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Passing The Post

Prospects for Municipal Voting Reform

by Justin Saunders

Rob Ford on the campaign trail last year. He garnered 47% of the eligible voter turnout.
Rob Ford on the campaign trail last year. He garnered 47% of the eligible voter turnout.

More than eight months after Toronto’s municipal elections, leftists across the city continue to bemoan the Miller dynasty's fall to conservative politician Rob Ford's successful mayoral bid. As Ford, a longtime city councillor, swept to power on promises to slash city spending, pundits who once laughed at the idea of a Ford mayoralty puzzled over what seemed like a surge of centre-right populism.

The mayor has since boasted openly of the potential power of “Ford Nation”, and is basing his campaign of cuts on the idea of a broad mandate from the masses. But had a disenchanted electorate really been swayed by the gravy train argument?

Although many journalists were quick to portray the results as a landslide, declaring a strong mandate for Ford, in reality about 15% of Toronto's resident population (which includes minors, those without status or otherwise ineligible to vote) cast a ballot in his favour last October. Those 383,000 votes, out of more than 2.5 million residents, highlight problems with an archaic electoral system which is coming under increasing scrutiny.

“The system works for people who are elected by it,” said Rob Newman in an interview with the Media Co-op. Newman is project coordinator of Better Ballots, a Toronto-based voting reform initiative that works alongside other civic action groups to lobby and educate. The organization highlights voter turnout and councillor turnover at City Hall as issues in need of serious attention. In the 2010 results, half of Toronto's elected councillors were incumbent; in turn, half of those obtained less than 50% of the popular vote in their wards. With voter turnout typically between 40 and 60%, and a first-past-the-post policy often resulting in councillors being elected by a minority, the incumbency factor and an accompanying lack of political diversity are notable features of Toronto City Council.

“The face of council does not reflect the face of the city that is electing it,” Newman said.

First-past-the-post, also known as winner-take-all, has been criticised for seriously undermining the concept of representation itself, as the electorate sometimes votes strategically to avoid an undesirable outcome instead of selecting a preference deemed unwinnable. Strategic voting was a hot-button issue in last year's campaign. In the rush to stop Ford, “unelectable” candidates were brow-beaten into withdrawing from the race in order to bolster Liberal front-runner George Smitherman. The question of whether or not a candidate should, or even has a right, to run is – said Newman – a symptom of the problem with the current ballot structure.

Ballot disenfranchisement is not the only hurdle to meaningful representation. The issue of constituent access is far more significant, with shockingly high ratios of residents per elected representative. Although muncipalities are allowed to redraw their own ward boundaries, Toronto wards continue to grow in population without a corresponding increase in representation. The city's much more representative two-tiered governance structure was infamously legislated away by Ontario's Conservative government in 1998 (although the first post-amalgamation election still included multi-member wards). Robert MacDermid, a Professor at York University and member of Vote Toronto, has been tracking municipal elections and campaign funding issues for the past seven years.

“Some Toronto wards have become so large that there are 80,000 or 90,000 people per representative. That is bigger than almost every other constituency in Canada. In the city of Toronto...when you just go through the math, a constituent couldn't even talk to their representative once every three years.”

MacDermid argues that the increasingly extreme ratio of councillor to constituent is rooted in a conservative mentality: “[This] is an important facet of neo-liberal and right wing ideals, that we should be looking to the market for solutions... to wean the people off the solutions in the public sector and on to solutions in the private sector…It's really distanced people from municipal representatives, and they [are supposed to] deliver services that touch people's daily lives.”

Voting reform advocates have identified a number of potential alternatives to the status quo, all of which are currently in use elsewhere. The province of Quebec allows for the formation of parties municipally. Both Markham and Oshawa have adopted a councillor-at-large system, in which each councillor co-represents the entire municipality. In San Francisco, migrants can vote. In a series of town halls held across the city last year, Better Ballots gauged popular opinion on elements of voting systems used in New York, Barcelona and other large cities. The most popular proposals included instant runnoffs, better access to voting locations and extending the voting franchise to non-citizens (provincial reforms enacted in time for the 2010 election only addressed the issue of location access and the wording of campaign funding disclosure).

There has been very little overt opposition, from any quarter, to these various proposals. In early June of last year, five months prior to his election as Mayor, Ford himself endorsed the idea of voting reform, specifically the notion of expanding eligibility to include minors.

The major barrier to forward movement on electoral reform is the province's control over muncipalities, ensconced in the Municipal Elections Act. Eligibility, winner-take-all, and other features of the system are determined by the Act, which is itself modeled on federal and provincial election rules. Although Toronto possesses certain unique political powers, granted by the province under the City of Toronto Act, it is unlikely that the city could enact significant reforms without the province's authority. The province, however, won't change the rules without a concerted campaign that includes city politicians, something which they have very little incentive to sign on to.

