Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why I Support the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (And Why You Should, Too!)

Very few people are passionate about—let alone interested in—municipal election reform. Probably 50% of my regular readers will never make it past the first sentence of this post.

I concede that it’s an eye-glazing subject.

Nevertheless, I want to inform you about a simple, incremental improvement to the way we could do voting in Toronto, that needs your support.

The proposed change is known as Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). It is championed by a group called Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto, or RaBIT for short. And it’s actually pretty close to happening.

The Plurality Problem

A major issue with our current 'first past the post' system for city elections is that council candidates are often elected with less than an absolute majority of votes within their ward. In races with 3 or more strong candidates there is a tendency for vote-splitting to occur, with the result that some candidates take the victory, even though an absolute majority of voters would not have voted for them.

This video featuring Dave Meslin explains the issue, and the proposed solution:


How IRV Works

Instant Runoff Voting uses ranked ballots in an attempt to eliminate vote splitting. What happens is that voters submit ballots with their choices in ranked order of preference. If no one wins an absolute majority, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and those ballots then have their 2nd preferred choices counted in a second round. This process continues recursively until one candidate has attained an absolute majority of support. [Oh, and you can still just vote for one candidate. You don’t have to submit a ranked ballot if you don’t want to.]

It’s not a perfect approach, but here’s why you should support it:

The Benefits of IRV 

  1. It eliminates vote splitting. People are free to vote for the candidates they truly support, without the fear of ‘wasting’ their vote on a candidate who isn’t going to win.
  2. It promotes participation and diversity in elections. Candidates who might otherwise drop out or be dissuaded from participating, can now run without being perceived as ‘taking away’ votes from other candidates with similar support bases.  
  3. It promotes a more positive and substantive approach to campaigning. Candidates need to consider attracting the '2nd rank' votes of their opponents. The best way of doing that will be through persuasive communication of ideas, not by adopting negative tactics and name-calling. 

And there’s one more advantage to IRV that may be the most critical element of all: it’s practical and pragmatic—it’s an easy to understand improvement. Other approaches are too unwieldy and complicated to implement, at least within the timeframe for the 2018 municipal elections. The reality is that we won’t achieve a radical overhaul of the system. But we can take a solid step towards something better.

Importantly, this change is about process, not specific candidates or political/partisan affiliations. It’s about making the voting system work better. This initiative isn’t even about the next election—this is about reforming the system for the 2018 election. It’s not a fringe idea—it’s happening.

Lastly, it’s key to note that this change is about municipal elections in Toronto—how we elect our mayor, to start with—where we don’t have political parties, and it is not about voting at the provincial or federal levels.

Here’s a lengthier video of Mr. Meslin discussing ranked ballots with Steve Paikin on TVO:



There are theoretical drawbacks to IRV—mostly in certain edge cases. Voting system nerds will smugly inform you about the catastrophic possibilities for ‘monotonicity failure’, at which point you should just nod as if you see their point, while inwardly rolling your eyes. 

Logistically, ranked ballots can get unwieldy if there are a lot of candidates. But I’m confident that a reasonable solution can be adopted in time for the mayoral election of 2018.

And lastly, certain reform advocates are vehemently against implementing IRV (or any other non-proportional system) for Toronto. I don’t find their tactics or arguments convincing—but readers would be well served to investigate further and come to their own conclusions.

IRV is flawed, but it’s better than what we have now (and to reiterate, some very learned people don’t agree).

Broad base of support

A wide base of support for IRV has developed throughout Toronto—across ideological lines.  The penultimate goal is to get >50% of councillors to endorse it, so that the process can get underway to prepare the 2018 municipal mayoral election for the change.

Find out more about Instant Runoff Voting


Last year I attended a RaBIT volunteer meeting. In that sense I have been indoctrinated by the polished, mellifluous words of Mr. Meslin, one of the key organizers. Although I signed up for a number of initiatives, I haven’t contributed any efforts to RaBIT beyond occasionally re-tweeting stuff. I’m out of the loop—one of those loafers who enjoys the idea of helping out...