As London prepares for a public discussion on whether to become Canada’s first city to move to “ranked ballots” — a voting method that would change the way we elect local government — it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of an overhaul.
For Women and Politics, that includes looking at if and how ranked ballots can lead to more women on city council.
Are women underrepresented at the municipal level in London?
Only four of London’s 14 city councillors are women. So, yes. Yes, we are.
Can a new way of voting – one in which voters rank their choice of candidates – change that? Supporters say yes.
Not only is ranked ballot voting more democratic than first-past-the-post elections – through which you can win with only 30% of the vote (meaning 70% of voters didn’t choose you) if that’s more than each of the other candidates got – advocates say it encourages women women to enter municipal politics, and leads to gender equity, multiculturalism and diversity on city council.
“It’s not like women aren’t getting elected under a first-past-the-post system, but the number of women elected is desperately under-representative of the population,” explains Katherine Skene of Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto. “Just electing a women to the position of mayor doesn’t say we’ve solved our gender problem. A council with a few racialized candidates, it’s not good enough. We aren’t getting there fast enough. If we know the system is a barrier, we need to change the system.
“Ranked choice is a way to a better more representative government that is more diverse, that is gender balanced.”
How ranked ballots work:
On voting day, citizens are asked to rank their choices for mayoral and ward candidates. Instead of putting an X beside one name, you’d put a 1, 2 or 3. It’s kind of how we make other decisions, such as what type of ice cream we want. (Gold Medal Ribbon, obviously, but if they don’t have it — and why doesn’t anybody carry that? It’s delicious! — chocolate will do the trick.)
**It’s important to note, voters don’t have to rank candidates. You can still vote the traditional way – choose your top candidate and leave the rest empty.
Once polls close, if a candidate receives at least 50% of the votes, he or she wins that race. If nobody gets half, the person with the least votes is dropped and “second choice” votes from that candidate’s ballots are redistributed. The cycle continues until someone ends up with half the votes and wins.
Why are we talking about change now?
The province made changes to the Municipal Elections Act, giving municipalities the option of using ranked ballots. So far, no cities have taken the province up on its offer and cities have until May 1, 2017 to decide. Other cities have turned it down, saying it’s too costly. In London, staff has recommended against ranked ballots for the next election due to uncertainties about whether the city will have a working system in place by then.
Why ranked ballots could encourage more women and diverse candidates, including people of colour and people with different abilities, gender identities, ages and more
What happens in political races is this: People who want an incumbent out throw their support behind the candidate they want who is most likely to beat that incumbent. Candidates are already being groomed for London’s 2018 election. And often, a candidate that is seen as strong enough to get capture a good portion of the vote, but not a guaranteed winner is asked to step out of the race in effort to ensure the preferred candidate gets the maximum amount of votes.
“The candidates that tend to get asked not to run are often women and people of colour,” said Skene. “They are seen as candidates that can’t win, but can siphon of enough of the vote so the other (unwanted) candidate could win.”
“Non-establishment people tend to be women, people of colour, new Canadians, people from an economically disadvantaged background. They will say two years before, “I can’t run, because so-and-so is running and I don’t want to split the vote.’
“With ranked ballots, suddenly you have a race where you can’t split the vote.”
Critics, including Fair Vote Canada, say there’s no statistical evidence to back up the theory ranked ballots lead to greater diversity among candidates.
But ranked ballot supporters say the lack of evidence is linked to the lack of cities using ranked ballots. While provincial and federal parties use the method to elect leaders, and a few U.S. cities have gone that way, no Canadian cities use ranked choice.
So, they defer to common sense:
“Say you’ve got an unpopular city councillor and a whole bunch of people who want to defeat that councillor. The councillor still has a good chance of winning because the others will split the vote,” explains Dave Meslin, also of RaBIT.
“And the incumbent is often a white man, because white men still hold positions of power.”
Ranked ballots discourage mudslinging and negative campaigning, say supporters.
With ranked votes, candidates do better when they run positive campaigns, get fresh ideas out there and reach out to community members, including their opponents, so people see them as a viable second choice, according to Jeanne Massey of Fair Vote Minnesota.
“It favours candidates who are more consensus building and collaborative in nature, and . . . In general, women are more more apt to run that way. They’ll win more often,” says Massey.
But . . .
Critics say the method is complicated and confusing to voters and can lead to spoiled ballots.
They say the confusion will lower voter turnout.
However, in recent months, city staff have held demonstrations with members of the public, using fruit as election candidates and asking people to rank their fruit of choice.
City Clerk Cathy Saunders tells Women and Politics the sessions were effective in simplifying the concept of ranked ballots for voters: “What we did at each session was manually did a count. We had people coming to sit down and do a count so they could clearly understand how it works. It’s complicated to explain, but once you do the count, it’s easy.”
The city has also produced a video – sadly using stick people instead of fruit – posted to the city website along with information about ranked voting at www.london.ca. You can add your voice to a public survey on the site too.
The city is holding a public participation meeting on ranked ballots, April 22, 11 a.m. at City Hall. Women & Politics hopes to see you there.
Jennifer O’Brien is a journalist in London, Ontario.