Commentary

Reactionary Councillors Block Electoral Reform Effort ... Again

This month, Hamilton could have taken the first step toward making Election Reform a reality in Hamilton. It didn't. Here's why.

By Nick Tsergas
Published February 18, 2019


In the municipal affairs mess that is the #RedHillScandal, it is easy to forget that there are other important city issues at play. One key issue currently getting lost in the noise is Election Reform. If you're a politically savvy Hamiltonian and you're interested in better democracy, you'll be doubly interested to find out how close we were to moving forward on this.

A motion brought to council by Jason Farr (Ward 2) would have seen the City embark on a fact-finding mission to study the implementation of Ranked Ballots for the 2022 Hamilton municipal election. You can watch a video of the meeting here:

Ranked Ballots

Now just what the heck are Ranked Ballots? You ask. It's simple, really. In a Ranked Ballot election, you rank candidates on your ballot in order of preference. It's the same mental calculation we do whenever we order food off of a menu.

In the Ranked system, candidates can't win an election if they have less than 50% of the vote. So if people run for something, and one person gets more than half of the votes, they win. Cool, right? Wrong.

In municipal elections it almost never plays out that way.

Say four or five people run, and nobody gets 50% of the vote. What happens? In that scenario the candidate who gets the least votes is eliminated from the running, and any ballot cast for that person switches to whoever the second choice was. This process continues until one of the remaining candidates receives enough second or third-choice votes to put them over that 50% edge - then they win.

Of all the various types of election reforms; Proportional Representation, Mixed Member MMP, recall elections and so on, Ranked Ballot is by far the simplest. It also fixes some glaring problems with our existing, status quo system ("first-past-the-post" aka FPTP). Problems such as strategic voting become irrelevant under a Ranked system, where you can vote how you want without ever being afraid that a vote for your conscience will "let the bad guys in."

That's what Ranked Ballots are about in a nutshell. They're used in elections across the world, including in many Canadian contexts. They're not radical or extreme, they make sense, and they're fairer.

The main point is that Ranked Ballots are an excellent means of electoral reform and would be a great change for Hamilton's local democracy, making politics more positive and holding our elected officials more accountable to the public.

Council Refuses to Find Out About Ranked Ballots

On February 6, I appeared at City Hall with other community members to ask council to vote in favour of doing some information-gathering on what a switch to Ranked Ballots might look like - a very feasible prospect since London, Ontario and many other jurisdictions have recently made the switch.

Note: the vote was not to adopt Ranked Ballots, just to find some information about them.

The motion failed to pass a vote by our council, and just barely. Why didn't it pass?

There are eight reasons that come to mind:

8. Esther Pauls
7. Terry Whitehead
6. Brenda Johnson
5. Arlene VanderBeek
4. Maria Pearson
3. Lloyd Ferguson
2. Chad Collins

And finally, reason number 1: none other than Hamilton's longest-sitting councillor, Tom Jackson.

Tom Jackson has been in power for a whopping 30 years (almost as long as I've been alive). Jackson and all others listed inexplicably voted against the motion to study Ranked Ballots.

Jackson deserves special mention as he is the most zealous opponent of any changes to the election system, and why shouldn't he be? He is someone whom the status quo has served very well, for a very long time, and was often hot-headed as he attacked the mere suggestion that council gather information on how to conduct fairer elections.

For his part, Jackson seemed to become enraged at the notion that someone who wins their council seat with only 30 percent of the vote might not deserve it as much as someone winning with a majority of the vote. He also expressed his wish that taxpayer funds be diverted into making elections more accessible for - wait for it - Hamilton's senior citizens. No surprises there.

Laud Supportive Councillors

On the other side of things, councillors who supported the motion are to be lauded for their willingness to explore measures to improve our local democracy.

First-term Councillor Nrinder Nann (Ward 3), who seconded the motion, pointed out that our status quo election system often leads to good, qualified candidates being bullied out of running by more established political figures saying "wait your turn," leaving me wondering if she has had any personal experience in that area.

Although not totally sold on the idea of Ranked Ballots, Councillors John Paul Danko (Ward 8) and Brad Clarke (Ward 9), were more than willing to seek further information on bringing the change to Hamilton's elections, demonstrating open-mindedness as well as intellectual fortitude.

The most frustrating moment of the day came when Councillor Terry Whitehead (Ward 14) issued a spray of falsehoods and misinformation about Ranked Ballots. Whitehead's concerns exposed a clear lack of understanding of the topic and were, most unfortunately, concerns that could have been easily cleared up by having City staff do a study on Ranked Ballots.

If there is one thing to take away from this experience as we move ever-forward into the politics of "Change, Real Change, Actual Real Change" and "Change for the Better," it's this:

Status quo system, status quo results.

Nick Tsergas is a Registered Nurse in the areas of Community Health and Sexual Health. He is an active community volunteer and has also worked as a political consultant across the partisan spectrum. His author bio is jealous of John Neary's. You can follow Nick on Twitter @nicktsergas_af.

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By rgelder@cogeco.ca (registered) - website | Posted February 18, 2019 at 20:38:55

Excellent piece! A sound andreasonable argument for the study, at least, of ranked ballots.

Having lost the last municipal election, I often wonder how I would’ve fared under a system of ranked ballots. I don’t think the result would have changed.

For what it’s worth, had I been elected I would have enthusiastically endorsed the further study of ranked ballots as a municipal councillor.

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By positive1@cogeco.ca (registered) | Posted February 24, 2019 at 22:03:57

Nick, Well written and informative piece. Very sad that some councillors are actually afraid of information on ranked ballots. There was no implied commitment. Just intelligence on the topic. But that seemed to be too much for some of our councillors. Good decision making relies on good information - so what does this say about council decisions?

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