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Arguments against ranked ballots just don’t rank well

Ranked ballots allow people to pick their first, second and third choices to win a political race.
Ranked ballots allow people to pick their first, second and third choices to win a political race.

The Ontario government finally got around to announcing legislation that will allow cities and towns to use ranked ballots in municipal elections.

This made electoral reform advocates very happy. It also made some opponents very, very unhappy.

Let’s focus on the haters because I expect to hear a lot from them over the next while. The new legislation leaves it optional for municipalities to adopt ranked ballots, which means debates over whether to adopt the system will play out in every local council chamber.

Expect opponents to run out every possible argument against change. Expect all of them to be weak.

The defensive movement is already in full effect in Toronto. Last fall, in a surprise move, Coun. Justin Di Ciano introduced a motion that saw his Toronto City Council colleagues vote 25-18 to reverse their earlier support for ranked ballots.

The idea that ranked ballots are too complicated is probably the most common argument raised by opponents, and you should find it insulting. It suggests that voters can’t understand simple numbers.

Seriously, from the voter’s perspective, the only thing that changes with ranked ballots is, instead of putting one mark down beside your one chosen candidate, you instead rank your candidates in order of preference.

Behind the scenes, those rankings are used to tabulate a winner. The candidate with the lowest share of first place votes is dropped, with their second place votes distributed to other candidates. The process repeats until one candidate scores majority support.

There’s nothing unprecedented about this. Ranked ballots are used successfully in other places. Every political party uses a version of preferential voting to choose their leaders. Hell, ranked ballots are even used to select the Best Picture winner at the Oscars. If Hollywood can figure it out, why can’t we?

Still, expect some politicians to continue to act like ranked ballots are the equivalent of asking people to solve a Rubik’s cube before voting.

The objections won’t stop there, of course. It’s also common for opponents to argue that ranked ballots aren’t effective at solving issues like a lack of diversity in politics or the advantage enjoyed by incumbents. As if reforms that don’t solve literally every problem aren’t worth pursuing.

Finally, I expect a lot of talk focused on outcomes. According to various defenders of the first-past-the-post system I’ve talked to, ranked ballots are bad because they ultimately favour centrist candidates – compromise picks.

But those people are looking at this the wrong way. Voting methods shouldn’t be structured to ensure your preferred political outcome. They should be structured to fairly represent the way voters feel about candidates. Take that approach and the status quo simply does not rank.

This post was originally published at on 2016-04-11T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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