I have never been a huge advocate of electoral reform. I recognize the challenges of a first-past-the-post voting system but have always been fairly comfortable with it. Those who are not as comfortable are often the ones who did not get their candidate or political party elected and argue, after the fact, that a different system may well have been more favorable to their particular agenda.
My sense of comfort flies out the window, however, when I look at what is happening in Toronto whose residents face a by-election for mayor next month. This is a city with a population of about three million people, a governing body larger than a number of Canadian provinces. Yet, all one needs to do to get on the ballot to lead this government is to present a cheque for $200 and 25 signatures of support. That is exactly the same criteria required to register for mayor in a municipal election in Huntsville, with a permanent population of twenty thousand people.
The result is that in Toronto, as of the close of nominations on Friday, there are 102 registered candidates that have bellied up to the bar to run for mayor. Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn, with whom I seldom agree, got it right when he said in a recent article: “Sadly, this 102-ring circus risks turning a serious race into a bad joke at the ballot box”.
Can you imagine stepping into a voting booth with a list of 102 names? Since names are listed alphabetically, what if your preferred candidate is three-quarters of the way down that list? What chance does he or she actually have of getting elected? What are the chances of electing an individual with absolutely no qualifications other than the fact that their name is near the top of the ballot? How can an individual voter possibly assess that many candidates? Isn’t it a bit like spinning on the Wheel of Fortune?
And then there is the bit about a mandate. What kind of a mandate does a winner have with the vote split 102 ways? Conceivably, one could make it to the top job with about 10 percent of the entire vote, which is traditionally low in municipal elections.
Since a first-past-the-post voting system allows, even in the extreme, this kind of fiasco, then I believe it is time for a discussion about electoral reform, not just in Toronto, but across Canada. Although people will have different views about this, I cannot help but believe that the best form of democracy is one where the winner receives the majority of votes cast. To me, that is a real mandate.
Some would argue that proportional representation is the way to achieve this, but I disagree. That system would hand seats in Parliament or the Legislature to political parties based on the proportion of the popular vote they receive across the country or province. For example, if one party received 25 percent of the vote, they would be awarded 25 percent of the seats in Parliament. This system would have political parties appointing members to the legislative body and not constituents electing them. In fact, it would almost do away with constituency politics. It would also make governing very difficult and could not be used in municipal elections.
Another form of democratic voting is the ranked ballot where a voter marks a second or third choice on their ballot to be counted in the event their preferred candidate comes last in that election and drops off the ballot. The counting of votes would continue, using people’s alternate votes until one candidate received at least 50 percent plus one of the votes cast.
This is a better system in my view, but not the best one. As a strong supporter of one political party, an individual may have a hard time choosing someone from another political party as their second choice.
My own preference would be a voting system that requires a successful candidate to directly achieve 50 percent plus one of the votes cast. If this cannot be achieved on the first vote, then a run-off election would be held with the candidates that finished in the top two positions. One of them would then achieve a majority vote. Run-off elections when required, would also give voters a better opportunity to assess the finalists for elected office.
Some would argue that run-off elections are expensive, and they are. But all forms of democratic elections are expensive, and nothing is more important to get right.
While we are at it, there are other aspects of electoral reform that should be considered. For example, the nomination process for election to political office needs to be reexamined. It cannot be the same for all jurisdictions and in all circumstances. While it is important that running for political office is accessible, it should not prevent reasonable requirements for eligibility that rule out cranks and fringe candidates.
I am also a strong believer in term limits for elected officials, perhaps a maximum of three terms, consisting of four years each. Twelve years is plenty of time to fulfill a political agenda in any office. After that, one tends to believe they are indispensable and that they have all the answers. Term limits would also make way for new people, refreshed visions, and more up-to-date policy concepts.
Finally, there are still leaders of political bodies in Ontario that do not have to face a general election. They do not have a constituency. They are appointed by their council. I am speaking specifically about some Regional and District municipalities, including the one in Muskoka. This is wrong. These are political positions, all with six-figure salaries, and the incumbents should be accountable to the electorate.
The current situation in Toronto, related to next month’s by-election for a new mayor, illustrates a major flaw in the first-past-the-post voting system. It sets the stage for a confusing election, a very weak mandate, and possibly, an unqualified winner.
One way or another, this needs to be fixed. If that means a hard look at all aspects of electoral reform, so be it.
Hugh Mackenzie has held elected office as a trustee on the Muskoka Board of Education, a Huntsville councillor, a District councillor, and mayor of Huntsville. He has also served as chairman of the District of Muskoka and as chief of staff to former premier of Ontario, Frank Miller.
Hugh has also served on a number of provincial, federal and local boards, including chair of the Ontario Health Disciplines Board, vice-chair of the Ontario Family Health Network, vice-chair of the Ontario Election Finance Commission, and board member of Roy Thomson Hall, the National Theatre School of Canada, and the Anglican Church of Canada. Locally, he has served as president of the Huntsville Rotary Club, chair of Huntsville District Memorial Hospital, chair of the Huntsville Hospital Foundation, president of Huntsville Festival of the Arts, and board member of Community Living Huntsville.
In business, Hugh Mackenzie has a background in radio and newspaper publishing. He was also a founding partner and CEO of Enterprise Canada, a national public affairs and strategic communications firm established in 1986.
Currently, Hugh is president of C3 Digital Media Inc., the parent company of Doppler Online, and he enjoys writing commentary for Huntsville Doppler.
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