Ranked ballot explained (Photo)

Candidates from London's mayoral election, Oct. 3, 2018.

London became Canada’s first municipality to use the ranked ballot voting system in its elections on Oct. 22 — but, many don’t know the difference between the previous voting method and this new one.

Let’s dive into the differences between the "ranked ballot voting" and “first-past-the-post” electoral systems.

First-past-the-post, a longstanding voting method, is the most recognizable by Canadian voters and functions simply: voters cast their ballot for one candidate from the list and the candidate with the most votes wins. It has been Canada’s electoral system for all federal and provincial elections.

On the other hand, ranked voting offers a different take on the voting process; London used the single transferable vote method, which asks voters to rank their top three candidates. In order to win, a candidate must reach 50 per cent plus one vote of all votes cast.

Here’s where ranking the candidates comes into play: if no candidate receives the required number of votes to win, the candidate with the lowest count is eliminated and their votes redistributed to the voter’s next-highest choice. This process repeats until a winning candidate is determined.

At first glance, first-past-the-post may seem more sensible. After all, it seems only fair that the candidate with the most votes wins. However, while first-past-the-post’s simplicity could make it seem more fair, it comes with its share of complications.

Reasons for passing on first-past-the-post

A common criticism of the first-past-the-post system is its tendency to cause "tactical voting" — the act of voting for one candidate over another solely because the voter deems a certain candidate more likely to win.

Here’s a hypothetical situation involving the use of tactical voting:

Eileen loves everything the Green Party of Canada stands for and would love to vote for them, but there's just one problem: she feels that the party’s chances of winning are slim.

Because of this, Eileen decides that voting Green would be the equivalent of throwing away her vote and, instead, looks towards the New Democratic Party.

Her views align with the NDP, but not as much as with the Green Party. She reasons that because the NDP has a better chance of winning, she’d be better off giving them her vote.

As a result, Eileen ends up voting for the NDP, her second choice, rather than the Green Party.

Two common criticisms of tactical voting are that it gives substantial power to the media, as election result predictions and press coverage of certain candidates can give a false perception of popularity; and voters may be swayed by the voting records of those around them, because if they presume that everyone is voting for a particular candidate, they may vote in the same way.

Further, first-past-the-post may promote a two-party system, much like the Democratic versus Republican party landscape south of the border. This criticism is found in Duverger’s law, which states that, over time, the first-past-the-post electoral system will diminish the number of major political parties, with the possibility of there only being two.

Benefits of ranked voting

While ranked voting is more complicated, it comes with many advantages. Notably, it lessens the need for tactical voting, giving less dominant candidates a better chance at winning.

Ranked voting also ensures that no candidate can be elected without 50 per cent of the vote.

Candidates must broaden their appeal in an attempt to be ranked higher on ballots. Instead of vying for only first choice votes, candidates will attempt to garner second and third choice votes as well.

Ranked voting is also said to decrease toxic politics. Candidates are less likely to demonize each other, as they are still competing for second choice votes.

Drawbacks of ranked voting

All electoral systems come with trade-offs; ranked voting is no exception.

One common criticism is that centre-leaning candidates may be more likely to win, since they can appeal to more voters and are likely to receive higher rankings.

It is also more expensive to run a ranked voting election, as the tabulators required to count votes are more complex and costly to rent.

Joseph Lyons, an associate professor of political science at Western, directs Western's Local Government Program.

“I think one of the biggest disadvantages is that local elections are already low-information elections,” said Lyons. “It's hard for people to learn information about candidates.”

He explained that people may find ranked ballots confusing, causing some to refrain from voting or to spoil their ballots.

Impact in London

“I'm glad that London experimented with it,” added Lyons, “We learn through experimentation and there weren't any major problems."

In their respective municipal voting style referendums, Cambridge voted yes to ranked voting but saw too low a turnout for a guaranteed implementation, while Kingston has began the process toward ranked voting after a 63 per cent voter support.

Lyons thinks that, over time, more Canadians cities may slowly adopt ranked voting.


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