As published in The Hamilton Spectator August 8th 2016
By Fiona Parascandalo
First past the post (FPTP) is an outdated and illogical voting system which allows Hamilton to be run by a city council and mayor that were voted in by a small percentage of voters. An example of the problems with FPTP was seen recently in the 2016 Ward 7 byelection where Donna Skelly won with 19.59 per cent of the vote, outpacing John-Paul Danko by just 0.92 per cent.
Other examples include the 2014 elections in which Doug Conley won with 26.17 per cent of votes, Aidan Johnson won with 34.69 per cent, and the mayor won with 39.9 per cent. Overall in 2014, 26 per cent of councillors won their ridings with less than 50 per cent support. In these elections more Hamiltonians voted against, rather than for, the officials now tasked with representing the public interest in ward- and city-wide decisions.
Provincial Bill 181 gives Hamilton the opportunity to improve our municipal voting method to use ranked balloting. Ranked-ballot voting ensures the winner always has more than 50 per cent of voter support. Voters rank their choices from most- to least-preferred, votes are then counted in rounds. After the first round, if no candidate has more than half of the votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to the voters' second choice. This process is repeated until one candidate has at least half of the votes.
Proponents of FPTP argue that it works by ensuring the candidate with the majority of votes wins. While this sounds fair it doesn't work in elections with multiple candidates who have a spectrum of political perspectives, as in municipal elections. In these elections two situations often take place: 1) voters strategically vote against an undesired front-runner rather than for the candidate they prefer, or 2) voters with similar opinions split their support between many candidates of similar political perspectives resulting in a dilution of that side's votes and a candidate of opposite political opinion winning.
The likely reason new councillors and mayors are winning in Hamilton with such low margins is because there are so many candidates in each race and the vote is being split. Since ranked balloting involves instant run-off vote counting, voters rank their top preferences and are able to support all candidates who represent their views. This makes it more likely that a candidate who is in agreement with the majority of voter opinion wins. Thus, even if your preferred candidate doesn't win, your vote will still support someone who is of similar political perspective.
It may also be argued that since the incumbents generally win by such large margins ranked ballots aren't necessary, but when we break down the election results from the incumbents' first victory it becomes clear that the majority of voters didn't support them in the first place.
The below numbers refer to the first time the incumbents won:
Ward 1: Aidan Johnson won with 34.96 per cent (2014)
Ward 2: Jason Farr 20.97 per cent (2010)
Ward 3: Matthew Green 40.72 per cent (2014)
Ward 4: Sam Merulla 47.92 per cent (2000)
Ward 5: Chad Collins 42.20 per cent (1995)
Ward 6: Tom Jackson 48.37 per cent (1988)
Ward 7: Donna Skelly 19.59 per cent (2016)
Ward 8: Terry Whitehead 27.13 per cent (2003)
Ward 9: Doug Conley 26.17 per cent (2014)
Ward 10: Maria Pearson 36.97 per cent (2003)
Ward 11: Brenda Johnson 42.12 per cent (2010)
Ward 12: Lloyd Ferguson 37.07 per cent (2006)
Ward 13: Arlene VanderBeek 42.56 per cent (2014)
Ward 14: Robert Pasuta 59.78 per cent (2006)
Ward 15: Judi Partridge 52.72 per cent (2010)
Only two out of the 15 councillors won their first election with more than 50 per cent support. This is important because incumbents have significant structural advantages over new candidates including name recognition, increased funding opportunities, and political connection. By merely holding office the incumbent is likely to maintain their position even though the majority of voters didn't originally support them.
Given incumbent advantage and new councillors winning by increasingly narrow margins, we are putting this city in the position of being run by a council that represents the minority of voters. Hamilton, we now have the opportunity to change this backwards system. With Bill 181 we can implement a system that is more democratic than FPTP and increases our chances of voting in candidates who legitimately represent our ridings' viewpoints.
Fiona Parascandalo is a Hamilton resident.