Strategic voting

October 1, 2019   ·   0 Comments

By Laura Campbell

Ah, strategic voting. It is one of the many shackles of our current electoral system. Over the years, I have listened to the logic, again and again. “If I vote for party X, I will ensure the election of party Y, because the vote will be split on the left.” The majority of people are therefore never really satisfied with their vote. You often hear them say that they’re voting for the lesser of two evils. And many folks stay home on election day, because they say ‘their vote doesn’t matter anyway.’ 

Indeed, strategic voting is a problematic phenomenon that actually affects Conserva-tive and Liberal voters alike. The traditional argument is that strategic voting only happens on the left side of the political spectrum (people who might vote for the Greens or NDP or some other independent candidate, but are afraid that the vote will get ‘split’ on the left and will enable a Conservative victory). This logic is actually used by staunch supporters of the Liberals against average people who want to use their democratic rights to chose something different. I myself, as a member of a smaller party, often get called a “spoiler” or worse, that I am enabling the election of a party who *might* challenge the consensus around important social issues. I would call that ‘fear-mongering’- a classic sub-symptom of strategic voting. 

But strategic voting also goes the other way. There might just be another contingent of voters who tick the Conservative box merely to prevent Justin Trudeau from coming to power this time around. They will vote this way not because they genuinely admire the leadership of Andrew Scheer, but because they are concerned about the spending of the Liberal government. I’ve met many of these people. Debt is their ultimate enemy (and they aren’t wrong, when it gets to be beyond our control, it’s not good). I might not agree with privatization and austerity, but the worries of these citizens shouldn’t be ignored. Ultimately, then, strategic voting amounts to voting ‘against’ something rather than ‘for’ something. 

The additional problem is that strategic voting distorts the popular will and discourages policy collaboration on important issues. A local environmentalist recently told me that they had to vote ‘strategically’ and that ‘policy didn’t matter.’ But that’s the problem. So long as the Conservatives and the Liberals only need to convince you that they are better than the other, their power is guaranteed, and their policy agenda becomes unchecked for four years (if they win a majority). Democracy theorists call this outcome a ‘false’ majority- because often less than 50% of citizens actually decide who holds 100% of the power. 

That’s what happened in Ontario in 2018. Doug Ford got around 40% of the popular vote, but it translated into 61% of the seats in the legislature. The Wynne Liberals were “decimated” if you only look at their seat-share (6%) but they actually got 20% of the popular vote. But the real kicker is that 61% of the seats gets you 100% of the power- you win a ‘majority electoral dictatorship’ as some democracy experts call it. The other parties are effectively locked into their role as by-standers. Of course the opposition members can still introduce legislation on behalf of their parties and constituents- and sometimes it does pass. Earlier this year, Green leader (and MPP) Mike Schreiner, successfully introduced legislation to extend the conservation protections into the Paris Galt Morraine. 

What’s fascinating is that our electoral system doesn’t even benefit the parties who WIN (unless their main objective is merely to get power, but I refuse to be that cynical). For instance, political parties in majority governments rarely collaborate with other parties. What this means is that they ignore the voices of all other citizens who voted for someone else, and that’s many, many voices. And when they brazenly pass policies that only a small portion of people were truly voting for, it produces a whole lot of anger in our communities against that particular party – and if there’s enough anger, a party could lose their majority status – or worse, their ‘official party status’. In our system, there is no incentive, really, for parties to work together to write good public policy. 

Many Canadians are tired of the vicious cycle of our system. They often say things like, “they’re all the same.” But the reality is, most parties are NOT the same. We all work from different policy tool boxes. If we passed electoral reform, we could actually force parties to work together for citizens, instead of for themselves. But electoral reform is complicated, and no major party wants to take it on because they’re afraid they’ll have to give up too much power. 

But there is one scenario that would produce a more balanced outcome in our current system: minority governments! This happens when no party gets more than 50% of the seats in the legislature. So instead, the one with the highest portion of votes must get the confidence of the other parties to govern. There are many examples in Canadian history where this has worked well. Parties are forced to listen to one another in such a scenario. 

No one can project with certainty what’s going to happen in October- but certainly, this is one of those elections where many people are voting ‘strategically’ in Ontario. Doug Ford’s government is very unpopular in many ridings, and so people will most certainly vote Liberal to avoid enabling a majority government for Andrew Scheer. But I want to finish by saying that voting strategically never feels good. What feels good is to vote for the party that you believe has the BEST platform. If everyone who wanted to vote for an independent, or a Green, or an NDP candidate (or some other political party) DID vote for them, perhaps some smaller parties could gain a spot in the legislature, breaking up majority governments and holding the major parties to account by preventing broken promises, or stopping policy-disasters in their tracks. 

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