Toronto's city clerk says the COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible to provide ranked ballots to Toronto voters for the 2022 municipal election.

But what is a ranked ballot, and why should you care?

What it is and how it works

A ranked ballot is, as the name suggests, a form of voting where you can order - or rank - your preference for several candidates from the field of candidates. On voting day, instead of voting for just one candidate, constituents may be able to make first, second and third choices or more.

In essence, voters end up voting for their second choice if their first choice is eliminated, their third choice if the second is also removed, and so on.

A candidate must get more than half the votes, 50 per cent plus one, to win. If no candidate gets more than half the votes on the first count of the ballots then the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated from the race.

The votes the eliminated candidate received are then transferred to that voter’s second choice. These rounds of voting are repeated until a candidate wins more than half the votes, or the votes are exhausted (meaning no further preferences have been recorded).

An eventual winner may win without a majority of votes if a lot of candidates are running or many voters only select a single preferred candidate.

Where did they come from?

Ranked ballots emerged from Europe in the mid- to late-19th century, and by the early 1900s, were being used in Australia, Malta, Ireland, and a number of municipalities in the United States, including in New York City and Cincinnati.

Would you rather not vote for the least bad option? Then perhaps you want to use a ranked ballot

The use of ranked ballots in the U.S. jurisdictions was largely repealed after it led to the election of women and people of colour, acccording to FairVote. By 1962, only Cambridge in Massachusetts still used multi-winner ranked choice voting. But it has made a resurgence in the States (where it is known as ranked choice voting, or RCV) in local and regional votes in the last 20 years.

“The movement was closely allied with the progressive movement of the time and had a number of successes,” the U.S. advocacy group says on its website. “However, a backlash in the 1940s leveraged RCV’s success in electing diverse identities and viewpoints in order to create insecurity and ultimately push for repeal.”

Ranked ballots had been used in Alberta and Manitoba from the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s, and Ontario's previous Liberal government changed provincial law in 2016 to allow for their use in future municipal elections on the 2013 request of Toronto city council.

Why should you care?

With ranked ballots voters are more likely to select the candidate they most want to win rather than “the least bad option” in any race in which a leading opposing candidate is far from securing a majority in the first round. That’s because if their candidate is bundled out, the vote transfers.

It can also mean that the eventual winner is not the candidate who had the most first-choice votes, but rather the one that garnered the broadest base of support.

Advocates say ranked ballots encourage a more diverse field of candidates, since it removes the pressure for candidates to withdraw to avoid splitting the vote. They say it also means that more of the electorate ends up supporting the winner.

Alastair Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Ranked ballots are in my opinion very good for things like presidential contests, leadership races, and especially referenda . . . things where there is going to be just one result.
I don't like them for things like parliamentary elections. If you're electing a whole bunch of people based on the nature of their political ideas, you have the opportunity for a proportional result, where the people elected proportionally reflect the people's political positions. Ranked balloting isn't proportional. Ranked ballots tend to favour compromise candidates and parties (so in Canada, Liberals), leaving people with more definite ideas relatively unrepresented. Because, like, Conservatives are generally going to rank the NDP or Greens last, and NDP and Greens will mark Conservatives last, so both sides are going to have Liberals as their hold-nose second choice. In any given riding unless the Liberals are actually the first dropped from the ballot, they're going to get a boost from one side or the other when second choices are counted. So they'll get ridings out of proportion to their first-choice support.

I agree with Rufus. Think about how "ranked ballot" as you describe it would work for the Greens. Because its base is thin and wide, the Greens would come in 4th in most riding races and would be the first eliminated then Green voters' 2nd choices allocated to other parties, their first choice, wiped out. We need Proportional Representation, PR, to make every vote count. By the way, a ranked ballot is a tool that can be used in designing a voting system. (Some PR systems use them.) The proper name for the system you are describing is Alternative Vote, the system Britain voted on in 2011.

I agree with Rufus. Think about how "ranked ballot" as you describe it would work for the Greens. Because its base is thin and wide, the Greens would come in 4th in most riding races and would be the first eliminated then Green voters' 2nd choices allocated to other parties, their first choice, wiped out. We need Proportional Representation, PR, to make every vote count. By the way, a ranked ballot is a tool that can be used in designing a voting system. (Some PR systems use them.) The proper name for the system you are describing is Alternative Vote, the system Britain voted on in 2011.

Rufus is correct that ranked ballots tend to select compromise candidates. Is it not better that compromise be in the hands of the voter rather than reserved for political elites, elected or otherwise? One saw in the failure of electoral reform at the federal level that parties, interested more in power than in policy, will not compromise. That is why we are stuck with FPTP in federal elections. Better that it be left to the electorate than to the politicians.

But that doesn't leave the compromise to the electorate at all. If the electorate is (at election time), say, 10% "Tea party right", 25% "mainstream Conservative", 30% "centrist Liberal", 25% "social democrat" and 10% "Green as overriding concern", a system which returns a majority of Liberal MPs would not reflect their beliefs. And the result of a majority of one party running roughshod over everyone is not the same as the compromise a minority works out with input from different sides, even if those sides happen to be equal and precisely opposed as in that example, which will not usually be the case.

Many countries, probably the majority of first world countries, have proportional representation. It can't be that politically impossible.