Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ranked Balloting (Toronto) Primer: This Needs to Happen

In 2013, City Council voted 25-16 in favour of a motion that (among other things) asked the province to implement legislation authorizing ranked balloting (or "instant runoff voting" - IRV) for municipal elections in Toronto.  Since then, the re-elected Liberals included a specific promise to implement such legislation for all Ontario municipalities.

What Is It?

Quite simply, instead of just picking one candidate to vote for, you rank them in order of your preference. The winner needs to get 50% + 1 of the vote. Everyone's first choice selections are counted first, if no candidate gets over 50% of the first choices, the bottom candidate is eliminated and their 2nd choice votes are counted, added to the non-eliminated candidates. If no one is over 50% at this point, the next lowest candidate is eliminated and the process continues until someone gets over 50%.

Why Is That Better?

The "first past the post" (FPTP) system allows a candidate to win on a plurality of the vote, which can be quite low (like 27%) depending on the number of candidates and the vote breakdown.  This means the winner is theoretically opposed by the majority of the voters.  Or maybe there's a bunch of people who wanted someone else more, but are okay with the winner.  We don't know because FPTP doesn't capture this information.

This is why FPTP lends itself to strategic voting (fear of dreaded "vote splitting"), where people vote for someone they don't particularly support, in order to hopefully defeat someone they despise.  "Lesser of two evils" voting.  Under IRV, voters can pick who they most like first, and pick the safe pick to defeat someone they hate 2nd or even 3rd. 

What Needs To Happen For This?

It's important to know it's not "in the bag" because the provincial Liberals promised it and won a majority.  Even assuming they keep their promise and pass a bill to allow IRV, the next City Council would have to do a bunch of things to make it a reality in time for 2018.

Despite Council voting pretty strongly for this in 2013, one of those "next things" to actually make this happen was quietly buried this year as a motion to ensure that if the city buys any new vote counting machines, they pick ones compatable with IRV first failed to get two-thirds support needed to be passed directly in council (member motions not vetted by committees need a two-thirds supermajority to pass) was redirected to the Government Management Committee where a bunch of Ford allies (including Doug Ford) delayed it until 2015 (ostensibly to ask the City Clerk for cost information, but clearly a pretext).

Beyond voting machines, a bunch of money will have to be spent in changing the election system, the ballots, and in voter education and outreach.  All of which can be delayed in ways big and small until the clock runs out on 2018.

This is just a small taste of the legislative slow-walking that an unfriendly administration can put such a thing through, even if the next Council retains a solid majority in favour of implementing IRV - a Mayor who does not, and makes a point of picking a Government Management committee chair who shares that view can do much to prevent or delay it, at least past the 2018 election where the game can begin again.  By then, maybe a new provincial government is elected and if no municipalities are using IRV, perhaps they repeal that law and it dies.

Where Do the Mayoral Candidates Stand?

Only covering the "Big 3" - Olivia Chow is firmly in favour.  Doug Ford is firmly against.  John Tory is at best non-committal if you're being naively generous, but really he is opposed.  Let's look at what he told MetroNews:

The province is not "examining" electoral reforms, they specifically promised to provide municipalities the option of ranked balloting. There is no "process" that Tory would be "preempting" and even if there were, the idea that a political candidate of a municipality couldn't express an opinion about electoral reform while some process of examining such was under way is patently absurd.  If the province was studying changes to municipal taxation powers or amalgamating the whole GTA into a mega-city, I'm pretty sure Tory would express an opinion about that.  This answer only makes sense as a way of clouding the issue to make unwillingness to support IRV sound like some kind of openness to it. 

But Tory's Going To Win!

It certainly seems like it now, but even so ranked balloting got this far even with vehement opposition of the Fords and their council faction, and while 2013 was not a great year for the Fords, June 2013 predates Rob Ford losing his powers over committee chairs and the executive, so he still had some juice.  That said, there's many reasons to suspect Tory would be more effective at using the Mayor's powers more effectively to stop IRV if he makes a point of it.

