Plan to bring ranked ballots to 2022 Toronto election falters as city clerk calls for pause

Toronto’s city clerk says a plan to bring ranked ballots to the 2022 municipal election needs to be put on ice, citing pandemic-related delays. 

In late November, taking advantage of a 2018 provincial law that allows municipalities to use ranked ballots, city council had asked staff to start preparing for a bylaw that would allow Toronto voters to rank candidates in order of preference in the next municipal election.

In a report this month that looks at how the pandemic has affected preparations for the 2022 vote, City Clerk Ulli S. Watkiss says that there’s simply not enough time to take all the required steps to get that bylaw ready. 

“The pre-conditions necessary to authorize ranked ballot elections can no longer be achieved in a way that ensures meaningful public education and consultation,” writes Watkiss, describing how planned education campaigns and community meetings were cancelled when the novel coronavirus arrived in the city in March. 

How the systems work

  • In the current first-past-the-post system, voters tick just one box.
  • In contrast, with a ranked ballot system, voters would mark their first, second and third choice of candidates. If no candidate wins a majority, the person with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated. The second-place choices of those who voted for that candidate are then counted — and so on — until one candidate wins a majority.

There are even more complicating factors, Watkiss continues, including the necessity of buying new vote counting equipment since Toronto’s current machines need to be replaced, and the possibility of a shift towards mail-in voting or other alternatives if the pandemic is still ongoing. 

Another wrinkle: it’s not yet clear whether the 2022 election will have 47 or 25 wards, pending a Supreme Court decision — meaning staff need to prepare for both possibilities.  

‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’

But advocates for ranked ballots, which was first debated by Toronto city council back in 2013, don’t think it’s the right time to put the project on pause.

“We accept that the current situation will make it slightly more difficult,” said Michael Urban, chairperson for the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (RaBIT).

“The fact is the current situation also makes it so much more important that we move forward with this sort of reform.” 

Urban points to research that found ranked ballots improves diversity in government, including data from California that shows the proportion of winning candidates of colour jumped by 23 per cent after the change was made. 

Michael Urban, chair of the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto, wants work towards a ranked-ballot bylaw to continue. (Submitted by Michael Urban)

“This pandemic has hit women, it has hit Black, Indigenous, people of colour the hardest. Those are the exact people who are desperately under-represented on our council currently,” Urban told CBC Toronto. 

He also points out that the city has successfully held consultations during the pandemic, including the town halls held earlier in the summer on police reform.

“There’s plenty of time,” he said. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” 

‘Important work’ for democracy, says councillor 

Coun. Shelley Carroll, who represents Ward 17, Don Valley North and has been a major voice in favour of ranked ballots on city council, isn’t giving up either.

She says she’s hoping to get answers from city staff at Thursday’s executive committee about where the concerns are coming from, and what resources could help the plan move forward. 

“If [Watkiss] needs a remedy to continue this work, I’m prepared to move that remedy at council,” Carroll said.  “I’m not going to war with the clerk … I want to help them.” 

Coun. Shelley Carroll says public support for ranked ballots has only grown. ‘The group asking for this gets bigger with each passing election,’ she says. (Greg Bruce/CBC)

In a 2018 vote, 14 city councillors, along with Mayor John Tory, pledged to support ranked ballots. 

That support will be put to the test on Sept. 30, when they’ll be asked to consider the city clerk’s report at a council meeting.

“Here we have some really important work to do with democracy, and we’ve got to figure out a way for it to move forward,” said Carroll. 

Councillors would still have to vote on the ranked-ballot bylaw, which Watkiss says needs to be in place by May 2021 to be implemented by the 2022 election. 

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