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Steve Collins covers urban affairs and other issues facing the nation's capital.

Could ranked ballots help Ottawa's dismal municipal election turnout?

One of the biggest problems with how we elect our city government is most of us simply don’t bother.

Last fall, 39.7 per cent of eligible voters in Ottawa showed up to the polls: Neither our best nor our worst performance in recent years. Fewer than four in 10 voters get their collective civic butt off the couch, and that’s become normal.

So it was energizing to be at city hall for a meeting of about 50 democratic diehards discussing the finer points of the Municipal Elections Act, which the provincial government is currently reviewing.

One change the province proposes is giving city councils the option to use a ranked ballot in place of the usual first-past-the-post one. Instead of voting for one candidate, you rank them in order of preference. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the votes they got are reassigned to their supporters’ next choice. Rinse and repeat until one candidate reaches a clear majority of 50 per cent support and wins.

The idea is to give elected councillors a clearer mandate, and cut down on vote-splitting, strategic voting and other phenomena that increase voter frustration and cynicism — and probably suppress turnout.

It’s also supposed to squelch mudslinging, because if you’re angling for the second choice of the other candidates’ supporters, you’re less likely to alienate them by attacking their first choice. Voters might be more likely to participate in elections if they’re less ugly and divisive.

Ranked ballots are no cure-all. I’m not sure how carefully considered those second, third and fourth choices would be, when most voters may recognize the name of their incumbent councillor, and maybe their main challenger.

But maybe if we felt our votes had more influence, we’d become more informed.

The provincial government has to give us the option first. Sarah Hoffmann, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing’s policy lead on the legislation, told the meeting why the provincial government sets the rules: “Councils have a fairly limited amount of authority because, honestly, councillors tend to have a bit of a vested interest in elections and how they work.”

A group of politicians who have just seen themselves elected is likely to think the system is working as it should.

Even if the province permits ranked ballots, it would still be up to councillors, who prevailed the fall’s low-turnout, first-past-the-post election, to risk their own re-election by changing the rules. Their performance so far doesn’t give me much hope.

Our lousy turnout suggests voter engagement in this city needs all the help it can get. If you didn’t vote last time around, would a ranked ballot make you more likely to? If not, what would? The province is still looking for your input until July 27. If you’ve got something to say, go to Ontario.ca/municipalelections and say it.

Steve Collins lives in Ottawa. He might also be the guy behind you on the bus, pretending not to notice you’re reading this. Act casual.

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