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Is the municipal electoral system in need of reform?

October 17, 2017

As voters in Alberta and Quebec head to the polls, and a year before municipal elections in Ontario and through much of the rest of the country, a new paper looks at the potential for electoral reform and its consequences

Toronto, ON – With municipal elections in Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba, PEI, and the Territories just one year away, it is a good time to look at the way we vote. Is it in need of reform? In a new paper released by the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, Professor Aaron A. Moore demystifies the municipal electoral system. He looks at the pros and cons of various reforms so that proponents for change, supporters of the status quo, and those simply wishing to expand their knowledge of democratic institutions may be better informed about the potential for reform and its consequences.

“Despite often simplistic discussions surrounding changes to electoral systems, no single change will address all the problems in the existing system,” says Professor Moore. “Although change can improve voter turnout and alter electoral outcomes for the better, change can also introduce new and unintended problems.”

Among others, Professor Moore comments on the following questions about possible reforms:

  • How big should city council be? Larger councils can lead to better representation of certain marginalized communities and encourage greater voter turnout and engagement at election time. However, larger councils tend to spend more per capita, and may make it more difficult for voters to make informed decisions and hold their city councillors accountable for their actions.
  • Should councillors be elected at-large or by ward? Ward elections may lead to better representation of ethnic minority communities when they are geographically concentrated. On the other hand, councillors elected by ward tend to focus more on individual community needs, whereas councillors elected at-large are more likely to focus on citywide issues.
  • Should votes be tallied using first-past-the-post or ranked ballots? Ranked ballots can reduce strategic voting and should make it harder for incumbents to win when a majority opposes them. On the other hand, a ranked ballot can be confusing and lead to voter fatigue.
  • Should there be political parties at the local level? When local parties are in place, the needs of constituents may take second place to the needs of the party. However, municipal political parties may lead to better representation of women in local government, simplify voting, and make it easier for voters to hold elected officials to account.

Read the paper

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About the Author

Aaron A. Moore is a Fellow at the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. He is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science in the University of Winnipeg, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of City Planning at the University of Manitoba. Aaron has published a book on the politics of urban development in Toronto, and articles and book chapters on urban planning, municipal governance, municipal elections, urban public policy, and public-private partnerships.

About the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance (IMFG)

The Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance is a research hub and think tank that focuses on the fiscal and governance challenges facing large cities and city-regions. It is located within the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

For more information, please contact:
Selena Zhang | Manager, Programs and Research
Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto
selena.zhang@utoronto.ca | 416-978-5117
www.munkschool.utoronto.ca/imfg

Other Recent Publications
How Much Local Fiscal Autonomy Do Cities Have? A Comparison of Eight Cities around the World
IMFG Perspectives No. 19, by Enid Slack

(Re)Creating Boundary Lines: Assessing Toronto’s Ward Boundary Review Process
IMFG Paper No. 32, by Alexandra Flynn

The Evolving Role of City Managers and Chief Administrative Officers
IMFG Paper No. 31, by Michael Fenn and David Siegel

Climate Change, Floods, and Municipal Risk Sharing in Canada
IMFG Paper No. 30, by Daniel Henstra and Jason Thistlethwaite

Accountability Officers and Integrity in Canadian Municipal Government
IMFG Perspectives No. 17, by Andrew Sancton