Premier Doug Ford’s government has introduced new legislation that, if enacted, would scrap ranked ballots for all municipalities, including Toronto.
As the city looked to implement ranked ballots — a change in how voting works compared to the first-past-the-post system used in most Canadian elections — Ontario’s PC government on Tuesday tabled surprise changes to the Municipal Elections Act as part of a bill largely focused on recovery from COVID-19. The bill completely deletes sections of the election rules dealing with ranked ballots.
Toronto councillors called Ford’s move a threat to local democracy reminiscent of his 2018 mid-election cut to the size of city council.
“It’s stunning,” said Coun. Shelley Carroll of what she called an “omnibus-style” bill. Carroll has been pushing council to consider ranked ballots for Toronto as early as 2022.
She said “from the moment this government was elected” it’s been clear it wants to take away municipalities’ abilities to work with their communities to design their own election.
“You would think that a provincial government in charge of health care has better things to be worried about right now,” she added.
“This makes really no sense.”
Ranked ballots work by asking voters to rank their candidates in order of preference. For any candidate to win, they have to receive more than 50 per cent of the votes.
If, after an initial count, no one candidate has a majority, then the candidate with the least votes is knocked out. The second choices of that candidate’s supporters are then added to the remaining candidates. That process continues until a winner is declared.
A statement from Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark’s office said the provincial government was “maintaining predictability, and consistency for municipal elections, while better respecting taxpayers’ dollars.”
“Now is not the time for municipalities to experiment with costly changes to how municipal elections are conducted,” said the email statement.
Municipal elections are still two years away.
London, the first Canadian municipality to hold a ranked ballot election, will also be forced to go back to the first-past-the-post system, the minister’s office said.
Mayor John Tory, in an emailed statement, said he supports ranked ballots, “because I believe they will lead to fairer elections and encourage more diverse candidates to run. So the decision by the province is disappointing.”
Tory said he learned of the changes in the bill through the minister’s office communicating with his chief of staff “late” Monday.
“My chief of staff reiterated my position on the issue — I support ranked ballots and will continue to do so.”
Michael Urban, chair of Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (RaBIT), a grassroots group that has pushed for ranked ballots locally, said he still has to look at the details of the bill.
“If it is basically a deletion of the option, then we’ll be unbelievably disappointed and absolutely baffled by this unexplainable decision,” he said.
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He noted Kingston and Cambridge have both decided by referenda to move towards ranked ballots and that London’s ranked ballot election in 2018 was a “fantastic success” for increasing diversity on council and changing how people interacted with the election.
“When there’s no public push-back against them, it’s kind of incomprehensible that the provincial government would decide to move against ranked ballots.”
Dave Meslin, RaBiT founder and electoral reform advocate with 123Ontario, said he was surprised to see a Conservative government engaging in “micromanaging, nanny state, big government hypocrisy.”
“Doug Ford himself was elected leader of his party using a ranked ballot,” he noted.
He described London’s ranked ballot election as “completely transformative.”
“They had more choice, they had more frontrunners, they ended up with more diversity — they elected their first black female councillor — they received one of the highest mandates of any council in Ontario,” he said.
There was also anecdotal evidence of a lot more civility among candidates, he said.
“If you and I are running against each other for mayor,” in a ranked ballot system, he said, “I want your supporters to like me so they’ll consider putting me second.”
A few other cities have already started consultations and planned to hold their own referenda, said Meslin, all which would be cancelled under this proposed legislation.
Veteran city councillor Gord Perks said Ford, a former council colleague, is hijacking local democracy and showing his contempt for fellow Torontonians.
“I’m horrified — it just shows how much Doug Ford hates local democracy,” said Perks (Ward 4 Parkdale-High Park).
“It’s loony trying to sneak this in as a COVID recovery measure.”
Council recently received a report from the city clerk that implementing ranked ballots in time for the 2022 election would not be possible. The clerk was directed to begin preparing a possibility for ranked ballots in the 2026 election.
The Ford government did not say whether it would be willing to change the rules back to allow ranked ballots after 2022.
This is not the first time the Ford government has interfered in municipal elections.
In 2018, it cut the size of council in Toronto in half in the middle of the election.
That legislation, challenged by the city and others in court, is still undecided, with a hearing at the Supreme Court of Canada, the country’s top judicial body, expected to begin next year.
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags
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