Why Strategic Voting is Wrong: Oh, the Irony

By Jared Wesley on Oct 11, 2008

Dan Lett's column in today's Winnipeg Free Press is bang-on.  Strategic voting is wrong.  Not because it perverts some high-minded view of democracy, where every citizen sticks to her principles when casting a ballot.  (Quite frankly, that view of democracy is visible only through high-prescription, rose-coloured glasses.)  Rather, strategic voting is wrong because it is self-defeating.  What these people need is electoral reform, and that's the last thing they'll get by casting their ballots for either of the two most-successful parties.

"Strategic voting" involves casting a ballot in favor of one's second- or third-favoured candidate, as a means of defeating one's least-favoured choice.  In this year's Canadian election, this typically entails New Democrats and Greens voting for Liberal candidates in order to prevent the Conservatives from gaining the seat.  (There are other combinations, of course, but this is the concept.)  Over the course of the campaign, several techniques of strategic voting have been promoted:

  • The ABC Campaign:  Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams has popularized this tactic, urging voters to vote "Anything But Conservative" in order to deny Stephen Harper a majority.  This is a relatively unorganized form of strategic voting, as it does not concentrate support behind any particular oppositon party.  (Incidently, a variation on this strategy was employed in the last Alberta provincial election, when union leaders launched an anti-Ed Stelmach campaign.  It had little visible impact.)
  • The Stop Harper Campaign:  All three major opposition parties -- the Liberals, New Democrats, and Bloc Quebecois -- have spent the past week trying to (1) frighten voters at the prospect of a Conservative majority and (2) convince electors that their party is best positioned to "Stop Harper."  This has become a perennial event at the close of election campaigns in Canada, having taken place in 2004, 2006, and now 2008.
  • The Vote Swap Initiative:  This strategy has been dealt with elsewhere on this site.  I remain thoroughly unconvinced that enough citizens will blindly follow the directives of a Facebook "friend", or place enough faith in another voter, to have an impact on the election. 
  • The Vote Smart Initiative:  If the buzz among university students is any indication, this strategy has much more potential.  Several groups, including "voteforenvironment.ca," have established websites designed to "inform" voters which candidates have the best chance of defeating Conservatives in key ridings across the country.  This strategy is a high-tech update of the highly-effective "Citizen's Commitee" approach employed by anti-NDP groups in Manitoba in the 1970s.

Here's the rub, though.  Those who feel their votes are being "wasted" by supporting third- or fourth-place parties would be best served by a dramatic reform of Canada's electoral system -- NOT by strategic voting.  As Lett puts it, "A deeper look at strategic voting reveals a larger, more inherent issue. Scratch the surface of a strategic voting advocate and you find someone who would dearly love to change the entire structure of our electoral system." 

Yet, ironically, by passing over the only two parties supporting a move toward proportional represetation -- the NDP and Greens -- these voters are condemning themselves to yet another "strategic" vote in the next election.  And so the cycle continues. 

This is where Dan Lett and others are wrong, when they suggest that "Strategic voting is the fall-back, the interim step until we can abandon our first-past-the-post system of electing MPs and governments, and move to a more contemporary, more responsive proportional representation system."  If you want electoral reform, you'll never get it by voting for parties whose success is derived from the present set of rules.  Put plainly: neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals will change the first-past-the-post system that has served them so well.

To be truly "strategic" requires a lot of political sophistication and commitment.  You have to be both engaged and knowledgeable enough to discern which party has the best chance of defeating your least-favoured alternative; and you have to have the conviction to abandon your preferred candidate to prevent "the enemy" from gaining power.  This is why it amazes me how short-sighted so many strategic voters can be. 

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Please sir, I want some democracy . . .

Strategic voting is not just "New Democrats and Greens voting for Liberal candidates in order to prevent the Conservatives from gaining the seat", although the Liberals would like you to think so. In fact the strategic voting sites are endorsing more NDP candidates than Liberals.

This is one of the problems with strategic voting—it is not well undestood, and often badly done.

Which merely reinforces the main point: we need a new voting system, and we need it now!

In the last election, more than 7.5 million voters cast their votes for candidates who did not get elected, and ended up "represented" by people they voted against.

Fair Vote Canada is holding a contest. www.OrphanVoters.ca

How many votes will be wasted this time? Your guess could win you cash prizes!

Wayne Smith

NDP and Greens on electoral reform

I agree that electoral reform is badly needed and I suspect that this election is going to demonstrate that very well. I'm not sure I agree that a vote for the NDP is a vote for electoral reform. The party is at best ambivalent about electoral reform. Whenever a provincial NDP has had an opportunity to do something about the system, they never have. We've had provincial NDP governments in BC, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario and none of them have moved to change the system. Federally, whenever the NDP has had a chance to use its position in supporting a Liberal minority government to push for electoral reform, it hasn't done so. In 1980, the federal NDP caucus shot down an electoral reform initiative (http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/subscriber/columnists/f_russell/story/4233002p-4874606c.html). The NDP talks the talk when it comes to electoral reform, but is actual record of action is sadly lacking.

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