Vote Swappers Should Concentrate on Advocating for PR

By David McGrane on Sep 24, 2008
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From ‘Puffingate' to the flood of e-mails and postings on websites urging that Elizabeth May participate in the leaders debate, the internet has began to effect this federal election campaign in a profound way. The latest internet splash is the creation of a Facebook group dedicated to ‘vote swapping' in order to stop the Conservatives from forming a majority government.

The idea behind vote swapping is simple. For example, a person who traditionally votes Liberal will vote for a NDP candidate in a riding where the NDP has a chance to knock off a Conservative. In exchange, a person who traditionally votes NDP agrees to vote for a Liberal in a riding where the Liberals have the best chance of beating a Conservative. A Facebook group dedicated to matching up voters who wish to swap their votes has grown to over 8700 members.

Considering the closeness of recent federal elections, vote swapping seems like a relatively easy way for a small number of people to have a significant effect on the outcome of the federal election. Tony Clement's riding of Parry Sound-Muskoka is cited by the Facebook group's creator as a perfect example of the potential of vote swapping. If only 29 of the 9,173 people who voted NDP or Green in that riding would have participated in a vote swap and voted Liberal than Clement would have lost.

However, the effectiveness of vote-swapping is deceiving because it predicated on the ability of the organizer to accurately predict which party is best positioned to beat the Conservatives in hotly-contested races and correctly assess where Liberals or NDPers are in danger of losing to Conservatives. Predicting the future is always tricky. In Regina-Lumsden-Lake Center in the 2000 election, the NDP candidate lost to the Canadian Alliance candidate by only 343 votes while the Liberal candidate was over 8,000 votes behind the two leading parties. Vote swappers would have obviously organized to have traditional Liberal voters switch allegiances to the NDP for the 2004 election. Such an action would have backfired because the Liberal candidate came out of nowhere and ended up losing to the Conservative candidate by only 122 voters. If 123 Liberal voters in Regina-Lumsden-Lake Center had engaged in a swap and voted NDP, they would have been sorely disappointed.

Another problem for vote swapping is close three-way races. If all three parties were close in 2006, as was the case in London-Fanshawe and Newton-North Delta, do you now pick the NDP or the Liberal candidate to fight off a Conservative surge?  If you pick the wrong one, you could end up electing the Conservative. Finally, using the voting patterns from the previous election means that vote swappers can neglect to organize in ridings that unexpectedly turn out to be tight races. Who would have organized a swap in Winnipeg South in 2006? Liberal cabinet minister Reg Alcock had beat the Conservatives handily during the 2004 election but unexpectedly ended up losing by only 111 votes. Alternatively, a vote swap organizer could pick ridings that they think will be close only to find out these ridings were not close at all.

As we can see, with a bit of luck and meticulous organization, vote swaps can work but vote swaps can also have unintended consequences.  If the vote swap organizer is luckily enough to get it right twice but wrong four times, then they have done more harm than good to their cause. The best advice for vote swap organizers is to focus a very small number of ridings to decrease the chance of your failures cancelling out your successes. That being said, with the all the different conditions that have to fall into place for success (picking the right ridings and candidates, organizing enough people, people actually following through on their swap commitments), the chance of vote swapping having an effect on even one riding in this election is slim.

Ultimately, the fact that citizens have to resort to such crude attempts at electoral manipulation illustrates how sick our antiquated ‘first-past-the-post' system really is. These vote swappers are reacting to the very really problem of wasted votes in our electoral system. Their frustration at having their vote rendered meaningless just because of their geographical location is completely understandable and justified. However, vote swapping is not the answer. The only genuine means to eliminate the problem of wasted votes is move to proportional representation. If vote swappers want their vote to really count in the next federal election, their time and energy would be better spent volunteering with the various citizens' groups pushing for proportional representation rather than engaging in a quixotic attempt to outsmart the existing Canadian electoral system. 

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PR has its own problems...

PR tends to produce coalition government, and our present First Past the Post (FPTP) tends to produce majority government. One way to look at this difference is to say that FPTP forces political forces to line up in "big tent" party coalitions in back rooms before the election, whereas PR systems force political forces to line up as coalition governments after the election. In both systems there is a lot of compromise and frustration.

In theory, I tend to support PR as it allows voters to express their preference for how much influence a given faction will have in the resulting government, as the coalition isn't formed until after the vote. But there is something to be said for majority government - contrast Canada's approach to its deficit problems of the past with Italy's.

We had a chance to get a PR system in British Columbia, STV. We all had to learn a bit about it during the referendum campaign. It certainly addressed the problem of voter frustration over not being able to vote for a party they support, as STV is designed to allow voters free expression. But it wouldn't be the answer to all problems: the parties would have to form a big tent coalition after the election and no one would get exactly what they wanted. The minority partners would actually get very little. And it isn't that easy to pass a referendum: the chief beneficiaries of a change, i.e. the Greens, were too stupid to realize what STV was, they campaigned against it, and they defeated it. Who knew?

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