Ranked ballots are great, if designed well

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When you go to the ballot box on October 22, how much of a say would you like to have? That's the question behind the current debate over whether to introduce ranked ballots. London has already done so; Cambridge will vote on the matter this fall.

I was recently asked if I was in favour of ranked ballots. I am. Ranked ballots give every vote more nuance. Instead of choosing one person, you rank who you'd most like, then who you'd next like, all the way down to the person you'd least like to hold the seat. Should your top choice get the least votes during the first count, your personal vote isn't lost: it gets passed to your next choice.

There are many good things about this system. It can even out incumbent advantage, particularly in races with a number of new faces. It forces candidates to broaden their message beyond a "large-enough" minority. It could also encourage more people to give politics a shot, potentially increasing diversity among our elected representatives.

However, there can be unpleasant side-effects. I grew up in Australia, which has different styles of ranked ballots for different levels of government. Some systems work great. Some, however, can lead to unintended results. Australian Senate elections used to let voters choose one party instead of numbering dozens of candidates. If you took that option, your vote then went where the party decided, not the voter. Not too long ago, that system and the "vote-swapping" deals it sparked between different parties led to extremist candidates winning seats with astonishingly low "preferred" votes. (The system has since been changed.)

Obviously this isn't an issue municipally here in Canada, but it gives me pause. I support preferential voting and I support ranked ballots, but I would want to make sure that any system put in place ensures each voter -- and no other interest -- has their say on election day.