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Report highlights success of ranked ballots — scrapped by Ford government — in London, Ont.

A sign points voters towards a polling station at City Hall in London, Ont., on Monday, October 22, 2018. London is the first municipality to adopt a ranked ballot system in Canada. Geoff Robins / The Canadian Press

A report published this month from the Centre for Urban Policy and Local Governance at Western University suggests that London’s ranked ballot municipal election in 2018 was a success.

London was the first municipality in the country to hold an election using the ranked ballot system, however other municipalities including Kingston, Cambridge, and even Toronto have expressed varying degrees of interest in implementing ranked ballots.

Read more: London, Ont., deputy mayor slams Ford govt. over push to scrap ranked ballots in municipal elections

The report — Administering a Ranked-Choice Voting Election: Lessons from London, Ontario — comes just as the Doug Ford government made the unexpected push to scrap ranked balloting.

“We, in this report, are looking at something a little bit different which is the experience that the city itself had with administering the ranked ballots election, with making it happen, rather than what its political effects are,” said Zack Taylor, the centre’s director.

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“And trying to document that so that other municipalities could learn from it and then interested members of the public could kind of understand what the City of London went through in trying to run a ranked ballots election.”

According to the report, London’s 2018 election using the ranked ballot system “went smoothly.”

Specifically, the report cited “systematic testing of new equipment” and “an extensive public education campaign” as major factors in London’s success, according to the centre.

The report found 70 per cent of the voters in London ranked more than one candidate, “suggesting high public interest in the new system.”

“London shows us that ranked balloting can be administered well, but that it takes extra effort and organization, at least the first time around,” said report author Charlotte Kurs.

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According to the report, the 2018 election cost $458,000 more than the 2014 election, which works out to about $1.87 more per eligible voter.

However, the centre’s associate director Martin Horak notes that some of these costs were not related to the move to ranked ballots and would have happened anyway. He also says that some of the costs related to public education and external auditing would be lower in the future.

On Tuesday, a proposed move to scrap ranked balloting was included as part of a broader bill introduced in the Ontario legislature that largely focuses on measures to provide liability protection from COVID-19 exposure to workers, businesses and charities.

On Wednesday, London’s deputy mayor Jesse Helmer had strong words for Ford, noting that it was not something his party had campaigned on.

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“I think he just wants to stop ranked ballots from happening in Toronto and all the other municipalities in the province have to suffer the consequences,” he told Global News on Wednesday morning.

Read more: Cambridge mayor opposes Ford government’s ‘unexpected’ move to scrap ranked balloting

Cambridge’s mayor, Kathleen McGarry, told Global News she was caught off guard by the announcement.

“We know there is interest in ranked balloting and I believe it’s important that the province allow municipalities to keep this option on the table as part of the democratic process,” McGarry told Global News in a statement.

The bill had its second reading on Thursday.

Ontario creative director of Unlock Democracy Canada, Dave Meslin, says he was surprised the Ford government didn’t move to scrap ranked ballots two years ago.

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“It’s no secret that the provincial Conservatives never liked this legislation. They didn’t support it in the first place. And they’ve definitely made, you know, this recurring pattern of wanting to show cities that they’re in charge, they tell cities what to do. It’s kind of like a bullying tactic. It started with them chopping Toronto’s council in half right away,” he said.

“The constant thing about voting reform is that politicians usually don’t like it … politicians, once they’re elected, they don’t want to change the system that got them in there. I don’t blame them.”

A spokesman for Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said Tuesday, soon after the legislation was tabled, that municipalities should not “experiment” with changes to municipal votes during the pandemic. The government says this measure will keep the electoral process consistent across municipal, provincial and federal elections.

Read more: Supporter will not get special treatment for religious college seeking accreditation: Ford

On Wednesday, Ford described the ranked ballot system as “confusing” despite the fact he was elected leader of the Progressive Conservative Party using ranked balloting.

“I just don’t think this kind of argument that the province is making … gives enough credit to people’s intelligence and their ability to learn new things,” Taylor argued.

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Meslin says that while London City Council is the only government in Canada to move to ranked ballots, every major political party in Canada elects their leader using such a ballot.

“Doug Ford literally wouldn’t be the premier if his party didn’t (use ranked balloting),” Meslin said.

“London City Council is one of the only councils that can actually say, ‘you know what, we have a real mandate.’ I have councillors in Toronto who win all the time with, forget about 50 per cent, they don’t even get 20 per cent of the vote.”

Read more: Support for electoral reform in Canada jumps after federal election: poll (2019)

He says the point of ranked balloting isn’t to “change the outcome” but to “change the whole election.”

“It changes who runs because no one is accused of being a spoiler or a vote splitter. It changes how they run. It changes how many people vote and it changes how they vote. You don’t have to vote strategically. It’s such an amazing system. It’s such a no-brainer,” he said.

In addition to all of Canada’s major political parties using ranked ballots to elect their own leaders, Meslin says several large American cities like San Francisco, New York City, and Minneapolis have switched over to ranked ballots in their civic elections.

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On Thursday, Ontario Liberal Party leader Steven Del Duca said that if elected in the next provincial election, he would restore the legislation that allowed them in the first place, which was “originally brought in under an Ontario Liberal government,” by MPP Mitzie Hunter in 2014. The legislation passed in June 2016.

Del Duca also said Ontario Liberals will introduce a private members bill in hopes of restoring ranked ballots in the meantime.

London West NDP MPP Peggy Sattler raised the issue at Queen’s Park this week, saying “the government’s meddling in local decision making by scrapping ranked ballots came as a complete surprise to Ontario municipalities.”

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“The premier’s interference means that not only are the one-time expenses and tabulator algorithms, additional auditors, and voter education now lost but the city will face new costs to revert back to ‘first past the post’.”

Read more: Critics say Ontario government’s move to scrap ranked balloting undermines municipal democracy

Milton PC MPP Parm Gill argued that it’s important that the way people vote in the municipal, provincial, and federal election is the same.

“Our government is committed to enhancing consistency in all elections,” he said.

“That’s why earlier this year we responded to a request by the chief electoral officer of Ontario and made changes to create a single voter list, that would be used both in the municipal and in the provincial elections. As noted by the chief electoral officer, this change was intended to reduce the need to make corrections on Election Day, shorten wait times and save municipalities money.”

–With files from Global News’ Kevin Nielsen and The Canadian Press.