Ontario Premier Doug Ford offered little explanation Wednesday as to why his government has suddenly decided to bar municipalities from using ranked ballots in local elections.

In a surprise move Tuesday, the provincial government announced that municipalities would be barred from using ranked ballots going forward. The move was announced as a footnote in a bill about shielding frontline workers from liability.

Ford’s own Progressive Conservative Party used a ranked ballot to select him as party leader back in 2018. London, Ont. also used the system to choose its local government that same year. Neither vote was contested.

Ford offered little explanation when asked about the move by reporters Wednesday, saying simply that municipalities should continue to use the same voting system that has been in place since confederation more than 150 years ago.

“Well first of all, we've been voting this way since 1867. We don't need any more complications on ranked ballots and we're just gonna do the same way as we've been doing since 1867, first past the post,” Ford said.

While members of the Progressive Conservative Party were able to figure out how to use the system in order to select Ford as their leader, the premier insisted that ranked ballots would be too confusing for citizens

“They don't have to be confused, it’s very simple,” Ford said. “And that’s what we're moving forward on.”

The province said Tuesday that they were taking the action to ensure that the first past the post system is used for voting in all three levels of government. The province also claimed that ranked ballots are too confusing and expensive.

The province initially offered no evidence that ranked ballots were more expensive, but in an email to CP24.com the premier’s office pointed to the fact that ranked ballot voting in London cost the city about $515,000.

An analysis of London’s municipal election in 2018 by city staff showed the full cost of the election was around $458,000 more than the city’s 2014 election, an increase of around 35 per cent.

City staff said that along with ranked ballot voting, the overall increase in costs was attributable to rising supplier costs, an increase in vote tabulator machines to meet the demands of a growing population, and an increase in staff needed in order to complete regular election tasks. 

By comparison, Toronto’s 2018 election cost about 42 per cent more than its 2014 election, although roughly half of that increase (about $1.9 million) was directly attributable to a provincial law that redrew ward lines to shrink council in half.

The premier’s office also pointed out that the City of Toronto had allocated $1.1 million alone for public consultations on ranked balloting. Consultations had not yet begun and it’s not clear how much of that money had been spent.

However the province has no plans to reimburse municipalities for money spent on exploring or implementing ranked ballot voting. It’s also not yet clear how much it will cost London to switch back to first past the post.

Critics respond

Advocates of ranked ballot voting have been fighting for its implementation for years and have argued that it makes elections more inclusive and representative.  Rather than having the person with the most votes win on first count, candidates are ranked by voters. A series of counts then determines who wins, with the lowest ranked candidates being dropped after each successive count until there is a winner. The system continues to count each voter’s preference, even after their highest ranked candidates are eliminated.

Critics have suggested that the Progressive Conservatives dislike the idea of ranked ballots because it would make it harder for their candidates to get elected in areas where voters are more left-leaning, whereas right-leaning candidates are sometimes able to come up the middle in those areas under the current system.

The opposition NDP on Wednesday called the move “sneaky” and an “attack on local democracy.”

They said the move was made without consulting municipalities and without any calls from the public to make the change.

“Doug Ford wants to override the views of Ontarians and their local elected representatives by shamelessly trying to push through changes to election law that nobody wants, and are driven by his own political agenda,” NDP municipal affairs critic Jeff Burch said.

The Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto, which has been fighting to implement ranked ballot voting in the city for years, said it would be holding a meeting Wednesday night to figure out how to respond to the government’s move, which it said “really makes no sense.”

An online petition opposing the move had gained more than 500 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.