Not any more

Posted Toronto Political Panel: Is Toronto’s electoral system fair?

In Canada on September 27, 2010 at 08:09

Posted Toronto Political Panel: Is Toronto’s electoral system fair?

Tim Fraser for National Post

Tim Fraser for National Post

Rob Ford appears to have a big lead on Toronto’s other mayoral candidates.

  September 26, 2010 – 8:00 pm

On the theory that there is much to talk about between now and the Oct. 25 municipal election, Posted Toronto has assembled Chris Selley, Anthony Furey and Jonathan Goldsbie to regularly dissect the race. This week, they discuss the electoral system, and what is means for Rob Ford’s lead in the polls.

SELLEY: This week in the Toronto Star, Bob Hepburn likened Rocco Rossi, Sarah Thomson and Joe Pantalone to Ralph Nader — in that they’re selfishly refusing to drop out of the mayoral race and throw their support behind George Smitherman, who (in Hepburn’s view) is the only candidate who can beat Rob Ford and spare us four years of Bush/Harris/Palin/whoever-brand madness at City Hall. I never understood the knock against Nader. One might reasonably be annoyed at the results of his actions, but it’s not a democratic instinct, surely, to demand someone not to run for office — even in a two-party system, let alone in a mayoral free-for-all. What do you guys think? Is the splitting of left-leaning votes — well, left of Ford anyway — a problem that needs fixing, or is that just the way the system works? Is Ford scary enough to warrant such desperate measures? And would it even work, for Smitherman or any other candidate? Conrad Black, for one, suggests Thomson is the one to back

GOLDSBIE: This very real conundrum is principally a function of an electoral system that (unlike many cities in the United States and elsewhere) does not include runoffs, preferential ballots, or even primaries — mechanisms that exist to ensure a winner has as broad a mandate as possible. At City Council’s final meeting last month, two retiring right-wingers put forward a motion requesting a report on “alternate methods” for electing the mayor in 2014. “By changing the voting system specifically for the Mayor of Toronto,” Case Ootes and Mike Feldman wrote, “the election would result in a candidate being selected by a greater than 50% majority of voters and therefore would be the most representative of the will of the people.” This was adopted without any fuss. Until things change, we’ll keep finding both ourselves and our candidates playing these stupid games over and over again.

FUREY: Which stupid games? Ah yes, democracy. Because it’s stupid for not yielding the results you want. Bob Hepburn is only right IF you agree with his premises. However I also think his fear mongering – and that of many pundits – is creating two categories of rebels. The first are those voters who are circling Ford. Hearing histrionic alarm bells go off will likely thrust them towards Ford rather than away. Second are those voters who don’t like Ford but don’t like being told that there’s only one option and the rest must resign. It’s like parenting: if you persistently nag your child on the evils of cigarettes they’ll be puffing away the first chance they get. Rather be cool, explain your position and have a reasonable chat.

SELLEY: I agree with Anthony almost completely. I can’t figure out if these pundits who seem genuinely afraid of Ford are aware that they’re helping him and don’t care, or if they’re actually so clueless they don’t realize it. And there’s nothing evil about first-past-the-post. In fact, considering Ford’s flirting with an absolute majority of decided voters as it is, this is perhaps an odd time to have a conversation about alternative methods. That said, I do love the instant runoff system — i.e., you rank your putative mayors in order of preference, and your vote is redistributed if you were foolish enough to prefer a total loser. But not wanting Ford to be mayor isn’t a very good reason to change the whole system, or even to sit the city down on your knee and have a “reasonable chat” while you smoke your pipe.

GOLDSBIE: Democracy is only stupid if it doesn’t yield the results the majority wants.  Such a system is, almost by definition, undemocratic.  And a conversation about electoral reform needn’t and shouldn’t be tied to the success of a particular candidate; a much stronger selling point is that ranked choice or instant runoff systems tend to produce more cordial and constructive elections, as candidates spend less time trying to undermine each other and more time trying to appeal to voters. If we DO want to talk about Ford, however (and of course we do), the question then is: how does a writer attempt to explain that — ideological disagreements aside — he is genuinely unfit for elected office, when the very act of explaining that seems to have the opposite of the intended effect?

FUREY: It’s not the content of the anti-Ford articles that ends up working to Ford’s benefit, it’s the attitude. It’s the suggestion that Ford voters are too stupid for their own good and fail to understand how voting for Ford goes contrary to their own interests. Now THAT is anti-democratic. It presupposes what people want out of government based on their salary level, the colour of their skin or something other non-determinate variable. Ford supporters may be completely aware of what will happen should he become mayor and they are voting for him specifically for those results. Few anti-Ford pundits have been able to toss off their self-righteousness long enough to understand this.

SELLEY: Don’t think I can put it much better than that. You read some opinion columns and you’d think Toronto will be nothing but a smoking crater at the end of four years of Rob Ford. (In fact there’s only a small chance Toronto will be a smoking crater in 2014.) People who think that the city is already horribly broken in any number of ways are unlikely to respond well to that. They sense, I think, an implicit message that the status quo is OK. It really isn’t, and that’s what attracted them to Ford in the first place.

GOLDSBIE: But what WOULD happen if Ford became mayor? Probably not the apocalypse but certainly not the changes he himself is promising.  I don’t understand why I should be reluctant to call an idiot an idiot and a liar a liar, out of concern that someone might assume I have an ulterior, self-interested objective.  There are few things less democratic than a society disinclined to call out bullshit.

FUREY: Let me help you understand: because declared Ford supporters will imagine you’re also calling them idiots and liars. That won’t help them embrace your wisdom, it will make them stand their ground. Humans are far more responsive to positive alternatives than to negative condescension.

  • Anthony Furey has written on municipal issues for the National Post and The Globe and Mail. Find him at or follow him at
  • Jonathan Goldsbie is a public space advocate and freelance journalist. He is loved and loathed equal parts by many. Follow him at
  • Chris Selley is a member of the Post’s editorial board. Follow him at
  • Posted in: City Hall, Posted Toronto  Tags: ,


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