Colum Grove-White, writes for Samara’s Blog

As voting reform activists, the biggest problem we face is getting our message out in a celebrity-and-disaster-driven news cycle.  Electoral reform is one of the most critical imperatives confronting us, but if you’re already reading this, chances are I’m preaching to the choir.

Like climate change, aging populations, and global governance–all pivotal issues–the case for voting reform doesn’t translate to an obvious, compelling storyline.  We won’t die of first-past-the-post elections.  We won’t discover the cure for ebola through proportional representation. We won’t stop ISIS with ranked ballots.

While most Canadians understand the mechanics of how we vote, the impact of the first-past-the-post system on our democratic fabric seems abstract and irrelevant.  Expecting Canadians to wake up tomorrow preoccupied with electoral reform is about as likely as hearing Putin has won a Nobel Peace Prize; as democratic activists we know we’ve got to think outside the box for more effective ways to get people interested.

At Ottawa123, we’re trying to find better ways of getting people excited about municipal voting reform.  Ottawa123 is the Ranked Choice Voting Initiative of the City of Ottawa, just one of the various, non-partisan 1-2-3 movements springing up across Ontario, calling for cities to ditch our first-past-the-post system in favour of ranked ballots to make our elections more fair and friendly.  And while there are no buckets of ice on our Ottawa123 agenda, we’re aiming to making voting reform as easy as 1-2-3.

Critics of voting reform argue it’s just too complicated for the average voter–one of the many factors that torpedoed voting reform referenda in Ontario and British Columbia.  Ottawa123’s solution? Let’s make voting reform fun and simple!

We’ve created an online voting simulator so people can try ranked choice voting by electing their preferred animal candidates to city council.  Once the ballot is submitted, the simulator shows how the final election tally works, with a breakdown of the ballot.   Cool, eh?  And our simulator is Open Source, so other groups can use it for their homegrown 1-2-3 campaigns.

Another way we make voting reform sexy is by, yes, actually making it sexy.  Ottawa123 marched in Capital Pride at the end of August, and our Ottawa123 models–three hot guys in tight boxers with numbers written across their chests–stole the show, putting voting reform–at least for a moment or two–on the mind of Ottawa Pride-goers. Does parading three sexy guys in tight boxers turn people on to voting reform? Well, it gets pictures on the front page, stories in the news media and makes for great local water-cooler chatter.

We’re also experimenting with infographics to show how simple ranked choice voting can be, and we’re learning from other electoral reform groups. Toronto’s RaBIT campaign, for example, sold voting reform through beer coasters and chocolates rather than through conventional postcards.

We’ve started an online petition that blasts out a message to each municipal candidate when someone signs.  We’ve looked for original ways to pitch our ideas to large crowds of people who’re already engaged in civic issues like the presentation we made last month to Soup Ottawa.

OK, so maybe our campaign can show people how voting reform might work, but we’re still not getting to the heart of the matter–the why of voting reform.

Voting reform is more than election results–it’s also about democratic process. Sometimes as voting reform advocates, we get so wrapped up in those results we forget how voting reform changes the entire process.  “More democratic representation” doesn’t cut it for the average citizen.  So at Ottawa123 we also want to show how voting reform touches on issues that voters care about.

We know from other places where ranked voting exists that its effects reach far beyond election results. Ranked choice voting introduces fresh ideas to the public arena.   In Ottawa’s current city election, week after week, meeting after meeting, the issue topping every discussion is weekly or bi-weekly garbage collection. But where are the bigger issues like urban poverty? The region’s environment? Public transportation? Public libraries? Ottawa’s future?

As well as broadening public discussion, ranked choice voting also minimizes current practices like vote splitting and strategic voting, so candidates and media actually focus on issues rather than who’s stealing whose votes.

To get some of these ideas across, we’re planning a mock election night during the current municipal election campaign.  We’re going to show the City of Ottawa what an election campaign might look like, using ranked choice voting.  We’re hoping to round up some prominent community leaders willing to go head-to-head and debate some of the policy issues missing from this election.

To be sure, our success as voting reform advocates depends on logic and strong evidence, but as compelling as these are, we’ll win or lose this campaign based on how creative we are in coming up with new and better ways to make voters care about the complicated, abstract and vital issue of electoral reform.  It’s time for voting reform to step up to its ice bucket challenge.


Colum Grove-White is a spokesperson for Ottawa123. You can follow him (@columgw) and Ottawa123 (@Ottawa_123) on Twitter.