Will Toronto Lead or Follow on Ranked Ballots?
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Will Toronto Lead or Follow on Ranked Ballots?

Justin Di Ciano's motion against ranked ballots only shows how much momentum there is behind voting reform, argues Dave Meslin.

Photo by asianz from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Photo by asianz from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Last Thursday, City Councillor Justin Di Ciano (Ward 5, Etobicoke-Lakeshore) inadvertently delivered a boost to democratic reform efforts in Toronto and across Ontario.

Just as the Province of Ontario was putting the final touches on important democratic reforms that have been in the works for years, Di Ciano put forward a motion asking the province to cancel the entire process. Surprisingly, a majority of his colleagues agreed with him and supported his motion.

This strange and unexpected decision from City Council revealed two things:

  1. Many City Councillors are worried about losing power (and their jobs) under a fair voting system, and they are beginning to fight back.
  2. Ranked ballots are coming, and they are unstoppable.

The first revelation is inevitable. Ghandi famously said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”. It’s a badge of honour and a coming-of-age milestone for the RaBIT campaign that after five years of campaigning, their opponents are entering the third phase of the journey, attempting to coordinate an offensive strategy. In a way, last week was a Bar Mitzvah for democratic reformers in Toronto. Mazel tov, to all!

The second revelation is equally exciting, especially since it was an unintended—and opposite—consequence of Di Ciano’s motion.

The momentum behind ranked ballots was illuminated by the swift response of the province, the media, the public and city councillors. While the motion clearly asked the province not to allow for the option of ranked ballots in Ontario, the response from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing was deservedly dismissive. In polite and diplomatic terms, Council was told “haha… no”.

The media was less polite. Royson James described Di Ciano’s supporters as a “Den of Snakes,” Edward Keenan argued that his four-year-old understands the principles behind ranked ballots, while some councillors appear to think their constituents do not, and a Toronto Star editorial described their actions as “gross self-interest”. Chris Selley called anti-ranked ballot councilors “utterly pathetic” in the National Post and Matt Elliot described the vote as “self-serving and insulting to voters” in Metro.

Nothing positive was written in any paper, only an avalanche of harsh criticism and anger. The public was equally outraged. Within 24 hours, Twitter exploded with outrage and derision, blogger (and Torontoist contributor) Sean Marshall colourfully mapped out the vote, another blogger cross-referenced each Councillor’s vote with their election results and City Slikr dished out some rage. Councillor Paul Ainslie (Ward 43, Scarborough East) publicly accused his colleagues of being “chickens”.

Responding to the public outcry, councillors such as Mary Fragedakis (Ward 29, Toronto-Danforth) and Paula Fletcher (Ward 30, Toronto-Danforth) explained to their constituents that they were only trying to encourage more consultation (which is quite odd, since the motion was explicitly worded to end all consultation). Other councillors who supported Di Ciano’s motion, such as Councillor Robinson (Ward 25, Don Valley West) and Cesar Palacio (Ward 17, Davenport), have gone ever further and reconfirmed their commitment to ranked ballots and their support of the RaBIT campaign.

In the end, Di Ciano’s motion had no affect on the provincial process whatsoever, but has triggered a backlash that demonstrates support for voting reform.

This surge of support for ranked ballots is consistent with the history of the movement in Toronto. It started in 2010 with the Better Ballots project that explored 14 options for democratic reform in Toronto. Better Ballots held four town halls across Toronto (in all regions, including Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke) and also hosted a mayoral debate. The RaBIT campaign was born shortly afterwards and quickly attracted support from community leaders, organizations, artists, councillors and journalists. City staff informed Council that they would require permission from the province in order to use ranked ballots which lead to the creation of the Local Choice campaign and a petition signed by 8,500 voters in Toronto. City Council consulted the public, inviting public deputations at the Government Management Committee, and then voted 26-15 in favour of formally asking the province for permission to use ranked ballots.

Both the NDP and the Liberal party offered private members bills in 2014 to allow for ranked ballots and Bill 166 was on the path to victory when the provincial election was called and the parliament was dissolved. During the election, the NDP campaigned on a promise that if elected, they would give Toronto the permission to use ranked ballots. The Liberals went a step further and, responding to the Local Choice campaign, promised that they would give all 444 municipalities the option to use ranked ballots.

Shortly after winning the election, Kathleen Wynne directed her new Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Ted McMeekin, to implement opt-in ranked ballots in time for the 2018 municipal election. Earlier this year, McMeekin announced the drafting of new legislation and launched a province-wide public consultation.

In a nutshell, that’s how we got to where we are. And it explains why Di Ciano’s motion, which requested that the entire process simply be thrown out the window, has been described by journalists and councillors as “foul,” “unbelievably shocking,” “shameful,” and “disgraceful”.

Moving forward, here’s what we know for sure: the Province of Ontario will allow ranked ballots, for all of Ontario’s 444 municipalities, for the 2018 election. Last week’s embarrassing fiasco at City Hall only serves to re-enforce the inevitability of this legislation.

The only question remaining is: Who is going to lead? Which Ontario municipalities will boldly pioneer fair and friendly elections in Canada and which will choose to passively observe from the sidelines?

Regrettably, Toronto doesn’t have a strong reputation for leading. We do great things, but we tend to cautiously wait until others have done so first. Toronto has finally installed physically separated bike lanes downtown, years after they’d already been installed in New York, Vancouver and Montreal. We’re beginning to explore online voting for citizens with physical disabilities, while Markham has already been used online voting for 12 years. We launched the Bixi bike-share program two years after Montréal, four years after Paris and sixteen years after Copenhagen. We’re cautiously exploring legalised street murals, after similar projects have already been approved and implemented in Ottawa, Halifax, Vancouver and Kitchener. Food trucks, light rapid transit, Presto cards, … I could go on and on.

Let’s break the tradition. Let’s lead on ranked ballots. We can’t be pioneers in North America, since ranked ballots are already being used in large cities like San Francisco, Minneapolis. But we can be pioneers here at home. Canada is the only OECD country that uses first-past-the-post to elect all levels of government. Vote-splitting, strategic voting, distorted results—these things can all be a thing of the past, if we can simply break-free of Toronto’s tendency to embrace risk-averse conservatism at City Hall.

Ranked ballots are already used by every party in Canada to choose their own leaders and candidates. And Toronto Council themselves already use runoff voting to appoint interim councillors.

Other cities in Ontario are already hinting at their own support. Mississauga mayor Bonnie Crombie has expressed her preference for ranked ballots, Kingston City Council has adopted a motion in favour of the reform and Brockville Councillor Leigh Bursey has just released a report encouraging his council to adopt ranked ballots. Other municipalities have already adopted pro-reform motions and citizens are forming advocacy groups all across the province.

If you want to wait until 2022 to vote in a fair and friendly election, then all you have to do is sit back and watch Toronto city council do what they do best: delay, polarize, procrastinate and backtrack.

But if you want to see Toronto implement ranked ballots in 2018, then you’ll need to join the movement for reform. With your help and support, Toronto can lead in 2018 and open the floodgates to meaningful voting reform across Canada.

There’s no doubt that ranked ballots are coming to cities across Ontario. The only question is: will Toronto lead, or follow?

Dave Meslin is the founder of the RaBIT campaign, Coordinator of 123Ontario, and is currently crowd-sourcing 100 remedies for our broken democracy.