Half Over: Backroom Bullying and Toronto’s Invisible Municipal Primaries

As you’ve no doubt heard, this was the first week that candidates for Toronto’s city election could officially file their nomination papers and begin their campaigns. Mainstream media, social networks and the blogosphere are alive with updates about who’s running for Council and for Mayor.

It would seem to the observer that the election began on Monday. The headlines started to appear and races finally materialised. Rumours turned into campaigns. But the election actually began a long time ago and half of the process is already over. Due to the quirky nature of our out-dated election system, many candidates never even get a chance to appear on the ballot.  There is an invisible process that occurs in the months leading up to the ‘beginning’ of the election process that determines who is in the election, and who is excluded.

I was first exposed to this process in 2006, following the City Idol project. City Idol was an idealistic experiment in municipal politics. We invited participants to compete, live on stage, as candidates for City Councillor. Just like American Idol the audience would choose their favourites, but instead of getting a record deal the winners would get help to run in the real election. Our four winners were amazing. They were young, diverse, smart and passionate. They represent exactly what we need at City Hall. What happened next surprised me. Two of our star candidates started getting calls, from friends and allies, asking them not to run. After months of competing in City Idol, with growing excitement and anticipation of participating in a real election, their first experience in electoral democracy was being asked to drop out of the race, by their own colleagues. Personally, I encouraged our candidates to ignore the requests and to run whenever and wherever they wanted. One of the candidates stood their ground, the other was forced to drop out of her race and run in another ward where she didn’t live. I started to ask around and I discovered that this is quite common. Many candidates are politely, or not so politely, pushed out of races before they even start.

I’ve spent three years looking into this problem, and I’m convinced that we can eliminate the practice of invisible primaries with a simple change to our voting system called Ranked Choice Voting.

The culprit is a phenomenon called ‘vote splitting’. Vote splitting occurs when a particular ideology, political position or point of view is represented by more than one candidate. For example, imagine if a ward race boils down to a bitter dispute about dogs in parks. 70% want to create more off-leash areas. 30% are opposed. Jim runs a campaign against off-leash areas. He gets 30%. Sally, Anita and Omar run campaigns in favour of more off leash areas. Combined, they get 70%, but the their vote is split three ways: 23%, 26% and 21%. Jim ‘wins’ the election, with only 30%. He won out of luck. If only one candidate had run against him, he would have lost. This is the big irony of vote-splitting.  The more engaged a ward is, with more candidates supporting a point of view, the LESS likely they are to win. Community participation becomes an obstacle to change.

Of course, most ward races aren’t about dogs.  The vote splitting that happens is often about ‘left vs right’ or status quo vs change.  For example, if 60% of ward is left-leaning, they can still end up with a right-leaning Councillor if there are two left-leaning candidates. The two lefties can get 30% each. Roger Righty, out of chance and luck, wins with 40%.

A better example is a ward where 70% of the ward wants change. They are tired of Councillor Smith, and want someone new. If one strong candidate emerges, he or she is likely to win. But if the ward is lively and the citizens are engaged and five candidates run, then Councillor Smith will ‘win’. Sadly, this is exactly what happened in 7 wards in the 2006 election.

Here’s how the bullying happens. When the five candidates decide to run against Councillor Smith, people start to notice. They realise that there’s a problem and, with the best of intentions, they focus on trying to push some candidates out of the race. This almost happened to David Miller in 2003. Early in the race, many people were worried that he and Barbara Hall would ‘split the left’.  There was immense pressure on him to quit the race. He was stubborn and remained in the race, eventually shocking everyone with a last minute comeback and victory. But it doesn’t always work that way. He took a gamble and won. But many candidates, especially new candidates and young candidates, can’t afford to be so bold and they drop out after hearing things like:

“It’s not your turn”
“You’re making a big mistake”
“You’re going to split the vote”
“Do really want to be the one responsible for helping Candidate X win?”
“Your political career will be over if you do this”
“A lot of people are going to be really angry about this”

What a great way to encourage new people to get into politics!  And more often than not, these new faces are young, women and/or people of colour. They represent the voices that are missing at City Hall.

The situation is an unnecessary phenomenon. Ranked Choice Voting would completely eliminate the problem and open doors to more candidates, more choice and fair results.

