Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Better Ballots, Better Democracy

On February 15th I attended a meeting called “I Heart Democracy” at Hart House in Toronto. The main event was a speech by Dave Meslin. Meslin is a community organizer and activist in Toronto. He first came to my attention from his TED talk about ending apathy and making city government more open to the public. After the speech Meslin struck me as a mobile idea factory. He has dozens of concepts or plans or thoughts about how to make Toronto (and all communities) better places. He builds campaigns to help realize these goals. He isn’t a politician, and he seems more interested in engagement than results.

One of the most intriguing things about Meslin is that he does not claim to be offering the answer. For example, he recently released a pamphlet through a group called The Fourth Wall which discusses 36 different options to improving civic life in any community. Some of them contradict each other, but they are all currently implemented in some jurisdiction so that they are feasible and possible to imagine.

However, 18 months before the next municipal election Meslin and a group called RaBIT are pushing for one idea: Ranked Ballots. RaBIT or Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto is seeking to implement instant runoff voting before the next election. For a description of what IRV is you can watch one of CGP Grey’s amazing videos here. Ranked ballots would mean that the winner of each council seat and each mayoralty got a majority of support from the public. Our current system, First-Past-the-Post, relies upon a candidate getting a plurality, not a majority. This is a very flawed system as it awards victory to the candidate with the largest number of votes even if they do not command a majority.

To see how big of a problem this is I went to the Wikipedia page for the 2010 Ontario municipal elections. Quickly at a glance the following areas elected mayors without majority support: Brant, Brantford, Chatham-Kent, Greater Sudbury, Haldimand, Hamilton, Kawartha Lakes, Ottawa, Prince Edward, Toronto, Barrie, Brockville, London, St. Thomas, Clarington, Oshawa, Whitby, Burlington, Thorold, Welland, West Lincoln, King, Whitchurch-Stouffville, Cambridge, Waterloo. In Peel all three mayors were elected with majorities, but not necessarily the city and regional councillors. From my cursory examination the worst case scenario is when three strong candidates stand for election, as, for example, happened in Hamilton in the last election. Or you could look at Brant County where Ron Eddy won re-election with 33.65% of the vote. Two-thirds of Brant residents looked at Mayor Eddy’s time in office and chose someone different, but they split their votes between four other candidates.

FPTP at the local level is part of the reason incumbency is so powerful. New challengers are discouraged because it is hard to galvanize support. Local elections in Ontario are non-partisan so candidates cannot wrap themselves in the familiar branding of a political party. Moreover there is simply less infrastructure because a candidate has to build it all themselves. It is certainly daunting and when confronted with a system that discourages competition it becomes even more problematic.

I wish RaBIT the best of luck, and I hope one day we can bring the system here to Peel and the rest of Ontario.

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