“Why reform a system that elected you?” asks MacDermid. “It's not something that a politician is going to spend a lot of time on as a primary issue.”

The aggregated impact of these issues extends far beyond the ballot box, with meaningful and ongoing influence over governance decisions – what MacDermid calls “the democracy between elections” – sorely lacking. Ford's conservative spending policies are a case in point. With an effective carte-blanche to do what he pleases, campaign promises notwithstanding, those who will be most affected by cuts to transit, housing advocacy and other municipal services are also those who are the least enfranchised within the electoral system.

Unfortunately, they will have to wait four years to be able to speak the language of electoral democracy, a language with an increasingly shrinking vocabulary.

Mayor Ford did not respond to requests for comment.

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justin (Justin Saunders)
Member since June 2010


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2007 Referendum

I didn't have time to touch on it, but readers may remember the province wide referendum on electoral reform a few years ago. Although several prominent politicians did endorse the 'Yes' side, it failed to achieve a critical mass. More reading at:

First past the post

I voted against the reforms to the electoral system in Ontario. I support First Past the post. I also have citizenship in another country, through my parents and the parties have lists of candidates(the more favoured ones are higher on the list), 9 parties and just the same amount of participation as we have here with our system. There is even a Pensioners Party and a party for the ethnic minority. Just more coalitions, more changes in government, no more representation for women. Same number of young people voting as here. Democracy isn't always sweet, but it sure beats autocracy-- at least according to my parents, who survived both Stalin and Hitler

It's not on the radar for a good reason

I'm one of the people who voted in favour of the mixed member proportional system in 2007, and I also believe that it's been horribly misinterpreted and not explained well enough to the voting public in general.

The problem is that it only works in a party system, and the last thing any Canadian city needs is an electoral process based on the lack of real choice that the existing political parties provide us.  In the previous federal election, we basically had four left-wing parties (I'm including the Bloc here) and a slightly right-of-center party that wasn't all that far removed (at least if we go by the CBC vote tool). 

As much as a lot of people hate Ford, he represented something that doesn't come around very unpolished, relatively unscripted politician.  That's a lot more relatable to the voting public in general than his biggest threat, the polished Smitherman.  A lot of people don't want to hear from a politician...they want to hear from someone that they envision themselves talking to in a bar with a bowl of pretzels watching the game.  That's what Ford is...he's the bar buddy.

The other thing people forget is that Ford is at least willing to try to do what he says he'll do., and he's got a track record of that.  Again, is he polished?  No, and that's what turns a lot of people off about him.  But he's the guy some of us can actually believe is trying to make a difference as opposed to saying he'll make a difference. 

That's why I'm against it as presently constructed in this case...if Ford were part of a political party, he'd either be forced to be sculpted in the graven Harper image, or he'd be gone...and we need his voice just as much as we need Smitherman's, MIller's, and everyone else's.  I don't like what Smitherman or Miller represented, but I think they have a right to be heard too.

So how do you do that?  You use a variant of it with the existing ward system.  Take the map as it's cut up and count the votes for each riding.  If Smitherman is the winner of that riding, he gets X percent of the time, mayoral budget, and resources to convince council that various ideas are correct (where X is whatever percentage of the population that riding represents.)  If Ford wins the riding, he gets X percentage.  If Joey Pants wins the riding, he gets a cut, too.  That would give the mayoral candidates the incentive to go to the other ridings, campaign, and have a greater interest in the outcome.  Now, how you work out the finer details would probably be a whole other article, but that's the general idea.

By the way, they also tried the councillor-at-large idea in Oshawa, and people got confused and a lot of them didn't vote because they didn't like the idea of someone not specifically assigned to their riding.  So that option probably isn't viable.

I also don't agree that 80,000 is too large for a ward...most councillors have constituency assistants to handle the day-to-day operations while councillors are in meetings, as do MPPs/MPs.

re: first past the post

Thanks for the comments.

I agree that Mixed Member proportional has been explained poorly. It would take a much more broad and highly visible campaign, with serious backing from notable politicos, to change that - which, as noted, there is very little incentive to do.

I believe the point I was trying to make is that we don't actually have a genuine democracy. Few would argue that the muncipal level of governance has a more direct day-to-day impact on people's lives, yet our system ensures that we don't have any more real control than at the provincial or federal levels. If one doesn't believe that 80,000 to 1 is too large a ratio for *local* governance, then I'm at a loss as to what  'representation' actually means.

