What if the 2014 election had employed a ranked ballot electoral system?

Municipalities in Ontario have recently been granted the authority to abandon the existing first-past-the-post electoral system in favour of ranked balloting. In this post we speculate as to the outcome of the 2014 mayoral election had a ranked ballot electoral system been in place. In such a system, voters are able to rank multiple candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of first place votes, then the second preferences of those voters who supported minor candidates are counted. This process continues until a candidate breaches the 50% threshold and is declared the winner.

TES data reveal that John Tory would have won the election under a ranked ballot electoral system, defeating Doug Ford in the last round of counting by a large margin.


In June 2016, the Government of Ontario granted municipalities the authority to use ranked ballots in future elections, permitting voters to select as many as their top three options on a single ballot. The Province was responding to a grass-roots movement to reform voting at the local level (which was accompanied by a high-profile national debate on the issue of electoral reform). Ranked ballots are used in municipal elections in several American cities, including San Francisco (and a number other cities in California), Minneapolis, and Portland, Maine. The decision to adopt the system at the municipal level in Ontario is thus not without precedent. This is the same system widely believed to be supported by the Federal Liberal Party prior to the abandonment of their promise to reform the electoral system in 2017. This is also the electoral system used by all of Canada’s major federal parties for selecting leaders.

Organizations such as Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (RaBIT) have argued that ranked ballots would prevent mayoral and council candidates from winning elections with less than a majority of the vote, eliminate vote splitting, and reduce strategic voting at the municipal level (rabit.ca). Proponents of the change hoped to address such issues as low voter turnout and a sense among voters that their vote would not count if they did support the winning candidate. The putative motivation for this movement is the sense that current electoral systems in municipalities are unable to translate residents’ sentiment and preferences into an elected body that accurately represents their interests.

Despite the fact that all municipalities in Ontario were given the option to adopt ranked ballots for the 2018 election cycle, only one, London, did so in advance of the provincial deadline of May 1, 2017. For its part, the City of Toronto did originally support the adoption of ranked ballots; in 2013, city council was at the forefront of the battle for ranked balloting, having petitioned the province to allow for ranked ballots at the local level (provincial permission is required for such a change). However, council reversed its decision in 2016, in a 25-18 vote led by rookie city councillor Justin Di Ciano, who argued that a ranked ballot voting system is too costly, overly complex, and that there is limited public support for the system (Di Ciano 2017). For at least another 4 years, therefore, ranked ballots will not be used to determine the outcome of elections in Toronto.

A debate over the merits of various electoral systems aside, it is interesting to consider if and how election outcomes might have changed under different electoral systems. To that end, we consider here how the 2014 Toronto Mayoral election would have unfolded under a ranked ballot electoral system.


The TES includes a question that allows us to speculate as to the outcome of the 2014 election had ranked balloting been in place. In the campaign period questionnaire, respondents were informed that the province had passed legislation that would allow the city to used ranked ballots in future elections, and ranked balloting was described to them. They were then asked to rank the mayoral candidates as they would if ranked balloting were currently in place. Table 1 shows the results of this question, showing how many first, second and third place votes each mayoral candidate would have received. We consider the three major candidates for mayor, as well as an ‘other’ category to capture all minor candidates simultaneously.

Table 1: Ranking of Mayoral Candidates

Ranking Candidate
Ford Chow Tory Others













N = 1,385

Not surprisingly, the first place rankings in Table 1 fairly closely mirror the actual election outcome. Tory, who received 40.3% of the vote on election-day, was ranked highest among 45.1% of TES respondents. Ford was ranked first by a further 31.4% of respondents, which closely matches the 33.7% of votes he actually received. For her part, Chow was the most preferred candidate of 20.6% of Torontonians, and received 23.2% of the actual vote.

Another striking observation from Table 1 is that, among those who did not rank him first, Doug Ford performed extremely poorly. In fact, the brother of the outgoing mayor was ranked last (fourth) by many more respondents than were Chow and Tory combined. He was also the recipient of relatively few ‘second place’ rankings. Fewer than one in six voters who preferred a candidate other than Ford listed him as their second choice. In contrast, both Chow and Tory were the recipients of greater than one-third of second place votes. These patterns suggest strongly that Ford would not have fared well had the 2014 election been fought under a ranked ballot system.

So how would the result of the election have unfolded under ranked balloting?  Based upon the information from the same survey question used to create Table 1, we can speculate as to what the election result would have been.

Under ranked balloting, several rounds of counting may be necessary, depending on the system of ranked balloting employed for the election. Under a system similar to the one in San Francisco, if no candidate receives a majority of votes in the first round, the candidate who receives the fewest first place votes is removed from the candidate pool, and the second choice votes of those who ranked them first are counted. This process continues until a candidate reaches 50% + 1 vote. Table 2 shows the result of this process in the case of the 2014 mayoral election.

Table 2: Ranked Balloting Results by Round





Round 1





Round 2




Round 3



N = 1,385

In this instance, multiple rounds of counting would be required, as no single candidate received greater than 50% support in the first round. After round 1 of counting, the ‘other’ category would be dropped, and the second place preferences of those voters would be reallocated to the other candidates. Note that we pool all ‘other’ candidates here, thus only require one round of counting to ‘drop’ them all. In reality, many more rounds of counting would be necessary to drop these candidates, as the 2014 contest included 65 contenders.

Based upon TES data, we can conclude with a high degree of certainty that John Tory would have won the 2014 Toronto mayoral election had the contest been fought under a ranked ballot electoral system. In the second round of counting all three minor candidates would receive a modest boost in support, as the second place votes of those who supported ‘other’ candidates are counted. No candidate would reach the 50% threshold, however. When Chow is eliminated in round three, however, Tory leaps past the 50% mark, receiving the support of 65.3% of electors, as compared to 34.7% for Ford.[1]

Though one can certainly imagine instances where election outcomes might hinge on the type of electoral system in place, the 2014 Toronto election is not such a case. It is hard to imagine an electoral system under which John Tory would not have won the 2014 Toronto election. His margin of victory, however, is even greater under ranked balloting than it was first-past-the-post system. Such a finding may help to explain the mayor’s dissatisfaction with council’s decision to abandon ranked balloting in advance of the 2018 election.


[1] Counting in the second round is straightforward, as we simply need to consider the second place votes among ‘other’ supporters. Round three calculations are somewhat more complex, however. In this round, the third place preferences of those who ranked ‘other’ first and Chow second would need to be counted (among this group, 13.6% ranked Ford third, while the remaining 86.4% assigned Tory a third place ranking).  The third place preferences of those who ranked Chow first and an ‘other’ candidate second must also be counted (in this instance 82.0% and 18.0% ranked Tory and Ford third, respectively.