Martin Horak, Department of Political Science, Western University
Persistent low voter turnout and high incumbency re-election rates in Canadian municipalities have led to various proposals for electoral reform, including encouraging the emergence of local political parties, reducing the size of large city councils, and introducing internet-based voting. In the Province of Ontario, some civic associations – mostly based in Toronto, the province’s largest city – began lobbying the provincial government a few years ago to allow municipalities to adopt ranked choice voting (also known as ranked ballots). The proposed ranked choice system retains the nonpartisan, ward-based electoral system that is most common in Ontario municipalities, but allows voters to indicate their first, second and third choice of candidate for mayor and councillor. If no candidate receives a majority of the first-choice votes, the candidate with the least number of first choice votes is eliminated and the second-choice votes on those ballots are redistributed. This process continues until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of the votes. Proponents of this system argue (among other things) that it reduces ‘vote splitting’ between similar candidates; it encourages civil campaign discourse since second-choice votes matter to candidates; and it gives voters more meaningful choices.
In 2016, the Ontario provincial government amended the Municipal Elections Act to allow municipalities to run ranked choice elections. While a number of municipalities seriously considered adopting the new system, only London, a city of about 400,000 residents, actually adopted it for the 2018 elections. London’s city council had experienced an unusual generational turnover in the 2014 elections and had many young councillors who were enthusiastic about electoral reform. Even though the city’s Clerk (who is responsible for running elections) recommended against adopting the new system for the 2018 elections on the grounds of cost and complexity, the council approved the change in 2017, making it the only municipality in all of Canada to move away from a simple majoritarian electoral system.
In October 2018, at the same time that London ran its first ranked-choice election, two other medium-sized Ontario cities (Kingston and Cambridge) held referenda on ranked choice voting, and residents approved its use in the next (2022) municipal elections in both cases. The stage appeared to be set for the spread of ranked choice systems among Ontario municipalities – at least large urban ones; no one has seriously considered introducing ranked choice voting in small rural municipalities, where there are rarely many competitors for elected positions. Since local government institutions in Canada are fully under the legal control of provincial governments and have no constitutional status, however, the provincial government could just as easily revoke municipalities’ option to use ranked choice voting as it approved it in the first place. The 2018 provincial election brought to power a Conservative government that was skeptical of electoral reform at any level of government, and in October 2020, it eliminated the ranked choice option for municipal elections as part of Covid-19 recovery legislation, arguing that ‘[n]ow is not the time for municipalities to experiment with costly changes to how municipal elections are conducted’. As a result, Ontario’s ranked choice voting experiment has abruptly come to a halt for the foreseeable future.
The fact that ranked choice voting was implemented in only one municipality for one election limits our ability to draw broader insights about the merits of the practice. Indeed, it is likely that its full impact on electoral turnout, campaign dynamics and electoral outcomes would only become apparent after several electoral cycles. Available evidence from London’s 2018 election is mixed. On the positive side, the election was implemented smoothly with only a modest (and largely one-off) increase in administrative costs, and about 70 per cent of those who voted ranked more than one candidate, showing widespread interest among voters in the new system. However, voter turnout did not increase compared to the previous election (in fact, there was a decrease of about 3 per cent); negative campaigning remained an unfortunate feature of the election season; and all candidates leading after the first round of vote counting ultimately won their seats, suggesting that ranking in and of itself did not produce significantly different electoral outcomes. Whether this apparent lack of impact on electoral turnout and dynamics would endure, or whether the new system would have emergent effects after more than one electoral cycle, is something that we cannot know. We do know, however, that the fate of ranked balloting in Ontario is another illustration of the enduring tendency of the provincial government to intervene unilaterally in municipal affairs, a condition that ultimately exacerbates the deficiencies of democratic representation and participation in local government.
Kurs C, ‘Administering a Ranked-Choice Voting Election: Lessons from London, Ontario’ (publications 4, Centre for Urban Policy and Local Governance 2020)
Moore AA, ‘The Potential and Consequences of Municipal Election Reform’ (Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance 2017)
Rider D, ‘Toronto Council Reversal on Ranked Ballots Criticized’ (Toronto Star, 2 October 2015) <https://www.thestar.com/news/city_hall/2015/10/02/toronto-council-reversal-on-ranked-ballots-criticized.html>
Rodriguez S, ‘Ontario Moves to Axe Ranked Ballots from Municipal Elections’ CBC News (20 October 2020)
Saunders C, ‘Ranked Ballot Election Model’ (Corporate Services Committee, City of London, 24 January 2017)
 See the Introduction to People’s Participation in Local Decision-Making in Canada, report section 6.1.
 Aaron A Moore, ‘The Potential and Consequences of Municipal Election Reform’ (Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance 2017).
 A few Ontario municipalities elect their city councillors at-large rather than in wards.
 Cathy Saunders, ‘Ranked Ballot Election Model’ (Corporate Services Committee, City of London, 24 January 2017) <https://publondon.escribemeetings.com/filestream.ashx?DocumentId=29238>.
 Much to the disappointment of Toronto electoral reform activists, Toronto’s city council decided not to adopt ranked ballots after having earlier signaled that it supported the reform.
 Charlotte Kurs, ‘Administering a Ranked-Choice Voting Election: Lessons from London, Ontario’ (publications 4, Centre for Urban Policy and Local Governance 2020).
 See report section 1 on the System of Local Government in Canada.
 Sofia Rodriguez, ‘Ontario Moves to Axe Ranked Ballots from Municipal Elections’ CBC News (20 October 2020).
 Kurs, ‘Administering a Ranked-Choice Voting Election’, above.