UTSC Associate Professor Phil Triadafilopoulos of the Department of Political Science (photo courtesy Phil Triadafilopoulos)

What a ranked ballot means and how it works

A Q & A with Phil Triadafilopoulos

On June 11, Toronto City Council voted to ask the province the give permanent residents the right to participate in municipal elections and to allow the city to adopt ranked choice balloting, which would give voters the option to rank candidates in order of preference.

U of T News asked Phil Triadafilopoulos, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto Scarborough, to discuss the ranked ballot and the significance of such a change.

What exactly is a ranked vote and how does it differ from first-past-the-post system we have in place now?

In the system we currently have, the voter marks the person they wish to vote for on their ballot. When all the ballots are counted, the person with the most votes, but not necessarily a majority of votes, wins that district or position. This system is called the-first- past- the post system -- the person with the most votes wins. So, if you have multiple candidates, you could win with twenty or thirty percent of the vote, if the rest of the vote is split between your competitors. You needn’t win with a majority; a plurality will do.

In the ranked system, rather than just putting an X beside the one candidate you like, you rank the candidates according to your preference. If there is a candidate with a majority, they win. If there isn’t a candidate with a majority there is an instant runoff where the candidate with the least number of votes is dropped and the voters’ second preferences are counted. In this way, voters’ preferences still count, even though their favourite didn’t win. The vote is recounted and if there’s a winner by majority, the election is over. If there isn’t, they continue going this way with the person with the least votes being dropped and their votes being transferred according to rank. The eventual winner will enjoy a majority. It may not be a majority of first preferences, but it’s a majority based on ranked preferences.

If this change were to come about, how would it affect Toronto?

It’s worth noting that a number of important points were raised in the Staff Report on proposed electoral reforms that was prepared for City Council back in April. For example, in order for this reform to be implemented, the ranked ballot system will have to be put to a referendum. Every other jurisdiction that has made this change has subjected the decision to a referendum, so City Council’s recommendation to the province isn’t the last word on this issue – not by a long shot.

If everything goes according to supporters’ plans and the ranked ballot system is implemented, we will elect our representatives at the municipal level with majorities. That is certainly a change and some people would see it as a positive change. However, the distance between that potential outcome and where we stand now is huge. I dare say most people have not heard of ranked ballots and instant runoff elections, so supporters will have to do a lot of work to convince voters of the merits of the proposed system.

What would be some advantages of a ranked vote?

The obvious advantage is that you eliminate the election of candidates based on less than a majority of support. Some also say that strategic voting would be reduced. Right now, you might vote for someone you don’t necessarily like, because you hate another candidate even more and don’t want them to win. Casting your ballot for your favourite in a race she or he is likely to lose is considered a “wasted” vote. Ranked ballot/instant runoff voting offer you a chance to vote for your favourite while also ranking other candidates according to your preferences (which, it should be said, might still be based on strategic considerations!).

Finally, there’s also an argument that the proposed system reduces negative advertising and nasty electioneering. In a sense, ‘the winner takes all’ stakes of our current system might be softened. As negative electioneering is not that great a problem in Toronto (at least not to the degree it is in other jurisdictions), I don’t think this point is all that relevant to our debate.

What could be some challenges of a ranked vote?

There are lots of potential challenges. This is not a cost free proposal; we would need new vote counting equipment and more and better trained staff at polling stations. There are also challenges for voters. The time needed to cast a ballot would likely be longer, as you’d no longer have a single composite ballot as we do now with lots of names. Instead, you’d have multiple ballots, adding to the complexity of the exercise.

Additionally, you’d have to pay for the referendum. This electoral reform package came bundled with another very controversial suggestion to allow permanent residents to vote in municipal elections. If they bundle these two questions together in a single referendum, it makes the success of that referendum, from the point of view of the people who want reform, all the more difficult. You would have two complicated, controversial ballot questions; in my experience, complexity tends to intimidate people and work to the advantage of those who prefer the familiar, if imperfect, status quo.

Do you agree with some commentators who say that this change would be good for democracy?

Variations of the ranked ballot/instant runoff system have been tried in Australia, New Zealand, San Francisco and several other jurisdictions. I don’t know whether it’s led to an increase in voter participation or an increase in satisfaction with local politics and elections, so I can’t speculate as to its consequence as regards democracy. The one thing we can say with certainty is that if the proposed electoral system was implemented, we would elect our representatives by majorities rather than pluralities. Whether this is a big plus for democracy is an open question. I suppose it may well be, but we have some pretty significant democratic challenges in this city regardless of the type of electoral system in place. Perhaps most importantly, we need to get more people out to vote; I believe anyone interested in democracy would agree that turnout in our municipal elections is frustratingly low. I think there’s an implicit suggestion that a more equitable voting system would lead to greater voter participation. While this sounds plausible and may indeed be the case, I haven’t seen evidence to suggest it is.

In your opinion, what are the chances of Queen’s Park backing City Council on this?

Under the last Premier, I would have said the chances were slim. I believe it’s now a more open question. That said, the current provincial government is preoccupied with some other rather vexing issues and are in a minority government position to boot. I suppose that if the NDP supported the proposed reform and enough members of the Liberal caucus felt it was a good idea, there would be a chance. But I think it’s fair to say that electoral reform in Toronto is a fairly low priority for the current provincial government. 

The other thing worth noting is that the province will have to move fast if ranked choice voting is to have any chance of going ‘on line’ even by the 2018 election. It’s not clear to me that the current provincial government is sufficiently motivated to move quickly enough to meet this ambitious timeline.

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