The provincial government says it will move to revoke the power granted to Ontario municipalities to hold ranked ballot votes for municipal elections.
In a press release issued Tuesday afternoon, the province said that it would move to amend the Municipal Elections Act to make voting “consistent” across federal, provincial and municipal elections.
A further statement released to CP24.com by Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark’s office said the timing is not right for allowing municipalities to use a different voting system.
“Now is not the time for municipalities to experiment with costly changes to how municipal elections are conducted,” the statement read. “For 443 out of 444 municipalities, they will see no change. This proposal ensures that in 2022, elections for those municipalities will remain the same.”
London, Ont., which in 2018 became the first Ontario municipality to hold a ranked ballot election, will be forced to switch back.
While other municipalities, including Toronto, have been studying the option and working toward implementing it, the province is not considering any compensation for municipalities that have conducted studies on making the switch.
Advocates for ranked ballot voting have long argued that it better represents the will of the electorate compared to the “first past the post” system traditionally used in Canadian elections and helps make the system more equitable and inclusive.
Ranked ballots allow a voter to list their candidates in order of preference. Candidates who receive the fewest votes as the top pick are dropped following the first round of counting and the vote of anyone who selected those candidates as their top pick is then transferred to their second pick and so on until a winner emerges.
In the “first past the post system,” the candidate who wins the greatest number of votes is the winner. The system means that candidates who least represent the will of most voters are sometimes elected because parties with similar ideologies split the vote. Proponents of the “first past the post” system argue that it is simpler to understand and prevents fringe candidates, some of whom might have radical ideas, from getting elected.
Following years of lobbying, the government of former premier Kathleen Wynne amended the Municipal Elections Act to allow municipalities to decide for themselves whether they wanted to adopt the voting system. The 2018 municipal elections marked the first time that municipalities were able to use ranked balloting. While it was not widely adopted, it was used for the first time in London, Ont.
Toronto was working toward the possibility of a ranked ballot election in 2022. However a report last month by the city clerk advised that the COVID-19 pandemic had made much of the preparatory work impossible and suggested 2026 as a more realistic target.
In a statement, Mayor John Tory said Clark’s office informed him of the move to scrap ranked ballots late Monday night.
"I've supported ranked ballots – and voted in support of them at city council - because I believe they will lead to fairer elections and encourage more diverse candidates to run, so the decision by the province is disappointing,” Tory said.
He said his office made it clear to provincial officials that he would continue to support ranked balloting.
The move to scrap ranked ballot elections was announced as part of the “Supporting Ontario's Recovery Act,” new legislation meant to shield essential workers from additional liability associated with health measures around the pandemic.
This isn’t the first time that Premier Doug Ford’s government has surprised Ontario’s municipalities with changes. Soon after being elected, the Ford government unilaterally announced that they would override Toronto City Council’s plans, years in the making, to add more council seats. The province decided instead to pass legislation that shrunk council in half.
The Ford government also scrapped plans to let voters directly elect regional chairs.
Clark’s office also noted that the provincial government has recently moved to create a single voter list for municipal and provincial elections, a move they said “will reduce the need to make corrections on election day, shorten wait times, and save municipalities money.
“Our new proposed changes would bring predictability to municipal elections, at a time when Ontarians are focused on their health and safety.”
The statement also suggested that ranked ballots are more expensive and said barring municipalities from using the system will help save them money.
Scarborough-Guildwood MPP Mitzie Hunter, who also serves as the Ontario Liberal Party critic for electoral reform, issued a statement Tuesday evening saying that “citizens do not need their premier to dictate how they chose their own local leaders.”
"Doug Ford quietly slipped a nefarious measure into a bill that will remove the power of municipalities to use ranked ballots in their local elections,” Hunter said. “This will take the power away from cities and towns to decide how they choose their own leaders.”
She noted that the move was made without any public consultation.
A number of Ford’s former council colleagues were also swift to condemn the move Tuesday.
“The PCs can’t help themselves from continuing to attack municipalities and grassroots democracy,” Coun. Shelley Carroll tweeted.
Coun. Joe Cressy called it “ridiculous” while Coun. Gord Perks charged that it’s proof “Doug Ford sure hates local democracy.”