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Who splits whose votes?

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Green Party leader Elizabeth May and former NDP leader Alexa McDonough

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In an article for The Tyee entitled Why is Elizabeth May Helping Elect Conservatives? George Ehring asks, "Why are [Elizabeth May] and her party actively pursuing an electoral strategy that is almost certain to elect more Conservatives?" Ehring observes that,

"Everyone who follows federal politics knows that Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, has been an outspoken critic of a great many of the policies of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government. […] But in choosing to run candidates in ridings that have the best chance of electing someone other than a Conservative, Elizabeth May is playing right into Stephen Harper's hands. She is his best electoral ally, because her party will draw votes from New Democrats and Liberals -- the parties with the only chance of defeating Conservatives. This splitting of the opposition votes is just what Stephen Harper needs to form another majority government."

Green Party leader Elizabeth May

Ehring suggests that the Green Party could choose not to run candidates in seats where another opposition party has a good shot at defeating a sitting Conservative, thereby increasing the chance that the Harper Conservatives could be defeated. Furthermore, given that the NDP has committed, if elected, to introducing a system of proportional representation (see The Mind of Mulcair: The leader of the NDP on energy, climate change, and electoral reform) this could help assure a better parliamentary future for the Green Party at no real expense since these are seats that the Greens could not hope to win in any event.

[And now that the Harper Conservatives have eliminated the public per-vote electoral subsidy, it would result in no financial cost to the Green Party either.]

In response Elizabeth May fired back at Ehring with an article entitled Green Party Does Not Split the Vote. May counters that, "Ehring's arguments rely on a fallacious, yet surprisingly persuasive, appeal to fear which can be summarized as 'Look what happened last time!'" May also argues that, "The truth is that the Green Party does not 'split the vote.' In every one of [several] examples, the strong Green race also resulted in very high voter turnout."

Who's right?

First past the post: A zero-sum game

First of all, it's important be crystal clear on this point: in a democratic Canadian political environment the Green Party has as much legitimacy as any other party. It has the same right to contend for votes and seats without being considered subsidiary. Whether it is in its best interests in achieving its objectives to contest every Canadian riding is an entirely different question.

In large measure, elections are a zero-sum game. Every citizen gets only one vote and if they vote for one party it means that they don't vote for another. How voting "splits" effect the outcome of elections (and this effect can be sizeable) is a feature of first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral schemes, an archaic system that becomes increasingly dysfunctional and unpredictable as the number of political parties increase beyond two (and we now have six represented in Parliament, four national ones and the Bloc Québecois and Forces et Démocratie in Québec).

With the NDP and Greens committed to introducing proportional representation, and with Justin Trudeau's recent espousal of electoral reform (see Trudeau confident electoral reform will be election issue) one can only hope that Canada will soon join the rest of the developed world in having a fair and rational electoral system (Canada, the United States, and Great Britain are amongst the last holdouts that still cling to FPTP). However, until we do, we're still saddled with it, and consequently the fact that voting splits have allowed (and may yet again allow) the Harper Conservatives to splinter progressive voters, running up the middle to another mandate.

The Green political landscape 

Canadian Voting Turnout

Back to the zero-sum game. The caveat here is that voter turnout has been steadily declining in Canada (see Figure 1 above). In the late 1950s and early 1960s it was as high as 79 per cent and even as late as 1988 it was 75.3 per cent. Since then it has steadily declined (with a couple of small upticks) to the current level of 61.4 per cent in the 2011 election. If, as Elizabeth May suggests, the Green Party has not so much been splitting the progressive vote as drawing back into the electoral fold disaffected voters, one might expect to see this trend reflected in the overall turnout -- however, there is no evidence for this. As support for the Green Party (which first appeared on the federal scene in the 1984 election) has increased the decline in federal turnout has continued with only minor, temporary reversals. [see Figure 2: Note federal turnout (in red) is shown on the left scale running from 50 and 100 per cent; Green Party support (in green) is shown on the right scale running from 0 to 10 per cent.]