Beyond that, a Mayor Tory who wins the election outright with >50% of the vote will be much harder to fight than one who squeaks by with ~40% of the vote.  That alone becomes a strong political argument for proponents of IRV to throw at him and his allies if he tries to fight it.  If he wins outright, he won't look quite so hypocritical in opposing it, after all he didn't need the non-majority aspect of FPTP to win.  In short, if Chow can't win, it is still worth blunting Tory's margin of victory.  Councillors watch that stuff.  Councillors in wards which get higher support for the Mayor than themselves tend to be more pliable to the Mayor's wishes, particularly early in the term.

It's also worth making sure your preferred council candidate supports it.

How Exactly Could Tory Stop It?

If he wins with a so-called "mandate" (e.g. a very big win) he could early on have council vote on buying new voting machines that don't support IRV, then argue it would be "irresponsible" to adopt IRV for the 2018 election once the province passes their bill. He could signal the Premier to slow-walk the bill (and she might co-operate).  He could ensure the Government Management committee is stacked with opponents and bury attempts to bring it up in that committee.  He could try and insist a city-wide referendum is needed to adopt this, or bury it in studies until it really is too late to implement for 2018.  Would he do these things?  I don't know, but given the long track record of inertia and defenders of the FPTP voting system, we should probably assume anyone not openly for it is against it, and even some of the politicans openly for it are secretly against it.   

But I Prefer Some Other System That's Far Better!

First past the post has had a monopoly over the Canadian electoral landscape for our entire history basically.  Our largest city adopting an actual new voting system would break that monopoly and create a real world local example of an alternate voting system in practice.  It might just catch on provincially and federally!  It is incremental as it doesn't require a new governing system and the kind of thing people can adopt without the easy fear mongering of "endless minority governments" that say, proportional representation brings. 

It's also much further along politically than any other idea, it has momementum.  It just needs the Wynne government to keep their word, and the existing strong majority on council supporting it to be re-elected and stick to their guns (though a pro-IRV Mayor would make it a virtual lock). 

The best part for supporters of other systems is that IRV most likely makes your preferred system easier to implement.  Nothing is better for defending the status quo than FPTP, where people supporting the status quo can usually rally around a status quo candidate or party (typically conservatives) while proponents of "change" have a harder time uniting around some specific new thing to do. So long as ~40% want FPTP, if the other 60% can't assemble at least 41% in favour of one specific other thing, they'll divide among several and the status quo will win (see "divided left, the").

This is a part of why referenda on major system changes typically fail: The status quo becomes the "safe" option and gets votes from many people who support some change, but not whatever specific change is on the ballot (like in the 2007 Ontario referendum on a new voting system). 

Under an IRV system, proponents of yet another system would have a better chance of winning support as voters could make candidates supporting their favourite alternate system their first choice.  Maybe some such candidates would win, and maybe others would see the idea was popular and adopt it.

What Do We Have To Lose?

Let's get on this, this is a generational opportunity to enact the kind of reform that makes many other reforms possible.  No, it's not a panacea, it doesn't fix all ills and frankly if we'd had this in 2010, it's probably that Rob Ford would have gotten at least 3% of the 2nd choice votes from Rossi & Pantalone to get over 50% and win anyway.  But it would ensure Doug Ford couldn't have won this time around with his ~35% voting ceiling and 65% of the city ready to evict all things Ford.  It would also ensure online favourites Goldkind and Baskin get a lot more votes than they will, and possibly would have averted the need for David Soknacki to take his name off the ballot (though he likely would still have suspended his largely self-funded campaign).  It would also affect a number of council races in every election.  Even if all you want to do is "shake things up" this is the best option on the horizon to do so.