Apart from that issue, which is in itself hugely problematic, the megacity has enhanced the effects of class dominance and inequality. Take a look at this map. The old Metro Toronto setup, where 'Toronto', York, East York, North York, Scarborough and Etobicoke were unamalgamated, at least went some way toward preventing what we've seen post-Ford: a situation in which the people most reliant on/affected by (core and peripheral) city services -particularly social services- have had the people least reliant on/affected by those services make the decision for them to slash those services. And for what? The per capita tax savings of such decisions are almost infintesimally small, especially for the middle and upper class (which is the largest constituency voting in favour of this).

I'd also like to counter the argument that only conservative politicians are straight shooters. We've seen this 'wishy washy' logic applied time and time again to disparage anything at all left of the right wing (including the centre - the infamous Republican characterization of the John Kerry 'flip flop' springs to mind). Yet it's utter nonsense. We need only look as far as Stephen Harper to see numerous examples of a right-winger saying one thing prior to being elected, then doing quite another - particularly regarding corruption and cronyism, which he vigorously campaigned against a decade ago them promptly reversed himself on with Senate appointments, contempt of Parliament, fraud (and subsequent lying about the fraud)...the list is endless. I'm sorry, but the real, bar-buddy, unpolished Ford contrasted with everyone else in the running is a myth. Did you ever meet Joe Pantalone? I did, and I found the man at least equally down-to-earth (and no, I didn't vote for Pants either). However, this is all beside the point.  Populism is no substitute for sound policy.  Ford's potential as a good drinking buddy (and I'd dispute that too) shouldn't trump his stance on real issues. Yet I agree that, for a portion of the voting public, it does. If that's truly the basis for how we choose to organize ourselves as a society...then we're screwed.

I think you might have

I think you might have misunderstood me in a few spots, Justin...but to be fair, I'm easy to misunderstand.

I never actually said that only conservative politicians are straight shooters.  I'm just saying that Ford gives the appearance of a straight shooter, and that's something a large percentage of the voting population can relate to.  He doesn't give off the weird Ken doll robot vibe that Harper does, he doesn't have the arrogance of a McGuinty or an Ignatieff, he's not desperate to be elected to something as Rocco Rossi is/was, and he's not a career politician because he has nothing else going on in his life.  He can afford to shoot off the cuff, because if anything ever happened and his political career should be brought to an abrupt halt tomorrow, he can shrug his shoulders and collect his Deco paycheque.  So he can afford to play the game by his terms.  I'm neither condoning nor condemning what he does...I'm just stating that he portrays a certain image because he can afford to, and it works for him because it's at least to some degree an extension of his personality.

Does that alone mean people should vote for him?  No.  You're right on based on perception of image is not the way to elect anyone at any level, yet it's been going on for over 20 years.  Rae, Chretien, Harper on two separate occasions (the initial minority government and now his majority government), Mike Harris, McGuinty, and on and on we go.  The disturbing reality is that political issues and the facts and supporting documentation behind them take a back seat to the games of politics themselves.  It's not about solving problems, it's about playing to the camera, grandstanding, and sabre-rattling.

I would argue that local governance doesn't have as much of an impact on the day-to-day lives of people as much as say provincial or federal government does.  Income tax levels.  Running of Crown corporations (something that really needs to stop).  Sales tax (a job-killer if there ever was one).  Deals with major paranationals to keep company offices/warehouses/plants from going overseas.  Law enforcement (yes, this is both provincial and regional, but the major offences are generally provincial).  Social programs.  I could write a list all day if I wanted to.  There are city-specific issues, but they really aren't the major form of government, and as is the case with most forms of government, should be kept to the bare minimum.  They have long since proven that they cannot operate anything even remotely business-related effectively or with any regard for taxpayer money, on any level, regardless of political affiliation.

This is another reason why Ford has an appeal.  He promised to get rid of this sort of thing and do things differently...and thus far, he's done exactly what he said he was going to do.  He may be a polarizing figure, but regardless of whether you agree with him or not, you have to give the guy at least a little bit of respect for sticking to his guns.  He's trying to get rid of the waste and BS that exists in the level of government that he can control...and having had to do work and RFPs for the City, I can tell you first hand that the problem isn't a problem of dollar amounts, but how they can be spent most effectively.  Again, though, the impact he'll have is relatively small either way, be it constructive or destructive.

As far as the 80,000 figure is concerned, the only way to reduce the size of the wards is to either split the wards up into smaller wards, which creates more councillors, more expense pertaining to government officials, and less spending on the things that government could theoretically spend it on that would benefit people.  So if you want to help others, you'd actually want less government intervention and fewer salaries, not more.  

By the way, just to clear something up, I'm neither a true left-winger or a right-winger.  I have never voted for Harper, and I have voted Green Party in the past before Elizabeth May took over and destroyed it.  But what we need in this country is a radical shift in thinking on all levels of government, with reduction of spending and size being the primary focus.  Less government is more.

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