I pride myself on knowing something about Toronto municipal politics. My blog has given me an excuse to attend City Council meetings and write of the Ford affair. Until last week, however, I knew absolutely nothing about the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto, also known as RaBIT. Have you heard of it? I asked several knowledgeable friends also interested in municipal politics. Their response was like mine: the newspaper reports last week were the first they had heard of it.
So what is RaBIT? It’s a non-partisan, grassroots organization in Toronto which has been pushing for reform of our municipal election system for at least a year. Their webpage features a Steve Paikin Agenda interview (dating from April 2013) with activist Dave Meslin describing the proposed reform, information about its advantages, the experience elsewhere, and the support it has. RaBIT proposes a timeline for implementation that would see the enabling legislation passed in the spring of 2014, ranked ballots to apply to the election for mayor in 2018, and to the election for councillors in 2022.
And what is a ranked ballot system, also known as instant runoff voting? Instead of voting for only one person as mayor or councillor as we now do in the first-past-the-post system, electors would indicate three choices for each position, first, second or third. On voting night, if a single candidate obtains 50% plus one of the first choice votes, he or she wins. If no one obtains a majority, the candidate with the least number of first place choices is dropped, and the second place preferences of those voters distributed among the remainder. This allocation continues until one candidate for each position obtains a majority vote. This system is used in major U.S. cities, in state and federal elections in Australia, and also by Canadian political parties choosing their own leaders.
According to the website, the system has broad support across the political spectrum, and in the media. Andrew Coyne and Chris Selley of the National Post, Jerry Agar of Sun News, Edward Keenan of The Grid, Royston James and Catherine Porter of the Toronto Star, and the Toronto Star itself, have all endorsed the proposal. Given this high-powered media support, how come this reform has not been discussed more widely in the media?
The question is particularly apt as Toronto City Council actually voted, by a margin of 26 to 15, on June 11, 2013, to request that the Ontario government amend the Municipal Elections Act to authorize the use and establish the framework of Ranked Choice Voting to permit Toronto City Council to use ranked ballots and instant runoff voting in municipal elections. Since the current City Council has endorsed the proposal and formally asked the province for the power to implement it, why is the province not acting on Council’s resolution?
Adrian Morrow, in the Globe and Mail on February 24th, suggested that Premier Kathleen Wynne is keen about the idea, but doesn’t want the issue to become a hot potato in the 2014 municipal election. She is also said to be concerned that, if it were a government bill, the support necessary from the other parties to pass the bill might not be forthcoming. Her solution is apparently to go forward with a private member’s bill called the Toronto Ranked Ballot Elections Act, tabled on February 26th by MPP Mitzie Hunter who represents Scarborough-Guildwood, and scheduled for discussion at Queen’s Park on March 6th. The hope is that a private member’s bill could be the subject of a free vote and garner support from the NDP and Tories.
Hunter’s proposed bill would give Toronto City Council statutory authority to adopt a ranked ballot system. The caveats are that Council must hold public hearings before they do so, that any bylaw they pass would require provincial approval, and could go into effect only in 2015. NDP MPP for Davenport, Jonah Schein, has also tabled a private member’s bill giving Toronto City Council authority to adopt “an alternative voting system” (without specifying the ranked ballot alternative). That both the Liberals and the NDP are interested in municipal electoral reform is hopeful. Is it possible for them to work together to fast track this initiative before any provincial election?
I would have liked to see such an initiative apply to the upcoming 2014 municipal election. It would create the conditions for a fair, open and friendly election campaign which might actually focus on the issues. The reform discourages negative attacks on individual candidates, and requires candidates to broaden their appeal to as many voters as possible. These conditions are necessary now, not four years down the road. The incremental timeline favoured by RaBIT is probably more realistic. Given how little public discussion there has been about the proposal, that timeline is probably necessary for consultation and working out the details.
This proposal has prompted some interesting discussion. My friends and I have many questions about how it actually works. Since the proposed bill would require public hearings and a further decision from Toronto City Council, it strikes me that it is a good first step towards potential election reform. If you agree, you might want to add your support to the change.org petition found on the RaBIT webpage. The petition is to Premier Wynne and the provincial Opposition Leaders requesting that they respect the wishes of Toronto City Council and pass the enabling legislation now. Without the enabling legislation, there will likely be little discussion about the issue (witness the last nine months). With the enabling legislation, we can at least have the debate. That would be a very good thing.
IT’S NOW FRIDAY, MARCH 7th, and RaBIT has communicated with all those who signed their petition to announce that Mitzie Hunter’s Bill 166, the Toronto Ranked Ballot Elections Act, passed second reading yesterday and has gone to the Standing Committee on Social Policy for clause-by-clause review. RaBIT has circulated the names of the Committee members and their contact information so that supporters can communicate their desire that the Bill pass as expeditiously as possible. As a reminder, the Bill is only to empower the Toronto City Council to commence a consultation process about the ranked ballot issue for the 2018 election.
The Committee members are Chair Ernie Hardeman, Vice-Chair Ted Chudleigh, Members Bas Balkissoon, Mike Colle, Vic Dhillon, Cheri De Novo, Rod Jackson, Helena Jaczek, Paul Miller. The Committee Clerk, and presumably the staff person, is Valerie Quioc Lim at Tel. 416-325-7352. You can communicate with the Committee using her email address: email@example.com.