Just as it sounds, it allows people to rank their choices. It allows lots of candidates to run with no risk of vote splitting. It allows voters to vote with their heart rather than ‘strategic voting’. And it guarantees that no one wins an election without having majority support. It does this by using an “instant runoff”, similar to how some of our provincial and federal parties choose their Leaders.  If no one receives 50% of the vote, then the candidate with the least votes is dropped off, his or her votes are automatically re-distributed to the second choice marked on the ballot and the vote tally is re-counted. This continues until someone wins a majority. Because the ballots are ranked, there is no need for voters to return to the polls.  They only need to vote once. (online flash demonstration)

Ranked ballots are a common feature of many city elections in the US including San Francisco and Minneapolis. More and more cities have been adopting it in recent years. We could implement ranked ballots easily without making any changes to ward boundaries. Or we could look at other interesting models that also use ranked ballots and multi-member districts, such as the STV model used in Cambridge.

One more example: Case Ootes.  He was in the news this week because he’s announced that he won’t be seeking re-election. What most people don’t know,  is that Case barely won his election last time.  In fact, Case was rejected by 54% of his constituents in the 2006 election. Most of his voters didn’t support his campaign. My friend Diane Alexopoulos came in second place, losing by only 20 votes. Another friend of mine, Hamish Wilson, also ran and got 183 votes. In a situation similar to that of Ralph Nader in the US, many have accused Hamish of splitting the vote and helping Case win. But on a ranked ballot, Hamish’s supporters would likely have placed Diane as their second choice, increasing her chances of winning.

My advice to the Hamish Wilsons? Run! Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s ‘not your turn’. Ask your critics what they have done to fight for voting reform, and ask them what right they have to decide whose turn it is.

[note: To his credit, Case Ootes has since become a strong leader for democratic reform, advocating for runoff elections!]

The sad thing, is that while there are gutsy candidates like Hamish and David Miller who can withstand the pressure to drop out of a race, there are many other potential candidates who cannot. I have a few friends who were excited about running in 2010, and have already been asked not to run. Some will run anyway. Some will decide not to run. These names are never known, and do not appear on ballots. They are part of Toronto’s invisible primary, and it hurts candidates on both the left and the right.

Our elections should be a time to share new ideas, a doorway for new faces and voices to enter the political arena, and a time for voters to be exposed to a wide variety of options.  Instead, our elections have become one more reason for people to be cynical and disengaged.

If the system isn’t working, let’s fix the system.  The answer is not to push people out of races.  The answer is ranked ballots.

The 2010 election is half over.  Let’s make sure we have a more vibrant and participatory election in 2014.  You can get involved at www.betterballots.to

(note:  While ranked ballots might be a good remedy for city elections, I wouldn’t necessarily support them for provincial or federal elections.  They could potentially have the opposite effect in a party system, leading to even more disproportional results than we already have.  The only remedy for our parliamentary democratic deficit is proportional representation.  Either MMP or STV.)

10 responses to “Half Over: Backroom Bullying and Toronto’s Invisible Municipal Primaries

  1. excellent post

  2. This is a great idea whose time has come for Toronto. This election can be a time to discuss it and pll it together with the idea that it gets implemented in 2014.

  3. How do you get the present administration to change the voting system?

  4. Hi Fred!

    There’s a few steps involved:

    1) Building public awareness, that the current system is flawed.

    2) Building public awareness, that there are alternatives.

    3) Lobbying for enabling legislation from Queen’s Park that would give cities more electoral options to choose from (such as ranked ballots, term limits, etc).

    4) Lobbying Toronto City Council to adopt changes.

    Is that doable in 4 years? I think so. (i hope so).

  5. Pingback: Backroom Bullying and Toronto’s Invisible Municipal Primaries | Toronto Election News

  6. Great article Mez. Couldn’t agree more. First we take Manhattan (Toronto), then we take Berlin (Ottawa).

  7. Mez, I have never before agreed with you so absolutely and completely!

  8. I believe that this is a far more useful contribution to the “how to fix the elections” debate than proposals for term limits. As you point out, the dinosaurs stay in office because of split opposition votes. If there really is someone “out there” who could garner an absolute majority through ranked votes, this would ensure that the dinosaurs would expire. Conversely, if the voters of that ward really wanted the dinosaur as their rep, they would get what they asked for.

  9. Pingback: Today’s Lynch List « The Lynch Mob

  10. I actually think this may also be an argument for political parties at the municipal level. Parties have mechanisms for carrying out primaries and nominations – that if followed correctly and the use of parachute candidates is avoided – can make for useful exercises.

    Of course there are other issues out there and a general dislike to the idea of bringing the evil “partisan” politics to City Hall (though this probably mainly based on some naive idea that they’re not already there.)

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