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Christopher Majka

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Christopher Majka studied at Mount Alison and Dalhousie Universities, the Pushkin Institute in Moscow and was a guest researcher at the Edward Gray Institute at Oxford University. He has written extensively for many national and international publications. His scientific work includes over 150 scientific papers and contributions to nine books. He is a review editor for two international publications, a collaborator of the Kaltenbach Lab and director of Democracy: Vox Populi. Majka was a recipient of the Tom Brydges Award from the Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Network, and was included as one of Canadian Geographic's Environmental Scientists of the Year in 2010.

The art and science of strategic voting

| October 4, 2015
Anybody But Harper

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Two weeks left. Two weeks to E-day. Two weeks to D-day -- decision day.

We are frequently exhorted to either vote according to our conscience (and perhaps, like Jiminy Cricket, our dreams will come true) or else to vote smart and vote strategic to ensure that "Anybody But Harper" will win. What is the politically smart decision? What is the politically ethical decision? Are they the same?

Let's take a stroll through the issues.

Is strategic voting a legitimate electoral approach?

The answer to this question is entirely dependent upon the voting system we employ. Why?

Under a proportional representation system (PR) of voting (and there are several flavours of this) every vote actually counts. Each vote is a drop of democratic water that helps fill the jug. It's a small contribution to giving the political party whose values you most closely agree with a place in Parliament. It gives voice to your values in a way that is tangible in the calculus of political power. No vote is wasted.

Under a first-past-the-post electoral system (FPTP), like the one Canada is currently saddled with, strategic voting is an inevitable product of its fundamental flaws. That's because the large majority of votes in elections conducted in this way are democratically meaningless. They are wasted in terms of having any contribution to what emerges from an election.

 2011 ElectionConsider this: Aamir Hussain at Wastedvotes.ca tracks the number of votes in each Canadian election that play absolutely no role at all in electing anyone to Parliament or to provincial Legislatures, and that are consequently democratically bereft of consequence. In the 2011 Canadian federal election these amounted to 49.6 per cent of all votes cast. This is a staggering statistic. Of the 14,723,980 votes cast in the 2011 election, 7,297,066 counted for nothing in terms of playing any role in the outcome or electing anyone to Parliament. These 7,297,066 Canadians might just as well have stayed home in terms of their impact on the next four and a half years of Canadian governance.

This bleak situation means that many voters -- whether they are aware of such numbers explicitly, or simply understand intuitively how flawed the FPTP system is -- will inevitably make strategic decisions to at least try and give some electoral significance to the one opportunity they have every four years to make a political impact at the ballot box. 

Under FPTP making a strategic choice -- for example if the most important political imperative for you is to have a progressive government (of some political stripe) rather than a regressive government (such as the Harper Conservatives) -- is both smart and ethical if you don't want to engage in a democratically meaningless act.

Clearly, the take home message from all this is that the most significant democratic imperative in our society is to reform the electoral system to a proportional one so that we don't have to suffer through such electoral distortions that turn making a principled democratic choice into a strategic pretzel. This is not what democracy is supposed to be about. It does not serve the interests of Canadian citizens. It does not make for good politics and it often results in flawed governance.

Fair Vote Canada

I won't recapitulate all the arguments for PR here. I recommend the many excellent resources available at Fair Vote Canada that explain PR in detail, show how it works, document how much of the planet already uses PR systems (Canada, Great Britain, and the United States are almost the only holdouts still using FPTP in the developed world), and show how it results in far better electoral outcomes, and consequently far better governance. Check it out! 

[A democratic and historical sidebar: Ironically, it was the case -- until this federal election -- that there actually was one reason to eschew strategic voting -- the per-vote electoral subsidy. This dates back to 2004 when Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien sought to limit the influence of corporations and unions on the political process. Chretien introduced legislation to limit donations to $1,000 and introduced a publicly funded per-vote subsidy for political parties.

The idea was that it was in the public interest not to have the democratic process tainted by money, and given that politics does cost money, to publicly support democracy so that political parties would not have to seek finances cap in hand, thereby potentially compromising their political ideals and independence. It was an excellent democratic initiative and it delivered to political parties on the order of $2 per vote each year, helping to keep politics free from potential financial influence. Thus, even if your vote was democratically "wasted" you could at least deliver some financial assistance to the party of your choice by voting for them (of course, you could also simply donate $2 a year, but in this way at least $2 of your taxes went to supporting a party that you supported). 

