Is strategic voting a good idea?

Many groups are now trying to organize strategic voting efforts. It’s not easy.



For anyone who would rather have anything other than a Conservative government—witness the farmer in Burford, Ont., who has plowed “Anybody but Harper” into his field—the math must seem tantalizing. In 2011, 60.4 per cent of voters cast a ballot for someone other than a Conservative candidate. And now, six weeks from another vote, the Conservatives are polling around 30 per cent.

But the incumbent party is not out of contention. If it can get to, say, 35 per cent of the national vote and the non-Conservative vote splits just right, maybe the Conservatives can come away from Oct. 19 with enough seats to retain government. Such is life in a multi-party democracy conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.

If you are of the anti-Conservative persuasion, what can you do about this? One theoretically alluring answer is to vote strategically: to try to figure out which non-Conservative candidate has the best chance of winning in your riding, then cast a ballot for that person. In theory, if enough people did likewise, a result could be swung. The trick is turning that theory into reality. Can a statistically significant number of voters be accurately mobilized to achieve a specific result? And can enough of those efforts change, or assure, a result in a national election?

When Leadnow, the progressive organizing hub, asked its community to consider options for the 2015 campaign, “the vast majority of them said they wanted us to back candidates who could defeat Conservatives in swing ridings,” says Amara Possian, Leadnow’s elections campaign manager. The result is VoteTogether.ca, a strategic-voting campaign that has so far drawn more than 59,000 pledges to “support the best local candidates to defeat the Harper Conservatives and move Canada forward.” The campaign covers 72 ridings where either a Conservative won by less than 15 per cent in 2011 or a New Democrat or Liberal won by less than five per cent with a Conservative in second. In 12 of those ridings—nine of which feature a Conservative incumbent—Leadnow organizers are on the ground and going door-to-door to solicit support. Since VoteTogether.ca launched on Aug. 20, about 650 people have signed up to make phone calls to voters in those 12 ridings and 600 have volunteered to canvas door to door. “What we’ve heard from our community is that they’re upset about the first-past-the-post voting system, where a majority of people can vote for change and still have a Conservative win, and that’s the problem that we’re trying to address,” Possian says.

Leadnow is not alone in its efforts. Unifor, the private sector union, is advising its members to vote for NDP incumbents, but otherwise to vote strategically for the Liberal or NDP candidate who has the best chance of defeating a Conservative. In British Columbia, the Dogwood Initiative, an environmentalist organization, is running an “informed voting” campaign that has surveyed the province’s candidates about a set of issues—pipeline proposals, coal shipments, Aboriginal relations, democratic reform and national security—and is organizing voters to consider both those responses (just one Conservative, John Weston, has responded to the survey) and each candidate’s likelihood of victory. “We’re truly non-partisan. It just so happens that on most of the issues that we’re working on, the current government is kind of offside with the majority of British Columbians,” says Will Horter, executive director of the Dogwood Initiative. “What we’re saying is: In this particular election, which is the candidate that carries your values forward the best? And who has the best chance of winning the seat?”

Leadnow and the Dogwood Initiative are both conducting riding-level polling to help voters understand the state of play—each has released one round of polls so far and has promised to do two more rounds before Oct. 19—and Unifor has said it will do likewise. “We think it’s really important for people to have access to local polling, something that the parties have but don’t release publicly. This is crucial information that people need to make a decision on election day, and it’s not available,” Possian says.

There are potential problems of both principle and practice. In a letter to Leadnow in April, Paul Moist, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), accused organizers of blurring the distinctions between non-Conservative parties. “Only the NDP has a progressive platform,” Moist wrote.

It’s also not clear how feasible such a project is. Voters cannot simply be divided between those who will vote Conservative and those who will not. There are those, for instance, whose first choice might be the NDP, but whose second choice might be the Conservatives (and traditional Conservative voters who would sooner vote NDP than Liberal). Past elections are not necessarily indicative of future results. And votes can shift suddenly. Strategic voting campaigns in 2011 did not prevent the Conservatives from winning a majority. “I think it’s time to say that these projects are not politically sophisticated enough to get their calls correct,” Alice Funke of PunditsGuide.ca wrote afterward, “and while they get a lot of people engaged in our democracy, which I can’t ever be opposed to, they do so under false pretences, namely, that you can know the outcome in a riding ahead of time, and game the system to your own ends.” An analysis published in April 2011 by Bryan Breguet of TooCloseToCall.ca, which analyzes public polling, suggested that as many as 60 per cent of Liberal and NDP voters would have to vote strategically to have a significant impact on that year’s election. “Stop worrying about splitting the vote and simply cast your ballot for your first option,” he advised. “Yes, the current electoral system is not perfect, but you will at least have voted for the party and/or candidate you prefer.”

