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

Ranked ballots if necessary but not necessarily ranked ballots

Today, we begin to see where electoral reform, and ranked ballots in particular, rate as priorities of this council. Prediction: Not high.

Today, we begin to see where electoral reform, and ranked ballots in particular, rate as priorities of this council. Prediction: Not high.

Metro file

Today, we begin to see where electoral reform, and ranked ballots in particular, rate as priorities of this council. Prediction: Not high.

Today, we begin to see where electoral reform, and ranked ballots in particular, rate as priorities of this council. Prediction: Not high.

The finance committee gets a report this morning from city clerk Rick O'Connor on changes to the provincial Municipal Elections Act for the 2018 election, many of which expand his workload.

“Most provisions are mandatory, such that neither the Clerk nor Council has discretion with respect to administering and complying with them,” it notes. It's mostly marching orders from Queen's Park – and there's a bright side to that.

Corporate and union campaign donations, for example, have been banned. That's an overdue reform that our council last year voted against even asking the province for the power to make on their own. Every individual councillor who voted ‘No’ had been elected in part with corporate money, and they weren't noticeably eager to cut off that source of funding.

It remains to be seen how much of that cash will be redirected to the remaining legal channel of third-party advertising, but at least now politicians will have to rely on actual human donors, rather than companies that tend to do significant amounts of business with the city.  

One area in which council has discretion is the option to introduce ranked ballots. (Voters rank candidates in order of preference. Less-popular candidates get eliminated and their votes reassigned to remaining competitors, until someone actually gets a 50 per cent majority.)

Advocates argue this produces a clearer mandate for the winner, and eliminates vote-splitting, strategic voting and other winner-take-all shenanigans that tend to increase voter frustration and cynicism, which probably contribute to weak voter turnout (just shy of 40 per cent here in 2014).

The clerk's office, we're informed,  takes no position on ranked ballots, a council decision, but, with a portentous “that said,” certainly seems keen to list every reason why it can't or shouldn't happen in 2018.

First off, it's never been done before anywhere in Canada, and Ottawa would be the largest municipality to ever do so in North America (though ranked-ballot San Francisco has a comparable population.)

Technically, we're stuck with machines that aren't set up for ranked ballots, and time is short. Council would have to pass an enabling by-law by May 1 (after public consultations) to change for the next election.

There's also the matter of cost. We don't do E-day cheap around here. As the report points out, our voters are spread out over a larger geographic area than Toronto, and every polling station is bilingual and accessible, with special needs terminals and other resources available.  That all goes to fairness and is money well spent.

Bringing in ranked ballots and sufficiently informing the public about it, the clerk warns, could drive up the cost of the election over 50 per cent to $9.9 million from $6.4 million.

And school board elections still have to be first-past-the-post, so we'd be left with a hybrid ballot, another potential driver of cost and complexity.

Then add to all the city clerk's cautions the fact that that every single member of council was elected through a first-past-the-post system. From their perspective, how bad could the status quo really be?

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