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Council cold on election changes

The city is considering replacing first-past-the-post voting with a ranked balloting system for the 2018 municipal election. Councilors attending a Tuesday non-business meeting were cool to the idea and even colder about changes to election finance laws.

THUNDER BAY -- If Thunder Bay had employed a ranked ballot system in the 2014 municipal election, the mayor and nine of 12 councilors wouldn't have won their seats on the first count. 

Mayor Keith Hobbs would have fallen 100 votes short of the 18,500 he would have needed not to have voters' second or third choices factor into the race.

None of the five at large candidates elected in our first-past-the-post system would have won 24,500 they needed of the 147,000 total votes for an clear-cut victory. 

Among the seven ward councilors, only Current River Coun. Andrew Foulds, Red River Coun. Brian McKinnon and McKellar Coun. Paul Pugh would have won without the support of voters who wouldn't have named the winners as their top choice. 

Yet Ontario has tasked incumbent city councils across the province with deciding whether or not to adopt the ranked ballot system. 

"How can we be asked to make changes to an electoral system that, in effect, may harm the chances of the current council getting re-elected?" asked Northwood Coun. Shelby Ch'ng. 

"I don’t think that’s a fair question being put on councils and what I’d like to explore is the idea of this to be put on a plebecite question."

City clerk John Hannam expressed a host of reservations around deciding to adopt a new voting system by the May 1, 2017 deadline for the Oct. 2018 muncipal election.

Hannam's chief concern was over the public education and consultation period in such a short timeline. He was open to Ch'ng's suggestion of putting the question on the 2018 ballot that would determine the 2022 election system. Alternatively, he raised the possibility of the plebecite as a test run for the new electronic voting software that would take place before May 1, 2017. 

"I think the public can get it. It’s whether we have the time to do it and do it well," Hannam said. 

"There are jurisdictions across the US and around the world that use ranked ballot systems. People can get it. It’s not like it’s advanced calculus or something."

Educating citizens on either the instant runoff model or the single transferable vote model of ranked ballot choices faces the additional challenge that Thunder Bay is the only municipality in Ontario that uses its particular hybrid model of ward and at-large councilors.

Considering all those factors, few councilors were optimistic ranked ballots could be a reality in 2018.

"The sense I get tonight, given the electronic voting coming up in the next election, if we had the ranked ballot, it’s going to create quite a bit of confusion," said Coun. Frank Pullia.

"So I don’t see much support around council for that."

Money in politics

Councilors found more controversy in the clauses of the Municipal Elections Modernization Act they could not choose to accept or reject. 

The act makes it illegal for trade unions or corporations to donate directly to political campaigns. They will instead register as "third parties," organizations that can hold fundraisers and pay for advertising in support of candidates. 

Coun. Paul Pugh called the move "a major step backward for democracy," arguing incorporated groups that endorse political candidates are simply political parties by another name.

"I think the system where we have strict limits on campaigns – and low limits – encourages democracy. When you have higher limits, it means the people with the most money have the best chance," Pugh said. 

"I think this third party registration thing, theoretically, a group of organizations or an organization could decide to either endorse or oppose my campaign and spend just as much as my actual campaign. That totally distorts the picture."

There is no limit on the number of third parties that can register in support of candidates, nor has the province clarified spending limits with regulations. It's clear a corporation can not donate to the same candidate with its subsidiaries but different local union chapters are able to donate. 

As a small business owner, Ch'ng's identity is tied to both her corporate and her political brand.

"I do own a corporation. My face, voice and brand is tied in with my corporation so I don’t really understand how this will play out for my personal self," she said. 

"How I can separate out my corporation with my personal brand? I think there's some exploration to do." 

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