Will Toronto actually adopt ranked-ballot voting?
Last week, mayor John Tory announced his support for ranked balloting, an alternative to the city’s first-past-the-post electoral system. Under a ranked balloting system, voters choose their first, second and third picks for a particular political office. If no candidate captures a majority of the first-choice votes, election officials start counting second- and third-choice votes until someone emerges with a clear majority. (The exact process is hard to describe, but here’s an explanatory video.) Proponents argue the system eliminates vote splitting, reduces strategic voting and prevents candidates from dropping out just because they’re behind in the polls.
WOULD IT WORK?
Cities like San Francisco and London, England, already use ranked ballots. Toronto city council expressed its interest in adopting the system back in the summer of 2013, when councillors voted to ask the province to amend the Municipal Elections Act to “authorize the use and establish the framework of Ranked Choice Voting.”
Requesting that Queen’s Park do something is, of course, very different from Queen’s Park actually doing it. But the signs are promising: premier Kathleen Wynne has already commanded her municipal affairs and housing minister to make the changes necessary to allow cities to use ranked ballots. Given Wynne’s unambiguous support and majority government, Queen’s Park will likely grant Toronto’s request.
If it does, the question will return to city council for another vote. Five of the 15 councillors who opposed ranked balloting in 2013 are no longer on council, while only two of 26 supporting councillors are gone. At least one of Toronto’s seven new councillors, Joe Cressy, supports ranked ballots. (And so, of course, does John Tory, who also gets a vote.) If each of the incumbents who voted in favour of ranked ballots in 2013 did so again when the issue returned to council, the item would have more than enough support. “We’ve had no indication that city council wouldn’t follow through,” says Katherine Skene, co-chair of the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto, an organization that has consulted with both Tory and the province on the introduction of ranked balloting.
Critics argue that ranked balloting is a more time-consuming and complex system than first-past-the-post. If anything is going to scuttle the idea in Toronto, though, it will be the monetary cost. A 2013 city staff report notes that the change would require “extensive public consultation” and “an extensive voter education campaign.” Voting staff would need training, and each polling station would initially need more staff to clarify how the system works, the report says. A ranked model would also require more ballots and new technology—though the city intends to buy new voting equipment for the next election, regardless. All of this would require money.
The experiences of cities that already use ranked balloting hint at what Toronto might expect to pay. In 2004, San Francisco (population 775,000 at the time) spent $1.6 million to upgrade voting equipment and another $800,000 on voter education. Minneapolis (population 400,000) spent $100,000 to mail voting guides to every household in the city, and the cost of elections increased by $350,000 when the city switched to ranked balloting, largely because staff spent 15 days hand-counting ballots—something Toronto would avoid with new technology. Regardless, with a population several times larger, Toronto would probably need to spend several million dollars on implementation and education.
“The cost is something that city staff would have to think about. There are obviously costs attached, but it’s not a difficult change to make,” says Skene. The future of ranked balloting in Toronto will likely depend on whether council sees things the same way.