A certain degree of strategic voting in any election is perhaps natural, as voters consider the possible outcomes. Edmonton–Strathcona in 2008 might be such an example: In that case, former Liberal voters might have helped to boost the NDP’s Linda Duncan ahead of a Conservative incumbent. (Though not quite the same, Danny Williams’s Anything But Conservative campaign in Newfoundland helped to decimate the federal Conservatives in the province.)

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The question now is whether Leadnow and Dogwood have significantly improved upon previous efforts. “Historic examples of strategic voting have often been big failures because they were poorly designed. If you have bad inputs, you get bad outputs,” offers Horter, who says Dogwood has 2,800 volunteers and 119 teams of organizers across 20 ridings. That level of organization and direct contact with voters could matter. So, too, could several rounds of local polling, as opposed to the national or regional polling. “Nobody has ever run a strategic voting campaign in the way that we’re running Vote Together,” Possian says. “Previous strategic voting campaigns have been focused on putting information on a website and hoping people see it. This campaign is about a little bit more than that.”

Beyond Oct. 19, it is also interesting to consider what these third-party efforts might amount to. “We’re building an independent political force that can hold whomever is in power accountable to the issues and values that our community cares about,” Possian says. “The campaign is very focused on building strong relationships and building the organizing capacity of our hundreds and thousands of supporters across the country.” Hortor similarly envisions a “battle-tested ground game” of people sharing values, ready to make demands of whomever is in government.

Demonstrating an ability to significantly move votes would surely bolster that cause.


Is strategic voting a good idea?

  1. This campaign and others like unions [and Engage Canada for example – which is made up of NDPers and Liberals] just makes me want to dig in more and vote against their interests.

    I’ve voted every party in the past but have a visceral dislike for being told how to vote. Yes I know I can vote whomever I like, but the notion that there are organizations out there trying to game the system by ganging up against only one candidate, is unseemly. I can just imagine the distortions they are disseminating door to door.

    • And Harper and his gang don’t have Big Oil and many Big corporations in their pocket either.
      By the way, the Fraser Institute is NOT a charity either.

    • “Yes I know I can vote whomever I like, but the notion that there are organizations out there trying to game the system by ganging up against only one candidate, is unseemly.”

      I commend you for not wanting to be “unseemly”, however this strategy could also be termed “survival” as in survival of life on the planet, which Mr. Harper seems bent upon destroying. Too dramatic? This is not a game. The man has no ethics, no principles, no vision for our country, no concern for hard-working people, veterans, children, the elderly – or basically anyone. He disregards all laws – witness his most recent infraction of electoral law: hiring a non-Canadian to revive his flagging campaign! Sure – go ahead and vote against your own interests! We wouldn’t want you to appear unseemly.

      • …witness his most recent infraction of electoral law: hiring a non-Canadian to revive his flagging campaign!

        There is no such law preventing a campaign from hiring outside help. Read Warren Kinslla’s book Kicking A$$ in Canadian Politics – written in 2001. He talks about how they brought in senior advisers from the Clinton organization to help out in 1993. There’s no law against that, and nothing unethical about doing so either. Your post was already full of hysterics before you started making things up (survival of the planet at stake? really???). You really didn’t need to further undermine your own credibility with made up laws.

        • You can pretend that man-made climate change isn’t real, but that doesn’t change the reality of the fact that it is. And that as a hardcore evangelical “end of the world” Christian that Harper is, he could not care less. He takes these things as a positive sign. Mocking Obama for actually trying to cut down on emissions and help protect the planet for future generations just shows how much of a degenerate Harper truly is. This is all just a game to him and if the future is bleak as a direct cause, then well, our grandkids can deal with it.

          • DCHOUBAK…

            Global warming is only a “FACT” if you haven’t bothered to check the actual facts. There are tens of thousands of scientists who disagree with the premise that humans are causing global warming. REAL scientists…not charlatans like Mann, et al.

            Global warming is just one of the many scares (just the most recent) used by politicians and activists to seperate you from your money; and reality. climate changes…always has, always will.

            Al Gore, David Suzuki, and Lizzie may are all snake oil salesman, and you are just another lemming in line to buy what they are selling.

          • “There are tens of thousands of scientists who disagree with the premise that humans are causing global warming.”

            Wow. I’m sure you’ve got evidence to back that up.
            Unfortunately, as far as scientists who study climate go, they’re in agreement.

      • DenialAwareness…

        Based upon your screed….you should change your name to “DenialOfReality”

        Whew…you are really out there. I suspect you are a greenie.

