Justin and Dave’s War on Misleading Language

Toronto City Councillor Justin DiCiano posted a tweet this morning, about ranked ballots, runoff voting, and majoritarian systems.

He suggests that there’s an “inconvenient truth on ranked ballots“, that  “you don’t need a majority to win” and that “the truth will set you free“.

Some people were confused about it.


Then Justin asked me to help explain his position.  I’m happy to.

The tweet itself was a playful parody of a tweet I posted yesterday.  He photoshopped my photo to make an important point about the word “majority“.

Justin has proposed that we should all stop using the word “majority” when it comes to runoff voting and ranked ballots. After all, there are indeed cases where the winner of a runoff election does not end up with a true majority of ballots cast in the first round.   This happens because of “exhausted ballots”, which means all three choices on the ballot were eliminated before the final round of counting.

For example, if we used ranked ballots in the 2014 TO election, and you voted for Ari Goldkind as your first choice, Morgan Baskin as your second choice, and Dewitt Lee as your third choice, then on the final round of voting (likely Tory VS Ford or Chow) your ballot wouldn’t count. This is called an “exhausted ballot”.

If there are enough exhausted ballots, it can sometimes lead to a final result that is just below 50%.  For example, in the 2013 Minneapolis ranked ballot mayoral race, Betsy Hodges won with 48.95% of the total votes cast.  Technically, this is not a majority.

In addition, if people choose NOT to rank their ballot at all, then of course the final winner could have way less than 50% of total votes.  For example, if Chow was eliminated in 2014 and none of her supporters ranked a 2nd choice, then there would be tonnes of exhausted ballots on the final round.

So, Justin is essentially pointing out that if people DO rank their choices, you could sometimes end up with a winner who gets around 47-49%, and in rare cases, especially if lots of people choose not to rank their ballots at all, then the winner could end up with a percentage much lower.  For example, let’s take the infamous Ward 17 race, where Christin Carmichael Greb won with only 17%.  If Toronto DID use ranked ballots, but everyone in that ward chose NOT to rank any second choices… then Christin would still have won with 17%… not a majority.  Essentially the voters would be choosing not to have a runoff at all, which would simply give us the same result we already get now.

Some might say that this is a red herring.  After all, a runoff can only produce a majority if people actually participate in the runoff.  And in almost every case I’ve ever seen, the rate of participation is very high.  The intent of a ranked ballot system, and the most common outcome, is a true majority of all votes cast.  That’s why runoff systems are used by all parties in Canada to choose their leaders, they’re used by hundreds of American cities, and they’re even used by Toronto City Councillors themselves.  In each case, the term “majority” is used to describe the process.

But I think Justin is on to something, and I want to join his crusade.

Since a ranked ballot election might produce a 49% winner, rather than a 50% winner, I think we should stop using the misleading word “majority” when we talk about this important reform.

But let’s not stop there.  There are many other examples of how we are confusing the public, daily, with misleading and false nomenclature.

Should we really be using the term “Light Rail Transit“?  I mean, have you ever tried to lift up one of those trains?  Heck, the Siemens S70 weighs 98,500 pounds… without any passengers!!

More importantly, I know I’m not the only person who is concerned with the fact that Nathan Phillips Square… is actually a rectangle.  It’s length is 140 feet, but it’s width is only a mere 135.  My friends, it’s a slippery slope when we all collectively start to use misleading language.

Nuit Blanche?  How is it white?!  Most of the installations are actually quite colourful.

Queens Park Circle is not a circle, we drive on our parkways and park on our driveways, and Centre Island is not actually a separate Island.

Getting back to voting systems, we should probably change all the terminology currently being used by academics across the world, since none of it is ccurate:

  • Majority systems: As Justin has helpfully pointed out, majoritarian systems sometimes don’t deliver a technical majority, so  we should stop using the word entirely.
  • Proportional systems: PR models don’t actually produce a proportional result.  They get us much closer, but not truly proportional.  So we should probably stop using that word too.
  • First Past the Post: I’ve always felt that this was a weird name, since there is no post to pass.

These are important issues.  Our use of language defines who we are.

I’m looking forward to fixing all of these urgent problems, and I thank Justin for sparking this important discussion today.

Don Valley Driveway

Centre Place

One response to “Justin and Dave’s War on Misleading Language

  1. I’m sensing a touch of … sarcasm here.

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