Voices & Choices

London, Ontario leads the way with historic debut of ranked choice voting

London, Ontario leads the way with historic debut of ranked choice voting

While Americans count down to the November midterms, voters just across the border in Canada are preparing for their own historic elections.

The Oct. 22 municipal elections across Ontario features the debut of ranked choice voting in London. Voters in the southwestern Ontario city will be the first nationwide to use ranked ballots (with up to three choices per seat) to elect their mayor and 14 district, or ward, council members.

Canada has traditionally chosen representatives using single-choice plurality voting - referred to there as “first past the post” -  in which the candidate with the most votes wins, regardless of whether they crossed the majority threshold. Just as it has in the United States, the single-choice plurality system has led to low plurality outcomes that leave voters feeling disenfranchised from the political process and prevent certain candidates - those outside the major political parties, women, people of color and non-incumbents - from a fair chance at winning office.

As problems posed by this undemocratic system piled up in local and federal elections alike, a number of advocacy groups sprung up calling for reform through ranked choice voting. Reformers gained traction, with voters and with government leaders, and in 2016, Ontario updated its election rules to allow cities and towns to use ranked ballots beginning in 2018.

Though Ontario’s government touted the modernized election legislation as “enhancing transparency and accountability and allowing more choice in municipal elections,” the reform met with hesitation.

In fact, London is the only city out of the province’s 444 eligible municipalities that will take advantage of the legislative update to use ranked ballots in 2018. And even there, the fight for a more fair and democratic system has been an uphill battle.

The city council, which had broached the topic of ranked choice voting as early as 2014, approved the reform by a narrow 9-5 vote in 2017 - on the very last day needed to enact the change in time for its 2018 elections.

In the wake of the council approval, the city government launched a robust education campaign, which coupled with support from advocates, has helped teach voters about the new voting system and its benefits: higher turnout and no chance of the plurality outcomes that gave 6 of 14 current council members wins in the 2014 elections.

The crowded fields for many council seats and the closely contested race to succeed the retiring mayor Matt Brown will further underscore the benefits of ranked choice voting. And the chance for a more diverse governing body looks promising, with five women of color and two representatives of the LGBTQ community among council contenders.

Meanwhile, the question of ranked choice voting will be put to voters in ballot referendums in the cities of Cambridge and Kingston.  Other cities and provinces have indicated interest in thereform, keeping their eyes locked on London to watch how the historic RCV elections play out.

Illustration by Mikhaila Markham

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