Figure 2

It certainly may be the case, as Elizabeth May points out in her article, that in selected ridings where there are star candidates, heated contests, or some reason for particular interest or attention, that local turnout will be increased -- but this is equally true in the case of candidates of any political stripe and not just Greens. 

It is true that Ehring's case is predicated on what happened last time, as are many prognostications about what might occur next time. And, of course, the future is notoriously fickle. Witness the remarkable rise of the NDP in the 2011 election to become the official opposition. If we could predict with precision what would happen in the next election, we could save ourselves the time and expense of running it.

That said, there were 576,221 people who voted for the Green Party in 2011, and if these are not non-voters being drawn back into electoral politics, then if May were to take Ehring's advice who would they support?

Second choices: A window on alternate outcomes

 Green Party Second ChoicesIn this regard, polling results by Ekos Politics on second choice preferences of political parties are very instructive (see Race tightens to three-way racer again as NDP slips, June 19, 2015; the most recent data). With respect to the second choice of Green Party supporters (see Figure 3), this indicates that a very large fraction, 47.6 per cent of Green party supporters, have no second choice, meaning that were there to be no Green party candidate in their riding they would simply not vote. This large "no second choice" proportion is exceeded only by Conservative party supporters, 56.5 per cent of whom would vote for no other party. Liberal and NDP party supporters are more flexible with only 33.7 and 29.5 per cent respectively having no second choice.

What this means is that only 40.1 per cent of Green Party supporters would be available to support other progressive, federalist parties: 23.5 per cent supporting the NDP and 16.6 per cent supporting the Liberals. Using 2011 turnout data this means that only 231,065 former Green supporters (135,412 supporting the NDP; 95,653 supporting the Liberals) would be in play in such a scenario. Now, it is impossible to predict in which ridings such voters would be situated, and what splits might arise, however, this is a rather small fraction (1.57 per cent) of the 14,720,580 Canadians who voted in the last election. Under the Ehring scenario this might make a difference in -- at most -- a handful of seats

If one instead employs the current 7.1 per cent level of Green Party support that Ekos Politics polling currently finds, the number rises to 419,110, 2.85 per cent of Canadian voters. This is roughly the number of people (405,000) that participated in 2008 and 2011 in Project Democracy's informed strategic voting initiative. We calculated that this level of participation resulted in five seats that might otherwise have been won by the Harper Conservatives having been won instead by representatives of other progressive parties (Greens, Liberals, and NDP) (see Project Democracy: 2011 Electoral Analysis).

Therefore, it seems unlikely that the strategy that Ehring suggests would (under the best of possible circumstances) result in more than a half dozen Conservative seats changing hands. This would very unlikely to tip the balance in an election unless the outcome was exceedingly close (always, of course, a possibility). On the other hand, it is clear that some degree of vote splitting must be occurring with three political parties on the left of centre rather than two. So who is right: Ehring or May? Well, neither and both.

Promiscuous Progressives

 Liberal Second ChoicesFar more consequential -- because they are far more numerous -- to the outcome of the 2015 election will be what pollster Frank Graves of Ekos Politics calls the "promiscuous progressives." These are people of generally progressive sentiments, who, while emphatically opposed to the regressive and reactionary policies of the Harper Conservatives, are nonetheless not wedded to any specific political philosophy. Pragmatic (or perhaps promiscuous, depending on one's viewpoint) they are apt to support whatever political party is best positioned to defeat the Harper Conservatives.

Based on Ekos Second Choice polling results, this includes some 49 per cent of Liberal party supporters, 42 per cent of whom would be prepared to support the NDP and 7 per cent whom would be prepared support the Green party (see Figure 4). Based on current levels of support this would encompass some 1,803,271 voters.

 NDP Second ChoicesSimilarly, this would include 55 per cent of NDP supporters, 40 per cent of whom would be willing to support the Liberal party, and 15 per cent of whom would be prepared support the Green party (see Figure 5). Based on current levels of support this would encompass some 2,445,088 voters. Together, these groups comprise something on the order of 28.9 per cent of the Canadian electorate, a very large number, easily able to determine the outcome of an election. At the moment, the wind appears to be in the sails of Thomas Mulcair, with the NDP fortunes having risen over the past several months while those of the Liberals have fallen. The most recent Ipsos polling (June 24, 2015) shows the NDP at 35 per cent; the Liberals at 29 per cent; Conservatives at 28 per cent, BQ at six per cent; and Green party at two per cent [see Orange Crush Spreads as Federal NDP (35 per cent, + 5) Surges to Take Lead Over Tied Liberals (29 per cent, -2) and Conservatives (28 per cent, -3).]

