As Canada’s 41st federal election campaign winds down to voting day one thing is abundantly clear: there are way more ridings in play than anybody predicted when the writ dropped. The Globe identified 50 ridings to watch, while the Conservative Party narrowed it further, targeting just 30 ridings.
Looking at the polls and the range of seat projections, it’s clear that more than 50 ridings could see incumbents lose as a result of the NDP’s “orange wave,” vote-splitting and concerted “strategic voting” efforts.
Quite unexpectedly, we now have Harper suggesting that Liberal voters should strategically vote Conservative to stop the NDP:
“It’s coming down the tube, it’s going to be a Conservative government or it’s going to be an NDP government…A vote for the Liberals is a vote for an NDP government.”
- Stephen Harper
Meanwhile, Ignatieff continues to argue that a vote for the Bloc or the NDP is a vote for a Conservative minority:
“The question is who can actually get rid of the Stephen Harper regime,and we’re saying, if you vote for Mr. Layton, you’re going to get a Harper minority government. If you vote for Mr. Duceppe, you’re going to get a Harper minority government.”
- Michael Ignatieff
Jack Layton, on the other hand, has “scoffed” at the notion of strategic voting.
So what to make of these calls for strategic voting (or not)?
Strategic voting has been defined as:
“a vote for a party (candidate) that is not the preferred one, motivated by the intention to affect the outcome of the election.”
According to political scientist Bruce Hicks, about three percent of Canadians vote strategically, with that number rising as high to as 12 percent in elections when voters are united in opposing a specific party.
In the 2008 federal election, Newfoundland & Labrador Premier Danny Williams ran an effective, top-down “Anything But Conservative” (ABC) campaign against Harper that shut the Conservatives out of the province. The election also featured numerous online, citizen-driven strategic voting campaigns whose impact was hard to discern.
In the 2011 election there is no top-down strategic voting campaign, but since 2008 there has been a proliferation of bottom-up efforts.
In the past I have been a supporter of strategic voting due to the significant shortcomings of our first-past-the-post electoral system. Frankly, it also feels like a legitimate way to fight back against the trend towards micro-targeting campaigns that have replaced anything resembling a national campaign (It’s also worth noting that this micro-targeting has contributed significantly to the devolution of party platforms, which no longer articulate a national vision but now tend to offer a smorgasbord of regionally and demographically targeted promises).
But there are numerous compelling arguments against strategic voting, such as those eloquently put forward by Alice Funke (of www.punditsguide.ca), UBC political science professor Michael Byers, and Vancouver-based poll analyst Brian Breguet. Both philosophically and analytically these are robust and principled arguments that I think anybody considering strategic voting should read and reflect upon.
As a bit of an experiment I decided to choose a riding and then check in with the different strategic voting websites to see what they suggested. I chose the riding of Esquimault-Juan de Fuca on Vancouver Island, the riding held by retiring MP Keith Martin (Liberal). It seemed like an interesting riding for a number of reasons:
- Since 1988 it has been held by the NDP, Reform/Canadian Alliance and the Liberals.
- Keith Martin crossed the floor from the Canadian Alliance to the Liberals and then managed to hold onto the seat – barely – in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 elections, with his popular support declining somewhat in each election.
- It has been identified as a target riding by the Conservatives, and a riding to watch by the Globe, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union, and the various strategic voting campaigns.
- The Globe has noted that the outcome in 2011 is “too close to call” while Brian Breguet of Tooclosetocall.ca projects the riding will go Conservative.
So I checked in with the various campaigns to see what they suggest is the “strategic vote” to cast in 2011, with interesting results:
- Project Democracy – recommends voting NDP
- Catch22 – recommends voting NDP
- Vote Pair – recommends voting NDP
- Stop the Split – recommends voting Liberal
- the CAW - recommends voting Liberal (which is a bit confusing given they are a funder of the Project Democracy initiative)
The polls continue to bounce around (both party support and leader support), the art and science of strategic voting remains imperfect, and depending on the province anywhere from four to 17 percent of the electorate remains “undecided.” These facts, coupled with my little experiment, make me relatively uncomfortable with the prospect of a successful strategic vote.
The CBC’s Alison Crawford wrote a nice little piece on strategic voting that summed things up nicely:
“[a]…former Green supporter favours a Liberal government but if that doesn’t work out, would like an NDP opposition. And that readers, encapsulates why strategic voting, with its very personal and unique set of goals is kind of like herding cats.”
So what’s a voter to do?
Obviously it’s up to each Canadian voter to make up their mind about whether and how to vote. For me, it’s a given that Canadians should vote – it is our civic responsibility (although I look forward to reading this book to challenge my belief).
As for how to vote, I’ll be voting for the candidate and party that I believe reflects the Canadian I want to be, and the Canada I want to see in the world.
Whatever you do, make sure you vote.