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Everybody Play Nice: How Ranked Choice Voting Leads to Positive Election Campaigns

Recently I had the good fortune to join and develop content for a group working to have ranked-choice voting ("RCV") adopted in my hometown of London.  Although still in its infancy, 123London.ca joins a growing number of similar movements across Ontario that want to see a move towards an electoral process that better reflects the realities of modern municipal politics.  If you don't know what ranked-choice voting (A.K.A. instant runoff voting, A.K.A. alternate vote) is, I highly recommend this YouTube video by CGPGrey which very concisely explains the process over just a few minutes of your time. Just don't forget to come back here when you are done watching!  Obviously I wouldn't have taken the time to get involved with this group unless I believed in the cause, and so, I am here to tell you why ranked-choice voting is beneficial for local elections. But - as Reading Rainbow taught us as children - you don't have to take my word for it!

I tweeted last week about a recent report by FairVote.org that presents a series of statistics showing some very positive outcomes in three US municipalities that adopted ranked choice voting.  Admittedly both FairVote and the funders of the research (the Democracy Fund) are biased in favour of electoral reform.  This being said the report takes care to outline the process taken for the survey and it appears to be reasonably objective and at the very least, academically valid.  The two most relevant survey results for those advocating the adoption of ranked choice voting are the results surrounding voter perceptions on the ease of voting, and voter perceptions of the level of negative campaigning.

Let's start by looking at the perception of negative campaigning.  Politicians and political parties are quick to point out that their political opponents are "not for real", "making things up", or "in over his head" rather than campaigning on their own positions.  Because candidates in ranked choice elections have to appeal to a wider range of potential supporters in order to attract second, and even third votes, it is a central argument of ranked choice advocates that RCV minimizes negative campaigns.  The FairVote survey supports this argument and shows that voter perception that campaigns are negative drop significantly in ranked choice elections.  By the numbers, 28.9% of voters felt that candidates criticized each other during the campaign as opposed to 60% in traditional elections.  In an even more striking difference, while 12.4% of voters in a traditional election felt there was no negative campaigning, 35.7% of RCV voters felt the same way.  These numbers make it very clear that ranked choice voting results in less negative campaigning.

One significant criticism towards ranked choice voting is that it is too complicated for voters to comprehend.  The argument goes something along the lines of 'it is hard enough to engage voters when they only need to select one candidate - it will be even harder when the have to choose three or more'.  However, the FairVote survey shows that voters overwhelmingly find the ranked choice system easy to use.  72% of voters reported the ballot instructions were "very easy" to follow opposed to only 1.7% who felt it was "very difficult".  An argument could of course be made that because only 72% found it very easy to follow the RCV ballot instructions there is a quarter of voters who do not feel that way.  However, when you add in the other response categories ("Somewhat Easy" and "Somewhat Difficult"), the results show that 90.2% of voters responded that it was easy to participate in ranked choice voting.  This response severely discredits arguments that RCV is too difficult and instead suggests that voters will have very little difficultly adjusting to the new system.

Earlier this year the Ontario government considered Bill 166 which would have amended existing laws to allow Toronto to adopt ranked voting for their municipal elections.  This Bill made it to second reading (of three readings) before the Ontario provincial election.  Because the election was called, the Bill (and all other bills) was abandoned and the process will need to start all over again.  Although it is unfortunate that the Bill was dropped, this reset provides ranked ballot initiatives across the province to lobby their municipal councils and the provincial government to extend the proposal to apply to all municipalities thus allowing ranked choice voting to occur for council's across Ontario - not just Toronto.  For more information about ranked choice voting, or to throw  your support behind the initiative in London, visit 123London.ca.

Below you will find a link to the full FairVote report and a list of some of the ranked ballot initiatives in Ontario.  If you know of any others, please let me know and I can add them to the list.

The FairVote Report can be read in its entirety at http://www.fairvote.org/assets/Ranked-Choice-Voting-Civility-Study-April-2014.pdf.

Ranked Ballot Initiatives:
London: 123London
Toronto: RaBIT
Barrie: 123Barrie
Ottawa: Ottawa123


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