Kate Graham admits she took it personally when the Doug Ford government passed legislation in 2020 to block Ontario municipalities from using ranked ballots in future elections.
Graham is running for the Liberal Party in London North Centre, but in a previous job with the city, she worked as director of community innovation. One of her projects was to help the city follow through on council’s will to become the first jurisdiction in Canada to use ranked ballot voting in the 2018 municipal election.
It was a significant endeavour and not without risk. There were concerns about everything from added costs to technical challenges and questions about whether the voting results would take days to tabulate. Voters had to be informed about the new system in a PR campaign and at events where mock votes were held.
But by all accounts, London pulled it off well enough to inspire voters in other municipalities — including Kingston and Cambridge — to follow its lead and give ranked ballots a try in the next municipal election.
“The election went well,” said Graham about London’s 2018 vote. “We heard lots of positive comments during the election about people wanting to have more choice and more say.”
Unlike the first-past-the-post system, ranked ballots allow voters to rank candidates based on their preference. The votes are redistributed based on these rankings in subsequent vote counts until one candidate achieves a majority.
Supporters say it gives voters a greater choice.
Arielle Kayabaga, now an MP representing London West, has said the city’s experiment with ranked ballots “was a huge factor” in her decision to run as a first-time candidate in 2018, a campaign that ended with Kayabaga becoming the city’s first black woman councillor.
Then, in the fall of 2020, suddenly and without consultation or warning, Premier Ford pulled the plug on ranked ballots provincewide by including a clause that bars them in a piece of COVID-19 recovery legislation.
‘Not something he campaigned on’
“I have no idea why Ford decided to take it away, not only from London but from municipalities across the province,” said Graham. “It’s not something he campaigned on. It’s not something he talked to anyone about.”
When the Ford government moved to nix ranked ballots, officials said it was to save municipalities money and ensure voting systems were consistent across the province.
Now, with Ford’s Progressive Conservatives seeking re-election, platforms for the NDP, Greens and Liberals all promise to again allow municipalities the option of using ranked ballots if that’s what they choose. The Liberal platform goes further, promising to use ranked ballots in the next provincial election.
PC candidate Jerry Pribil is running in London North Centre against Graham and NDP incumbent Terence Kernaghan.
Pribil sees no reason why the PCs should revisit their stance on ranked ballots, saying they’re not worth the extra cost. He also points to London’s 2018 results, which would have been identical in a first-past-the-post election.
“I’m a common-sense guy and don’t see a reason why we should be supporting it,” said Pribil. “There was additional taxpayers’ expenses and the same results.”
A city report said it cost $515,000 more to use ranked ballots, although it also said some of those were first-time costs that wouldn’t be repeated in a second ranked ballot vote.
More reps would help, professor says
Laura Stephenson is an associate professor of political science at Western University who has studied ranked ballot elections.
She said ranked ballots need more trials before reaching any conclusions about whether they’re good or bad.
“Basing any change on a single election, I think, is foolhardy because you need to know what happens multiple times,” said Stephenson. “You never know if the result you got is a fluke or not. I think it was premature for Ford to clamp down on it. Until voters try something a couple of times, it’s really hard to get a feel for it.”
And while some professors, policy wonks and city staffers may have strong opinions about ranked ballots, Stephenson isn’t convinced it will be top of mind when voters mark their ballots on June 2.
To Graham, the ranked ballot question raises a wider issue about the relationship Queen’s Park has with municipalities. She points to Ford’s move to slash the size of Toronto city council months before the October municipal election.
“If a municipality wants to change their voting system, that should be their choice,” said Graham.
On Sunday the NDP vowed to repeal the legislation that shrunk Toronto city council from 47 wards to 25, signalling that parties opposing Ford at least want to highlight the PCs relationship with local governments ahead of the June 2 provincial vote.