  2. “… just makes me want to dig in more and vote against their interests. ”

    Pro tip:
    Your concern-trolling would have worked better if your previous comments didn’t make clear you were already a Conservative supporter.

  3. Good points in this article. To be strategic, voters not only need to vote in large enough numbers, they also require accurate and timely data. And to be blunt, LeadNow – so far – are a bit of a joke on the latter front. For the vast majority of ridings they are relying of stale data from the election 4 years ago. Any moron can look up Elections Canada data from 4 years ago and get it just as wrong as the next guy. You might as well be watching the news from 4 years ago as well. Desperate voters will try anything, but they deserve a little competence.

    • Absolutely, they provide the results of the last election. Then they add WORDS, such as “Things are changing, and we need to know what’s happening at a local level.” and “when 500 people sign the pledge we’ll crowdfund for a local poll.” This shows that while they provide the results of the last election, Leadnow recognizes that could be meaningless in a strategic decision, and they have the plan to help with that.

  4. Strategic voting will always happen in various ways, but the mantra ‘Anybody but Harper’ is just plain dumb. It implies that any old replacement will do. Mulcair is not only qualified to replace Harper, he would be exponentially better.

    • Not if you believe we should not give tax dollars to help rich people raise their children, or that infrastructure needs outweigh balanced budget needs.

      Or, if you live on Vancouver Island, the GPC platform is more consistent with your point of view.

      In other words, if you are going to start talking about which leader is better, let’s not pretend you are voting strategically. (Meant as the general “you”).

      Personally, I am so anti Mulcair that I’m voting LPC in the one NDP riding in Alberta, and would do so even if the NDP would lose with a split vote.

      • So you have no problem re-electing Harper if it makes you happy not to vote NDP when the NDP candidate is more likely to defeat the Conservative? I guess you are not pretending to vote strategically either. It really galls me when people take their petty little issues – like a so-called “balanced budget” which is a complete abstraction – as a rationale for re-electing Harper. For heavens sake, he took money that was earmarked to be spent on EI and Veterans and used it to “balance the budget.” That makes no sense and does not serve the interests of Canadians!

        • Mulcair is certainly not interested in defeating Harper at all costs, nor was Layton before him. In fact, I’m pretty sure they saw a Harper majority as their best chance to build the NDP.

          I don’t happen to think there is a whole lot of difference between Mulcair and Harper. Nor do I think choosing infrastructure investment over a balanced budget is “petty”. We need investment in our infrastructure. If we don’t then a crumbling infrastructure is the legacy we leave to our children.

          But most importantly is the fact that Mulcair is outright lying on his promise to abolish the senate. He refuses to talk about the fact he needs constitutional reform, and that he is going to have to negotiate with the provinces. At the same time he is courting the separatist vote with his promise to repeal the Clarity Act.

          The last time a PM who courted the separatist vote decided to reopen constitutional negotiations, we ended up with a referendum.

          Mulcair is dangerous. He puts party before country, and Mulcair before party. I see no value in replacing one guy who is willing to destroy the country fir his own ends with another.

          Buy all that said, you’ve got nothing to worry about in Edmonton Strathcona. Duncan will win.

    • Agreed that strategic voting has been used in the past, however “Anybody but Harper” is definitely not “dumb”!! It is desperation! He will go down in history as the only prime minister ever to be found in contempt of Parliament, and so much more…. I could be here all day. I agree that Mulcair would be exponentially better. And Trudeau or May would also be better. Let’s try to unseat this despot!

  5. One would note that groups such as LeadNow, and other “progressive” organizations trying to influence the outcome of a Canadian election are seen as a postive force by many in the media.
    I think LeadNow is an American organization, but in any event, what do you think the media play would be if a Conservative American group tried the same thing?

    Imagine the outrage of the “progressives” if they thought an organzation was trying to influence the outcome in favour of a Conservative government. do you think the media would spin it as a positive thing?

    Of course they wouldn’t.

    • “…trying to influence the outcome of a Canadian election.”

      Providing information to allow voters the best chance of getting the results they want.
      Don’t they know this is a democracy?
      The bastards.

  6. Remove first past the post and we don’t need to have this silly discussion. We need to freshen up our political system with new ideas with the world facing increasing inequality and ecological meltdown. FPTP reinforces the hierarchy and domination of the established political parties. It is a total constraint on democracy as people feel they will waste their vote if they don’t pick somebody who has a realistic chance of winning. In my riding, this means a Conservative or a Liberal. A choice between Harper or pro-C51! That really is a very watered-down version of democracy. It’s not easy but we need some kind of proportional representation.

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