For more, see the Toronto Ranked Ballotting Initiative website

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Ford Family Political Machine

The recent switch of Doug for Rob in the Mayor's race, and Rob for Michael in the Ward 2 race is in a sense shocking, but not surprising. Speculation about this possibility had existed for some time.  I see outraged talk about "feudalism" and family dynasties.  Good.  It's been apparent that the Fords were always about setting up a bona fide old style "Tammany Hall" political machine in Toronto.  Consider:
  • The radio show on CFRB 1010.  This was far underestimated by digital/online types in its significance.  Ford had a multi-hour open mic to the whole city every week, with no neutral "host" to direct the agenda or put any limits, and his brother to co-host.  It was qualitatively different from any previous Mayor's anodyne style of "civic engagement" shows on Cable 10 or CP24, hosted and generally just about run of the mill constituent issues & questions.  The Ford show was openly a dialog to "Ford Nation" and no political punches were pulled.
  • The network of donors, particularly out of the city in the rest of the province. This is the stuff of nightmares for Councillors.  It's pretty easy to imagine this network being given signals to drop a few hundred thousand (collectively) on a couple council challengers to incumbents who have upset the Fords, and maybe drop some more on any friendly councillors in trouble.  Ford wouldn't need to defeat every unfriendly councillor, just enough to scare the rest, especially the ones in marginal wards who won by close margins.
  • The enemies list. Yes, he has a list of councillors he wants defeated.  You don't assemble such lists unless you have plans to do something about it.
  • The robocalls. The radio show wasn't enough, Ford used these as a direct line to constituents. Again, probably undervalued by digital/online types, but for those key most-likely-to-vote older demographics who also aren't as often online, this is a key touchpoint.
  • The permanent campaign. I've written at length about this before, but basically Rob Ford never really stops campaigning. His obsession with constituent services is the most obvious aspect of this.  Numerous people in his city-funded Mayoral staff (like David Price) were focused solely on this.
All of these are the more-or-less visible aspects of the machine operation.  One may speculate, given what we know about Ford's various underworld friends & connections whether there was a much darker portion to this machine, a group of Nixonesque "plumbers" perhaps (think of the prison beating alleged to have been ordered by Ford). 

Once you accept the motivation of establishing a permanent political Ford family machine, many of Ford's policy preferences make sense:
  • Despite a much ballyhooed hatred of "gravy" - Ford has never said word one in opposition to the City program of rebating up to 75% of political donations, even to non-Toronto residents or voters. Even in the 2014 budget process where he was obviously unable to come up with anything like the $50-$60M in savings he promised he could, this juicy plum was left untouched.
  • His various attempts to eliminate the City's accountability officers like the Omsbud & Integrity commissioner. For a guy who makes such hay on the "gravy train" and being so very honest, it might seem strange that he was so vehement in opposition to mechanisms to hold politicians accountable to voters. But even as relatively toothless as these offices are, they have been a regular thorn in his side, and if they don't outright stop aspects of his political machine, they often issue reports ruling they are violations of various rules (like the robocalls to Ainslie's ward).
  • Hatred of 311 and other forms of city employed professional customer service help. Ford doesn't want government to just work, he wants constituents to need his help to get what they need from the city.  A simple, easy to remember number that can provide nearly any city service in one call or email really reduces your need to call your councillor or the Mayor for help with that leaky fire hydrant or unpatched pothole.  Those old enough to remember the "blue pages" part of the phone book may remember a lengthy list of city deparments & agencies one might have to navigate for services, a nightmare of waiting on hold, missed return calls & bureaucratic runaround.
  • Opposition to s.39 and any spending out of it. There are legitimate concerns with s.39 (funds contributed by developers held at ward-level under the direction of that ward's councillor for improvements to the ward) but obviously Ford would not like anything which allows Councillors to get improvements to their ward, and look good to their constituents without his blessing.  The funds do need City Council approval to be spent, but as Ford did not yet have a firm grip on Council as a whole, s.39 was a threat to him and his machine.  In particular, downtown and high density wards with the most progressive councillors tend to get the most s.39 money because they have the most development.
This is a partial list, not an attempt to be comprehensive, but the lens of "aiding my political machine" often allows otherwise strange Ford policy preferences.

