2019 Federal Election – Week 5: Strategic Voting

It should come as no surprise in an election where the parties have refused to engage on the actual issues that they are all now asking for your strategic vote against someone else rather than making their own case for support.

Strategic voting is really hard to do in Canada. When you cast a strategic vote, you usually base it on national polling numbers that have little to do with the reality on the ground in your own riding. You’re also betting you have a good handle on the voting intentions of the 100,000 or so other voters in your community. And you’re assuming that everyone else trying to vote strategically won’t create a wave that ends up going in a much different direction than anyone planned.

There are many good-faith arguments for strategic voting, but most of what you see online is being spun by political operatives and partisan supporters with little regard for truth or good intentions. Their goal is simply to elect their candidate, leader, and party – at all costs.

Blue Door vs. Red Door

In 2011, Michael Ignatieff kicked off his election pitch to voters by saying they only had two choices – a blue door or a red door. He argued that the only parties likely to form government were the Conservatives under Stephen Harper, or the Liberals under Michael Ignatieff. But what politicos forget (despite the province of Quebec proving it every single election) is that you can’t tell a voter what their options are. They will show you at the ballot box just how wrong you are. And in 2011 (led by Quebec), they did.

Partisans from both NDP and Liberal circles use the 2011 election, and the 2018 Ontario Election that resulted in ‘Premier’ Ford, as examples of strategic voting gone wrong as a result of partisan selfishness. NDP supporters tend to argue that in both cases we could have had a progressive government if Liberals had just fallen in line and voted NDP. Liberal supporters point out that in both cases not a single NDP member was elected by taking over a previously conservative seat.

Both parties have made the ‘lend me your vote’ argument and both have been angered when many voters refuse to switch after this ask has been made. The request ignores the fact that the biggest partisans are unlikely to ever switch (and that’s the case in both parties) and that many supporters of both parties do not necessarily swing the same way during close elections. There are many in both parties who actually switch to conservatives when presented with the likely election of a candidate from the opposing ‘progressive’ party.

Failed Democratic Reform

One big thing being talked about in all this progressive infighting is the failure of the Trudeau Liberals to introduce electoral reform after stating that the 2015 election would be the last conducted under First-Past-the-Post. I’ve never been a fan of proportional representation, which many of the activists wanted, because I believe local representation matters and list-based election of a politician is unlikely to hold them to account.

One argument trotted out in favour of PR is that it improves voter turnout. Countries like New Zealand and Germany are cited against Canada as having higher turnout. But turnout in these countries in more recent elections versus those of decades past show that turnout is actually down around the world, and, actually declining faster in PR-based countries.

My own view is that the combative nature of our politics and growing disinterest or disillusionment in our electorate is why people are not rushing to the polls anywhere around the world. And the solution may not require a constitutional answer – it may be possible to address these problems with a simple design change to the ballot.

Approval voting – a system where you mark an X or check mark next to any candidate you approve of and leave blank the box next to any candidate you don’t approve of – encourages campaigns to try to attract more voters from other sides. It also has the benefit of being simple to tally (the candidate with the most votes wins) and provides clear understanding to voters of how the vote they cast helped reach the final result.

Most candidates who win under this model are supported by a majority of local voters and yet the campaign often remains competitive and not a forgone conclusion, two elements voters routinely say they wish were present in more elections. You still have the power to hire and fire your local representative and you don’t need to open up the constitution to put it in place.

We should continue to have a conversation about democratic reform after this election, however my advice to any government pursuing it is that they first ask a clear question about whether Canadians want reform and then ask a clear question on what that reform should look like. I think there is greater appetite for reform than we saw in votes taken in some provinces but the failure to separate the question of reform from the question of what kind of reform undermined those debates.

How to Vote

Given we have the voting system we have right now, it’s fairly useless to talk about how great it would be if we had a different one right now. Voters have to make a choice in the system that we have right now.

I won’t tell anyone who to vote for. Ultimately it’s up to each of us to weigh our options and make our decision based on what choice we think has the best shot of creating the Canada we want to live in. In 2018, I voted for my local Liberal candidate because I knew her, was deeply impressed by her, and thought she would do a great job. I thought she might be one of only a handful of Liberals to win in that election. And given my riding votes overwhelmingly Liberal, she was also my best shot at preventing a conservative being elected as my new MPP. In the end the vote did split but the NDP won. I can live with that.

I wasn’t always so sure who I might vote for in this federal election. I had worked on the housing file in Ontario and was unimpressed with the federal Liberal response on that file and the health care file for a long time (they ended up stepping up on the former). I thought the government was too centrist for my liking and that it was taking an incrementalist approach to nearly every crucial issue facing our country.

But given how close this election is, and given the type of person Andrew Scheer has proven himself to be, I was also reminded of the day I spent in 2016 in front of Constitution Hall in Philadelphia while the roll call of Hillary Clinton’s nomination was broadcast live from the lawn.

As they called out numbers state by state, a Bernie Sanders supporter walked up and down the street shouting that she would now vote for Donald Trump in the general election. Others ended up joining her at the polls while still others, who couldn’t stomach another Clinton, chose a third-party candidate on Election Day.

No matter what, my overarching values are more important to me than the specifics of how to reach them or the party that will deliver on them. It’s why I decided I couldn’t be a Jill Stein type of voter and needed to really weigh the best option in my riding and across the country for a more progressive Canada.

That’s the choice facing all progressive voters and it will lead to different conclusions in ridings throughout Canada. So as you’re making your own choice, tune out the partisan voices, learn about the party platforms, take a look at past results in your riding, and check out any available information you have about how things might turn out locally. Some progressives are furiously checking sites like http://338canada.com/ and https://votewell.ca/ to help inform their choice.

Just remember, no matter how you vote, cast your ballot in a way that you can feel good about your choice no matter what the outcome ends up being. Four years is a long time to live with regret.

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