—or boroughs—of the city would also have their own mayor and council, recognizing the diversity and autonomy of Toronto’s many regions. Meslin pointed out that the divisions could be based on pre-Megacity lines.
Implementing municipal term limits and having a local party system independent from the provincial or federal parties are other ideas involved in the dialogue.
Better Ballots came out of the Toronto City Summit Alliance, a multi-issue activist group, but has always maintained its independence. It prides itself on being bi-partisan, inclusive, and diverse; what unites the people behind it is their advocacy for change. While reform is unlikely by the time Torontonians go to the polls later this year, Meslin aims to keep the discussion around how we vote going in the years to come.
The Better Ballots Initiative will be hosting a series of public forums on voting reform across the city this spring. Sign up for updates here.