October’s mayoral election has revealed some worrying new trends in Toronto politics. Strategic voting, negative campaigning, and the sidelining of all but three of the sixty-five candidates do not bode well for Toronto’s democracy. Many of these issues can in some way be traced back to the structure of the mayoral voting system – a first-past-the-post ballot.
First-past-the-post is the winner-take-all electoral system where the candidate who earns the greatest percentage, not necessarily a majority, of the vote wins the election. This is usually compared to a ranked ballot system, where voters indicate a ranked preference of candidates (first choice, second choice, etc.) and the candidate with the highest overall support wins. There are a number of variations on this theme, but the idea is that the voters get to make more than one choice.
First-past-the-post is efficient, as voters only have to select one candidate, but there are many pitfalls. Prominent in last month’s election was the issue of strategic voting. Many Chow voters did not want another Ford for mayor, but their own candidate was polling third among the three front-running candidates. As a result, many Chow supporters voted for Tory in the end, even though the two offer vastly different policies. Surely this is not a fair representation of the views of the public, and therefore not truly democratic.
The problem lies in the voting system. Each voter is forced to choose only one candidate, and therefore many Chow voters chose Tory to make their vote count. If, on the other hand, a ranked system had been used, it would have become apparent among that voter group that they ranked Chow first, Tory second, and Ford last, which is a better representation of their true intentions and therefore a more democratic system. Strategic voting no longer occurs here, as this voter group gets to express both its preference for Chow overall and its preference for Tory over Ford.
Furthermore, the current electoral system also leads to negative campaigning. As an extension of the previous example, many Tory voters did not really have a positive impression of Tory – just a negative impression of Ford. Attack ads abounded in the election, mostly against Tory, from Olivia Chow’s “flip-flopper” to Doug Ford’s “What’s the story, Mr. Tory?” to anonymous attack-ads suspected to originate from Chow’s campaign.
On the other hand, a ranked ballot would discourage negative campaigns. In a ranked ballot situation, candidates cannot merely smear their opponents; they must also actively seek to prove to the voters that they offer something positive. This includes supporters of their opponents, who candidates must appeal to in the hope that said supporters rank them second.
The ranked ballot system also requires voters to be more informed, as they must not only have a first choice but also opinions on other candidates. In turn, this requires politicians to launch more informative, more positive campaigns which tell something about themselves instead of merely attacking other candidates.
Overall, the strongest reason for a ranked ballot system is the views of Torontonians. Some 64% of Torontonians approve of ranked ballots, compared to a mere 25% disapproving. Clearly, the voters believe that a ranked ballot system will better represent their voices and beliefs, and lead to a healthier political environment.
On the other hand, first-past-the-post has its own advantages, the biggest of which is that checking just one box is simply an easier job for the voter. While this is true, the simplicity comes at a price, which is that the voters’ true intentions may be misrepresented. Furthermore, it seems insulting to presume that the electorate is too lazy to inform themselves and have an opinion on more than one candidate.
Another often cited advantage to first-past-the-post voting is that it provides a clear choice between a few major parties. However, this is not really an advantage at all. Allowing a few major candidates to dominate means the sidelining of all others, even though they may have better ideas and policies. The permanent paradigm of left and right stifles constructive politics, causing actual debate to devolve into repeating talking points.
Perhaps the ranked ballot system might not be the most efficient or the easiest to implement. But it will give us a more accurate representation of what the people really want, and more positive, informative politics. It will give us better mayoral candidates, or at the very least, better mayoral campaigns. It will give us, in the end, a more vibrant, stronger democracy. That’s a pretty solid investment.