However, as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson is said to have observed, "A week can be a long time in politics," and there are some 16 weeks before the next federal election.

You can't always get what you want

Elizabeth May concludes her article by saying:

"Vote for what you want. In riding after riding across Canada, Greens have proven that if you vote (in large numbers) for what you want, you actually get it."

If only this were the case. So long as Canada is burdened with the first-past-the-post electoral system, what Canadians want and what they get remain disconnected. Unlike Mick Jagger, we can't even get what we need. In 2011, 60.4 per cent of Canadians wanted anything but a Conservative government. What they got instead was four years of a Stephen Harper majority in which the Conservatives wielded 100 per cent of power -- the complete antithesis of what they desired, and certainly not what a progressive Canada needs.

However, Elizabeth May, also says:

"In [a minority] parliament, I believe Tom Mulcair will be far more welcoming to my efforts at cooperation. Working together, we can take a two-year minority parliament to a four-year, more stable parliament with a chance to fix all the things Harper has broken, while embarking on a serious job creation effort across Canada through effective and aggressive climate action."

Since 2008, Project Democracy has been working to encourage political cooperation amongst Canadian progressives, striving for electoral and political reform, and for better governance in our country, particularly around climate change and environmental issues (see The Case for NDP, Liberal, Green Cooperation). In the aftermath of the 2011 election we supported both Nathan Cullen of the NDP (see Joint nominations and electoral reform: defending Canadian values) and Joyce Murray of the Liberals (see Joyce Murray: In her own words) in their respective leadership bids to try and further these objectives. In October 2013 I surveyed the political landscape concluding that the apparent opportunities for movement on these issues appeared bleak (see Progressive Canadian politics: Co-operation or cannibalism?).

Robert Chisholm, Thomas Mulcair, & Megan Leslie

Liberal Leader Justin TrudeauIt is, of course, unclear what the results of 2015 federal election will be, however, with the commitments of the Green Party (see above) and the New Democratic Party (see The Mind of Mulcair: The leader of the NDP on energy, climate change, and electoral reform) to bring about proportional representation, and Justin Trudeau's recent interest in electoral reform (although Trudeau's pronouncements on this issue leave unclear precisely what a Liberal government would do if elected; proportional representation, ranked balloting, mandatory voting, and online voting have all been mentioned) the horizon for achieving electoral reform appears at least somewhat brighter.

That said, Canadian voters still have to build a bridge to get there from here, and there is plenty of scope for this tentative momentum to derail. In terms of one-time political cooperation to defeat the Harper Conservatives in order to secure electoral reform and proportional representation, something that both Nathan Cullen and Joyce Murray campaigned on, it is clear that no such bridge will be built in 2015. It is now far too late to even lay its foundations, a reality that also applies to George Ehring's proposal. Even were Elizabeth May were inclined to do so (and she is not), it's not something the she could deliver by herself, even as leader of the Green Party. An initiative of this kind would doubtless have to be approved by the Green's Federal Council, likely a very tough sell.

Where does this leave Canadians in 2015? Blundering along as we have been for decades with an archaic electoral system, forced to accept unrepresentative outcomes, resorting to ad hoc contrivances such as strategic voting or vote swapping to try and wrestle better outcomes out of a broken system. In recent years, in which major issues such as globalization, inequality, and climate change have cried out for pro-active governments able to nimbly respond to rapidly changing circumstances, we have instead been prodding a plodding behemoth, hoping, by accident if not be design, to nudge it in the right direction. 

"Insanity," said Albert Einstein, consisted of, "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Let us hope the insanity ends in 2015.

[Full disclosure: Elizabeth May is a long-time friend.]

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

 

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