Back in September Cambridge city council opted to keep the first-past-the-post system for electing members of council. City staff made the recommendation not to adopt the ranked ballot system, which is now an option for municipalities in Ontario.
Council members expressed concerns that a new system would create confusion that would lead to low voter turnout.
“Introducing this will be a nightmare,” said Counsellor Frank Monteiro. His concern is the existing system of electing city and regional representatives is “confusing enough” for many people. “I think you should be careful how you approach this, see how this is going to be applied.”
– Cambridge Times September 28th 2016
In addition to sticking with a first-past-the-post system for 2018, council instructed the clerk to come back with what Mayor Doug Craig described as “a game plan” for how to educate residents about ranked ballots and what would be involved in making it a referendum question for voters.
A referendum on the way the people of Cambridge vote for their city council is a great idea, as long as it is executed properly. The question on the ballot needs to be clear. People need to understand the choice they are making and how it will impact them going forward.
Here is a brief look at the voting options that Cambridge is considering, with the pros and cons of each.
Currently, the people of Cambridge elect their members of council using this system. The city is broke up in to a series of wards. Members of the public put their name forward as a candidate in a particular ward. On Election Day, voters choose which person they want to represent their ward. The candidate with the most votes in each ward is elected to council.
- The people get to choose who they want to represent them.
- There is a direct line of accountability from the counsellor to his/her constituents.
- A particular ward may be represented by someone that a majority of people didn’t support (candidate wins with less than 50% of the vote).
- People who don’t vote for the winning candidate will feel like their vote was wasted.
A ranked ballot system would modify the current system in the following way. Rather than choose one candidate per ward, each voter would rank the candidates from most favoured to least favoured. Once the votes are counted, if the candidate ranked # 1 on most ballots has over 50% support, they are declared the winner. If they candidate ranked # 1 on most ballots has less than 50% support, the candidate ranked # 1 by the least number of people is dropped off the ballot. Those votes are then re-sorted by their second choice. This process continues until the winner has support from 50% of votes cast.
- Each candidate would have “support” from most of the people in their ward.
- In order to get more 2nd and 3rd choice support, each candidate would need to appeal to the largest number of people in order to win.
- Voters who don’t get their first choice may still not feel like their vote counted.
Would it have made a difference in Cambridge in 2014?
When we look at the 2014 election, the failure of first-past-the-post is particularly evident in two races.
Candidate Mike Mann becomes the councillor for ward 3 with only 1/3rd of the popular vote. This type of thing tends to happen in ward races with lots of candidates.
The Cambridge Ward 6 had a very contentious result, skewed by the FPTP system.
The winning candidate Shannon Adshade wins the seat by 2 votes over Gary Price. Neither of the top two candidates had a plurality of the votes, but if the people who supported Colin Slingsby had to take a second choice, either could have won.
Change Takes Awhile To Happen
The issues around electoral reform are complex. Campaigns to change the way people vote in Ontario and BC provincial elections failed in part due to misinformation and confusion of the voters.
In order to ensure a fair referendum is held, the city will need a focused education campaign to inform the citizens of Cambridge what they are being asked to decide. The people need to be able to ask questions and have their concerns heard. With the 2018 election a little over 18 months away, it needs to start now.
Actually, Adshade did have a plurality of votes in Ward 6, but neither had a majority. I’d caution against trying to predict how FPTP results might be different under another system. We can’t assume, for example, that the FPTP votes represent ‘first choice’ votes under a ranked ballot system.
The issue isn’t predicting how people would vote under a ranked ballot system. People will change their votes under a ranked ballot system compared to FPTP.
The main failure of FPTP is electing people to the seat on council without a majority of people in the ward’s support. Ranked ballots come closer to identifying the will of the people in that everyone will have a say in who is elected.
Ranked ballots would also reduce the need for strategic voting (voting for someone you don’t like to avoid a worse outcome).