Toronto city council backs radical change to ranked ballots and letting non-citizens participate

Champions of democracy and inclusion are applauding Toronto city council for supporting a pair of pioneering motions that could fundamentally rewrite the city’s election rules and change the face of local politics.

By:  City Hall Bureau reporter,  News reporter,
Published on Tue Jun 11 2013. Available here

Champions of democracy and inclusion are applauding Toronto City Council for supporting a pair of pioneering motions that could fundamentally rewrite the city’s election rules and change the face of local politics.

On Tuesday, council voted to ask the province to 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.

If the province agrees to make the necessary legislative amendments, experts say it could open the door to similar changes in jurisdictions across Canada.

“It would set a serious precedent,” said André Côté of the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at University of Toronto. “If a city like Toronto decides that they want to move ahead with a significant electoral reform like this, people would certainly take notice elsewhere.”

Officials in Premier Kathleen Wynne’s office said they were closely watching the city council decision.

“The Toronto population is truly diverse. We obviously just heard council’s vote and we will review it, have conversations before making any firm decision,” a senior official said late Tuesday.

The new system could be in place for the 2018 civic election, although it’s not yet clear how the province would change Toronto’s election rules, which are spread across the City of Toronto Act, the Municipal Elections Act and the Municipal Act.

But Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council for Agencies Serving Immigrants, sees council’s hard-won support as the most crucial step to extending voting rights to permanent residents.

“We’re very pleased that Toronto is once again leading the country in terms of progressive policies,” said Douglas.

That motion, which would allow 250,000 non-citizens to vote in municipal elections, barely squeaked through, by a vote of 21-20.

Mayor Rob Ford was among those who believe that Torontonians should be Canadian citizens to vote.

“It doesn’t make sense. How can someone that’s not a Canadian citizen vote?” he said. “I just think we wasted six hours because I don’t believe the province is going to do anything with this.”

While similar policies are in place internationally, Douglas said Toronto would be the first city in the county to welcome non-citizens into the ballot box.

Ranked balloting, which passed by a vote of 26-15, would also be a first in Canada.

Under such a system, voters are free to either select their one favourite or rank their favourites in order of preference: A “1” for their top candidate, a “2” for their next-best candidate, a “3” for their third.

If a candidate gets a majority of first-place votes — 50 per cent plus one — the election is over. But if no candidate achieves a true majority, an “instant runoff” is carried out: the least popular candidate is knocked out, and the second-place votes of that candidate’s supporters are added to the totals of the candidates who are left. This process continues until someone has a majority.

“City council is moving forward on a really positive step to make local elections more fair, and less polarizing,” said prominent local activist Dave Meslin, who spearheaded the drive for ranked ballots leading a group called Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (RaBIT).

“Now it’s in the hands of Queen’s Park. We’re hoping they respect the wishes of council and give permission the council needs to make this change happen for 2018,” Meslin said.

The extent to which those changes would touch other municipalities remains to the seen.

A report from the city manager and city clerk called from “extensive public consultation before implementing any change to the current electoral system.”

As their report suggested, the public may be wary: since 2005, major electoral reforms have been defeated in referenda in three Canadian provinces.

Meslin said Premier Kathleen Wynne told him when she was the municipal affairs minister that she does not believe the province should stand in the way of council on this issue. A spokesperson for then-minister Wynne did not dispute Meslin’s account, saying Wynne is a “firm believer in local democracy.”

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