Municipal Election Update: London

Written by: Andrew Sancton

A recent (October 10) letter to The London Free Press summed up the most interesting features of the local municipal election.

“London needs a mayor who will shut down the BRT [Bus Rapid Transit] plan that will be out of date before it is finished. If Londoners rank BRT opponents Paul Cheng, Ed Holder, and Paul Paolatto in any order as their top three, we will be certain to have a mayor who is against it. I did not think I would be thankful for ranked balloting, but I am.”

The letter is so informative because the writer

1. Assumes a mayor can unilaterally “shut down” a project that the council has already agreed to. Many voters seem implicitly to hold this view. The reality, of course, is that only the council as a whole can reverse the decision. If incumbent councillors are reelected, the BRT will probably survive, regardless of who is mayor, although it is important to remember that Rob Ford’s election in Toronto in 2010 seemed magically to change incumbent councillors’ minds about the relative merits of Light Rail Transit and heavy-rail subways.

2. Reflects a common view that the BRT is the major electoral issue. There is considerable controversy, however, about the possible existence of pro and con “slates”. Pro-BRT council candidates, especially incumbents, seem to hope that the BRT issue will simply go away because its fate has apparently already been decided by the current council. Most challengers are anti-BRT. They seem to think they can use federal and provincial funds dedicated to major transit infrastructure for just about anything they fancy. There is no overt sign of anti-BRT co-ordination but there is a group (or groups) that have paid for generic anti-BRT signage.

3. Correctly notes that the new ranked balloting system should aid anti-BRT forces, especially in the mayoral race. If voters understand the respective positions of the various candidates (admittedly a big “if”), they can use their ballots as the writer suggests: load up their choices with candidates who support their own BRT position. The mayoral race is particularly affected by ranked balloting because the only serious pro-BRT candidate is Tanya Park, who is also the only one to have ever served on municipal council. What will her supporters do with their second- and third-choice votes? A recent (October 12) Free Press poll suggests that all four major mayoral candidates have roughly equal support, providing a truly remarkable test for London’s first ranked ballot election.

4. Acknowledges that it is the BRT issue that has converted the letter-writer to the virtues of ranked balloting. Generally speaking, people who don’t like the BRT don’t like change– and ranked balloting is certainly a change. Many candidates and voters seem flummoxed by ranked balloting. At a recent all-candidates meeting a candidate was asked whom he would support as a second-choice to himself. His response was that he wanted voters to choose him as their first, second, and third choices. Fortunately, the city clerk has weighed in by stating that voters who follow such advice will only have their vote counted once: for their first-choice candidate.

We can only hope that in the ten days remaining in the election, we shall learn a bit more about what is actually going on in voters’ minds. Local media coverage is limited by the ongoing media cuts with which we are all familiar. Even informed local blogging seems to have disappeared. Instead, we get fake websites designed to confuse voters about what certain council candidates (namely two incumbent women councillors) really stand for. It is not a happy situation for those of us concerned with the health of local democracy.

Ranked balloting will probably mean that election results will be slow to emerge on the evening of October 22. The bad news is that the drama of election night will likely be reduced. The good news is that analysts of local voting behaviour will have a new treasure trove of data. How many voters will make use of all of their three choices? Will voters make more use of ranking on their mayoral ballots than on councillor ones? The Free Press letter-writer suggests that BRT preferences of candidates will be the dominant factor affecting ranking. Will he be right?

Pro-BRT incumbent councillors are generally the same people who supported the introduction of ranked balloting. How ironic it will be if their support of ranked balloting helps defeat the BRT.

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