OPINION: Mississauga may not see voting reform in 2022 but change is coming
Despite a growing movement across Ontario’s municipalities to reform the way mayors and councillors are elected, Mississauga doesn’t look like the place for such reforms.
In the September 28 Governance Committee meeting, a motion was tabled by Ward 5 Councillor Carolyn Parrish that would create an ‘ad-hoc’ committee to study ranked choice voting and other measures, such as reviewing ward boundaries.
For a short primer of how ranked choice voting, or just ranked ballots work, you can read my previous article or watch this video from the City of Cambridge. Cambridge voters voted to adopt ranked choice voting in a 2018 citywide referendum.
Unfortunately, the deadline to present a recommendation was January 2021. With the arrival of a second wave of COVID 19 and the bulk of the work during the holiday season, which really constrained the timeline according to committee members, Parrish withdrew her motion, citing the lack of support.
Council later convened and decided to reexamine the issue at the next Governance Committee meeting, but suffice it to say it is more likely Mississauga would have to wait until 2026, maybe even 2030, before ranked-choice voting becomes the way local politicians get elected.
But this movement is growing strongly, whether city officials and politicians in Mississauga like it or not. According to activist Dave Meslin and non-profit group 123Ontario.ca, Barrie, Burlington and Guelph are either launching public consultations or a referendum in 2022 to put the question before the voters.
Weekly update: 400+ Ontario cities have until May 1 to decide if they're gonna switch to a fair voting system. @cityburlington is in the lead, Barrie's heading toward a referendum and a new horse has just joined the race: @cityofguelph! Details at: https://t.co/wC0oWZitIb pic.twitter.com/rMDcPSOgrA— dave meslin (@meslin) October 6, 2020
Burlington appears to be the most optimistic case for a municipality in the GTA to adopt ranked ballots. Their council unanimously voted to request staff to initiate the public consultation back in September and could soon come up with a recommendation.
The deadline for Ontario municipalities to adopt ranked ballot voting is May 1, 2021, in time for the 2022 election.
London is the only municipality in the province that adopted RCV for the 2018 election. With a more reform-minded council, Burlington may just go right ahead with trying out this system in two years without having to go to a referendum.
In the case of Mississauga, what is disappointing above all is Mayor Bonnie Crombie coming out squarely against reforms (at least for now) according to her own words during the September 28 meeting.Crombie consistently brings up three points which I find most problematic: that ranked voting “doesn’t change the outcome of the election”, that RCV gives people “more than one vote” and that the entire process is too complicated for the average person to understand.Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie during recent COVID 19 press conference
As I attended that virtual committee meeting and spoke to these points, let me counter Mayor Crombie’s assertions.
“Outcome of the vote didn’t change”
This is perhaps the most ridiculous counter to ranked-choice voting. By bringing up this point, one assumes that doing RCV will oust incumbent councillors every time and lead to new faces being brought in.
How exactly is that a BAD thing?
The primary reason ranked choice is better than the traditional ‘first past the post’ isn’t to change the outcome, it is to ensure that the eventual winner has a mandate that is as reflective of the voters’ wishes as possible. If someone is elected with 20 per cent or 25 per cent of the vote, that means around 70 plus per cent of voters wanted someone else. How is that system fair?
Looking at the results of the 2018 municipal election in Mississauga, there were only three wards that had a result where the winner got less than 50 per cent of the vote. It was only in Ward 6, where Ron Starr almost lost reelection by some 200 votes to Joe Horneck, that RCV would have perhaps changed the outcome.
All incumbents were reelected with hefty majority margins, and there were two wards with no incumbent running where the winner got less than 50 per cent. Frankly, it’s more of a testament to the level of work incumbent councillors may be doing that no serious challengers stepped forward.
So no, Mayor Crombie, the outcome of the vote wouldn’t have changed if the 2018 election was conducted under RCV rules. Ranked-choice voting not only expands choices for the average voter and ensures that candidates actually get elected by the majority of people voting, but has the potential to end negative campaigning or ‘strategic voting’.
If you had candidates more conscientious of expanding their own support by suggesting to voters they could rank them as their second or third choice, you would have a campaign more focused on talking about ideas and substance rather than campaigning and tearing down opponents. Imagine that!
“Voters get more than one vote”
Crombie’s second point about how voters “get more than one vote” is puzzling at best, because her messaging behind that seems to suggest there are voters who get more votes than others. There is some element of truth to that, in the sense of die-hards who don’t want to rank their choice and have only one person they want to vote for.
That is fine, and RCV does not discourage doing so at all. The point is to give people choices. If they only want to vote for one person, their vote is counted and their ballot does not get redistributed to other candidates they didn’t rank. Whereas for someone who did rank, their preferences get distributed accordingly…until someone comes out with more than 50 per cent of the vote.
It, therefore, is not really giving certain people more votes than others, it’s more about giving people more choices, which brings me to Crombie’s last point…
“The system is too complicated to understand”
Instead of voting just one person by marking the X or ‘connecting the arrow’ as municipal ballots are arranged, you rank your preferences: 1, 2, and 3 (most people have about that many choices for things in life, such as ice cream). It’s not so much that the average voter doesn’t understand the system; more likely city officials overseeing the election don’t want to do the work!
It wasn’t hard for Mississauga city staff to run the ‘ranked ballot’ election within the 12 members of council when they had to fill the Ward 1 vacancy after Jim Tovey passed away in 2018. The very system that Crombie says is too complicated was the one she and her colleagues used for themselves.
Several US cities have adopted ranked-choice voting, as has the entire state of Maine. The Conservative Party of Canada as well as the Green Party both recently used it to select their new leaders, and oh yes, the Academy Awards adopted RCV in 2009 in choosing the honoree for Best Picture.
If it is good enough for the politicians themselves to use, I’m sure that RCV is something that everyone can use when it comes to having better elections.
Additionally, Crombie says leadership should come from the province; they should adopt ranked-choice voting first before the cities do it. This is where I fundamentally disagree with Mayor Crombie; the province did lead, as they passed legislation during the Wynne government to allow cities and towns the freedom to adopt this system.
Democratic reforms have a better shot of becoming reality from the local level.
What should happen now in Mississauga when it comes to ranked ballots is they should keep talking, like what just happened recently at Toronto City Council to continue the consultations that may lead to changes in 2026. Reforms and change take time, and proper education.
Bonnie Crombie may be the leader of this city, but on this matter, she has chosen to become more of a follower, something that I believe has happened a few times since she was elected in 2014.
In the end, hopefully, she changes her mind or these reforms in how we vote may have to come from someone else.
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