Greater Choice, More Civility: City Makes History in Canada with Ranked Choice Voting
More diversity. More choice. More civility. Those were just a few of the reasons touted by city councilors in London, Ontario, last week when the Canadian city made history as the nation’s first to adopt ranked-choice voting for municipal elections.
Starting in 2018, London will scrap its “first past the post” system – which boosts incumbents and can elect candidates without majority support – and allow voters to name their top three choices for city office.
London councilor Maureen Cassidy backed the plan, which won by a resounding 10-4 vote. She believes it will make more voters feel like their voice matters, and encourage more women and minorities to run for office. After the vote, we asked her to expand on why she thinks ranked-choice voting improves democracy for all.
Why do you think ranked-choice voting will make elections better in London?
There are a number of reasons why ranked-choice voting will be an improvement to the current voting system.
First, it will provide the voters with greater choice. Many people express disappointment when their candidate does not win. It may make them feel like their vote doesn’t count. By allowing them to express their second and third choices, they have a greater chance of electing a person they would like to see representing them. While I don’t believe that a ranked choice system will in and of itself increase voter turnout, I do believe that a spin-off effect, down the road, may be that voters feel like their vote actually makes a difference and so they may be more likely to vote in future elections.
Second, I believe ranked-choice voting will make for an election more focused on policy and issues. If, as a candidate, I were to disparage an opponent through personal attacks, how likely will the supporters of that candidate be to rank me as their second choice? In a close race, the second choice rankings can be as important as the first.
Third, while an incumbent will almost always have some advantage over challengers, I believe RCV levels the playing field somewhat. If there is a real desire for change, then presumably the incumbent would get very few second or third place votes. His or her votes would only come from the most die-hard supporters.
As an elected official, how do you think ranked-choice voting will make you and other candidates campaign differently? Will this encourage politicians to broaden their message, speak to more audiences, and work harder to be someone's second choice?
I believe it can do all of those things. I don’t believe I will personally campaign any differently than I did in the last election. I ran in a race without an incumbent and the outgoing councilor was very well-regarded. I believe it will encourage candidates to do their homework to ensure they have a thorough understanding of the issues in the city and in the ward.
What about governing: How do you think ranked-choice voting might lead to more responsive government?
I’m not sure that it will lead to more responsive government. I believe, as elected officials, we are accountable to all residents of the city – not merely those in our ward, not merely those who voted for us and not merely even to those who are eligible to vote. However, if RCV increases the number and the caliber of candidates, that will make for better government.
A key part of the debate in London focused on representation: How do you think ranked-choice voting might make government more diverse and representative?
Part of the debate focused on whether RCV leads to more diversity or to less. Proponents and opponents both provided council members with anecdotal evidence from other regions that have implemented RCV to support their viewpoint. However, there is something to be said for the argument which says that people from groups that are less likely to run for office (i.e., women and people from diverse backgrounds) may be more likely to run if an RCV system does lead to election campaigns that are less personal and more focused on the issues. I believe the greater number of voices that we, as an electorate, can hear from during an election, the better it will be for our democracy.
What did you find the biggest misconception/concern about ranked-choice voting to be -- and how did you counter it?
The biggest misconception is that we are somehow taking away choice or that we are forcing people to rank candidates when they only want to vote for one person. We have tried to make very clear that what we are doing is providing more choice. A voter can continue to only vote for one person if that is their wish. For those who wish to go further, they can rank their top three choices. There will continue to be public outreach and education to ensure the voters understand how the RCV system works.
What would your advice be to other cities or states/provinces considering ranked-choice voting as an electoral reform? Were there lessons from the process in London that would be helpful for others?
I can’t really advise at the provincial or state level since the electoral process is already very different from the municipal level in Ontario. My advice to other cities would be to ensure that they take it step by step. We, in London, as a council have been discussing and debating this issue since very soon after the municipal election in 2014.
One of the first motions of this council was to ask staff to provide us with information on an RCV system and to engage with the provincial government on electoral reform. We implemented ranked voting early on to choose applicants for our Advisory Committees, Boards and Commission. In our first 100 days in office, we completed our four-year strategic plan in which we state quite emphatically our desire to implement electoral reform in the city. It happened that, as we have moved down this path, quite consciously and methodically, the provincial government was in step with us and enacted the necessary changes to the Municipal Elections Act to allow us to see our goals to their fruition.
As part of the process, robust public engagement was a very necessary element and, as I mentioned earlier, it is not finished yet. Staff will be conducting further engagement to educate the voters and I imagine councilors will also hold Ward meetings to let their constituents know about the change. I personally will be hosting a ward meeting in June.