The most terrible aspect of this, is that it probably would have worked except for the drug & alcohol problems. Absent that, it really is difficult to imagine he would not be sailing to re-election, and possibly getting a slate of "Ford Nation" councillors elected to solidify his control over council.  It was pretty clear for example, that the scheme with Doug not registering for election was to allow him to continue hosting the radio show this year, a plan only foiled by Ford's crack videos causing CFRB to cancel the program (they tried to resume it with Sun News and then via Youtube, both evidently failures).  The network of big money donors has apparently largely withered away, big money opting instead for the safer alternative, John Tory.  Rather than advancing their control over Council, the Fords were left fighting just to hang on (and losing even at that).

No, we should not be surprised that they "dare" swap Doug for Rob, and opt to have Rob hold the "safe" home base of Ward 2 (Michael was far from a sure win).  The political machine is down but not out, and they will fight ever to restore it unless defeated completely.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Sadly, Tying Property Taxes To Inflation Is Progress

Earlier in the Mayoral campaign, with the unsurprising exception of Ford, the other four (then) "major" candidates (Chow, Stintz, Tory, Soknacki) solidified their positions on property taxes around a general consensus that such taxes should match inflation.

A number of people whose views I respect have written some thoughtful pieces on how this is bad public policy:
  • Matt Elliott argues that aggregate measures of inflation like the consumer price index can often be poor guides to what kinds of uncontrollable price increases city operating budgets may face, necessitating a larger-than-CPI tax increase just to maintain existing services. 
  • Cityslikr took Olivia Chow in particular to task over her pledge to say "around" inflation, given the real need for service improvements, many of which she is campaigning on, that won't plausibly fit within the existing city budget.
  • Marc Coward makes a similar point more generally, pointing to things like the growing unfunded TTC "state of good repair" project backlog, and the unfunded repair backlog at Toronto Community Housing.
Throw in a report like this one from U of T's Munk School municipal affairs institute which shows that Toronto's property taxes are low by any standard you wish to use, and have fallen over the past decade, and openly states Toronto "does not have a spending problem" and it's pretty clear all these people are right.  Property taxes do need to increase, and by more than inflation if we are to have the kind of city many of us tell pollsters and politicians we want.

Yet, I can't but see a political consensus that property taxes should increase every year in nominal terms to keep some kind of pace with inflation is actually progress.  The "original sin" of the amalgamated city is our first megamayor, Mel Lastman instituting a 3 year property tax rate freeze.   For those who understand how inflation works, the consumer price index for Canada increased over 7% during that same time meaning the city was (assuming its costs matched the CPI) funding programs & services that cost 7% more, while taking in no additional revenue.  Something has to give.

As the piece linked to in reference to Lastman points out, things did "give" under Miller, where we see the introduction of the vehicle registration tax and the (municipal) land transfer tax.  Perhaps Miller should have just pushed for a big "catch up" property tax increase, but in case, more revenue was badly needed.  In fact, the LTT has been so successful that it allowed Ford to irresponsibly return to Lastman era policies by freezing property taxes during his first budget, 2011.  That means, at that point, in 13 years of being a megacity, Toronto had frozen rates for nearly a third of its life.

Anecdotally I frequently encounter people who really don't get inflation (or how property tax rates work, hence pieces like this and this).  They see the dollar cost of their property tax bill go up, year after year, and see it as a burdensome increase, imagining spend-thrift politicians throwing wild parties with the "extra" cash, rather than just treading water in the ever rising tide that is inflation.  Of course, some people's incomes do not keep pace with inflation either, so it may actually be an increasing burden to them, but in the aggregate, inflationary increases should not be doing so on average.

The point is that politicians like Ford and Lastman are playing to a real constituency of people who intuitively think that property taxes should be nominally the same year after year barring some major new program like a new subway or something that would explain an increase (which politicians like Ford & Tory also try to claim they can do without a tax increase). 

In the face of all this, I can't but see a general political consensus from left to medium-right that property taxes should generally need to increase in nominal terms as some kind of progress.  I'm not clear that it represents better awareness in the general public on these topics (I doubt it), and would still look for the city to increase its revenue take from sources that automatically increase with inflation (like income taxes) so that the city's revenues are not so prone to demagoguery, but failing that, I'll take this as a good sign.