05/06/2013 05:15 EDT | Updated 07/06/2013 05:12 EDT

The Voting System That Could Fix Democracy


Consider one of the most subtle nuances in politics -- our electoral system. In some cases it could literally mean the difference between winning and losing an election and with the wide-spectrum of characters at City Hall it could be a good or a bad thing depending which side you're on.

The City of Toronto currently uses the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system to elect members of council and the mayor. FPTP usually means that the candidate who's elected to office is the one who receives more votes than any other candidate. Seems simple enough, right?

Unfortunately it's not; this system doesn't always mean that a majority of the candidate's voters actually preferred him/her to the other candidates; in fact it could mean the opposite. By example, in 2008 the Conservative government came to power with only 37 per cent of the country's vote!

How does this happen?

In addition to favouring negative campaigning (dirty politics), strategic voting and discouraging diversity, the FPTP system has the potential to vote-split. Vote-splitting is one of the most unfortunate consequences of FPTP because it can elect someone to office who technically received less overall support than his/her opponents! If this isn't a slap in the face of civic participation, I don't know what is.

Here's a scenario that breaks it down: Candidates Ricky and Shawna are running for office, both candidates have radically different views and ideologies. The voters tend to commonly identify with Ricky's views the most, so 60% of them vote for Ricky and 40% vote for Shawna. In a normal election, Ricky would win with a majority.

But we're not normal...we're special.

In Canada there's almost always more than two candidates/parties in the running. Let's say Lisa entered the same race, Lisa has similar views to Ricky, but is still very different from Shawna. In an FPTP system, Lisa could end up taking votes away from Ricky because of the similarities in views (Ricky's original support of 60% would then be decreased to 30% and the other 30% would go to Lisa) where Shawna, with 40% of the vote would beat the other two candidates even though both Ricky and Lisa's votes combined are enough to beat Shawna by 20%. That's vote splitting in a nut-shell and in case I confused you, here's a video with pictures and stuff.

If this hasn't completely blown your mind and had you running down the street screaming "oh democracy where art thou!?" you're not alone. FPTP has been around for a long time and is traditionally accepted by most. Since electoral reform may not be your watercooler choice of topic, it's less likely that you'll take to the streets with pitchforks demanding electoral reform (unless the G20's in town).

What a contradiction. It almost seems fraudulent to elect someone to office who doesn't have the support of the majority -- but my friend, it happens all the time.

So what do we do about this undemocratic travesty?

Enter the Ranked Ballot Initiative (RaBit), a citizen-led electoral reform campaign designed to introduce, you guessed it, ranked ballots (instant runoff voting) for municipal elections by 2018. Instant runoffs are not perfect, but they allow citizens of all stripes to not only have their preferences respected but counted as well. It also seeks to eliminate everything you may hate about politics: negative campaigning, strategic voting and establishment candidates to name a few.


Ranked Ballots allow you to rank your choice for city councillor or mayor in order of preference on a single ballot. In the first round, the first choice of each voter is counted and compared to the other candidates. Every first choice counts as one vote for the respective candidate. When all first preferences are counted, if one candidate holds a majority (more than 50%), that candidate immediately wins.

This was recently seen in the 2013 Liberal Party leadership race where Justin Trudeau won with more than 80% of the vote. But, if there's no majority after the first round, the candidate who holds the fewest first preferences is eliminated off the ballot. Those votes are distributed to the remaining candidates based on voter's next preference on each ballot, until one candidate walks away with a majority.

Currently U.S. cities like Oakland, Portland, California, Minneapolis and San Francisco are all on the instant-runoff train. The Australian House of Representatives and Canada's Conservative, NDP and Liberal parties use the Ranked Ballot system when electing a party leader. Even the Oscars use it when selecting the Best Picture award!

The RaBit campaign is pushing for a Ranked Ballot Toronto in 2018-2019, even members of Mayor Rob Ford's executive committee are in support. It will need approximately 23 council votes to pass, just 23 that could determine a much more diverse and democratic landscape than we currently have now. It could be a challenging sell given competing priorities but nothing worth doing is easy, right?

Besides, if the Oscars can do it, we can too.

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