Bill 181, the Municipal Elections Modernization Act, 2016, passed first reading in the Ontario legislature on Monday of this week.
The Bill has several very interesting proposed reforms. One is to shorten the nomination period for municipal elections (now January 1st to the second Friday in September) to only three months (from May 1st to the fourth Friday in July). Undoubtedly this is a response to the interminable mayoralty election endured by Toronto in 2014. Another is to require nominations for councillor to be endorsed by a minimum of 25 eligible voters. This should cut the number of vanity candidates who typically clutter up municipal ballots. A third is to enable all municipalities, not just the City of Toronto as now is the case, to prohibit corporations and trade unions from making contributions to candidates for city council. Together with new proposals regulating third-party advertisements, this elaborates the regulation of municipal election financing.
Another high-profile reform is to create a framework that allows the province, by Regulation, to authorize all municipalities to have Ranked Ballot Elections for offices on municipal council. The basic principles are that electors would vote by ranking candidates in order of their preference, that votes are distributed to candidates based on the rankings marked on the ballots, and that the counting of votes is carried out in one or more rounds, with at least one candidate being elected or eliminated in each round. This would replace our present ‘First Past The Post’ system. Provincial Regulations may set out the details of the scheme, including standards and procedures for the conduct of ranked ballot elections, rules to govern ballots, voting, and the counting of votes.
All municipal councils will have authority to pass by-laws with respect to Ranked Ballot Elections for council offices. In doing so, they will need to follow the standards and procedures for public consultation about the proposed by-law set by Regulation. No ranked ballot election can be conducted unless the municipality has passed a by-law, as required by the Bill.
How long it will take to pass the legislation and draft the detailed Regulations will determine whether the Act can be in effect by the 2018 election cycle. Nevertheless, Katherine Skene, co-chair of the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (RaBIT) hails this reform as “huge… (providing) municipalities… the choice to be more democratic, more inclusive and more diverse.”
When I first wrote about ranked ballot reform two years ago (on March 4 2014), the City of Toronto was the primary advocate for the system. Toronto City Council in June 2013 had passed a motion requesting that the Province amend the Municipal Elections Act to authorize the use and set up the framework for Ranked Choice Voting to let the City use ranked ballots and instant runoff voting in municipal elections. The vote in favour of the motion passed 26:15. Today, the situation has changed.
The province has proposed the necessary statutory authority, at least for the purpose of elections to city council. But, last October without any particular fanfare, the Toronto City Council elected in 2014 voted against ranked ballots. More precisely, they voted 25:18 that the City recommend to the province not to approve ranked ballots and that, if it does do so, that the use of ranked ballots be optional for the City of Toronto, and that the City be permitted to implement it only after holding public consultations and a referendum.
Clearly, the province has ignored the change-of-heart from the City of Toronto. All municipalities will have the right to choose whether to adopt Ranked Ballot Elections or not. If they wish to do so, they must hold public consultations and then pass a by-law adopting the new regime. Although it is not yet clear what “standards and procedures for public consultation” will be required by Regulation, there appears no statutory authority for a referendum on the issue.
So, why the change at City Council? I will explore that issue more fully in another post. For the moment, it is important that Mayor Tory and our City Council at least open the issue up for public consultation. Given the importance of electoral reform, it is intolerable that “the expression of Council opinion” from last October, without any public input or consultation, should be the last word on the subject. If you agree, make your opinions known to Mayor Tory and your local councillor.