After attempting to end this subsidy after the 2008 election, a fiasco that nearly lead to the downfall of the Harper Conservatives, after the 2011 election that brought him majority rule, Stephen Harper ended public support of the political process. The per-vote subsidy is now no more and in the 2015 federal election voting for the political party you support will result in no financial consequences, thus ending the only reason for not considering strategic electoral options.]

Does strategic voting work?

Having long been involved in electoral reform initiatives through Fair Vote Canada, Fair Vote Nova Scotia, and Project Democracy I can give you an unequivocal answer. Uninformed strategic voting is, for the most part, ineffective and pointless. Why?

Without specific information on which way the political currents are flowing in your riding, strategic voting often amounts to little better than guesswork. If the race is tight between opposition party candidates in Conservative held ridings -- as it often is -- how can you tell which one is best positioned to defeat a Conservative incumbent? You can guess, but in the absence of information, you could as easily guess wrong as right, in which case what's the point?

Informed strategic voting is a horse of a different colour.

How to make it work

Get informed. The first point to remember is that if your objective is "Anybody But Harper," then strategic voting is only applicable in ridings where there is a Conservative incumbent. Where there are already incumbents from opposition parties, there is nothing to be gained. Support the incumbents. 

In ridings where there are Conservative incumbents (or in new ridings where there are no incumbents at all) you need to inform yourself. There are three ways of doing so.

1) Check the results of the 2011 election. See how the respective parties did. This is no guarantee that what happened in 2011 will be repeated, but it is a comparative indication of the respective strengths of political parties in the riding. [Note: If the Conservative incumbent won with a large plurality of the vote in 2011 it may be impossible to displace them unless they have been egregiously bad or stupid -- a distinct possibility in the case of some Conservative MP's. Therefore, don't lose heart!]

Vote Together

2) Check with VoteTogether.ca. This is the single most important resource at your disposal. Use it. VoteTogether has taken over the strategic voting initiative that Project Democracy (with whom I was active in the 2008 and 2011 federal elections) previously conducted. VoteTogether has targeted 72 key Conservative swing ridings (where Conservative incumbents won by narrow margins) where progressive Canadians can defeat the Conservatives if they vote together. It's no exaggeration to say that this would fundamentally change the outcome of the election.

In 31 of these ridings Vote Together has conducted local polling. For those of a strategic frame of mind, this resource is pure electoral gold. This polling provides local information on the levels of support that the different political parties are receiving in those ridings. This is far more relevant that the results of national, regional, or even provincial polling which may reflect general trends but tells you very little about your specific riding -- and that's where your vote is counted.

Look at what VoteTogether polling has found, follow their guidelines, and Vote Together. Even if only in these 31 ridings -- for which there is clear, empirical data on which party is best positioned to defeat the Conservatives -- were won by opposition parties, this would certainly deny the Harper Conservatives a majority -- and perhaps government altogether.

Think you're alone? Vote Together has found that 60 per cent of voters who support the opposition parties would be willing to vote for the candidate with the best chance of beating the Conservatives according to local polling, including 61 per cent of NDP supporters, 61 per cent of Liberal supporters, and 49 per cent of Green party supporters. You are in the majority!

Opposition Voters

Progressives in these 31 ridings (check the list: there are two in Nova Scotia; two in New Brunswick; sixteen in Ontario; two in Manitoba, one in Saskatchewan; one in Alberta; six in British Columbia, and one in the Yukon) -- if they Vote Together -- could bring to an end the reign of the Harper Conservatives.

3) Use your own resources. Ask around in your community and riding. Get a sense of how people are feeling. Look at the number of lawn signs. Talk with fellow progressives. Use the intelligence that you have about your community. You know it best.

The take home message

Under the first-past-the-post electoral system we can continue playing these strategic games until the cows come home. Or we can change the system and create a politics that actually is democratic. Where every voice counts. Where no one's vote is discarded as politically meaningless. Where the composition of Parliament actually reflects the views of the electorate. Where the vicissitudes of vote splitting don’t make winners of candidates whose views are supported by only a minority of the electorate.

In this regard it is important to recall that both the New Democratic Party and the Green Party are fully committed to electoral reform that results in a system of proportional representation. In an interview I conducted with NDP leader Thomas Muclair, he made emphatically clear his strong commitment to electoral reform: 

"The first thing that you have to know is that the NDP is extremely serious about going to a mixed proportional system. But … I have to win under the current system: I can't change it."

In an interview with Dave Meslin, Elizabeth May, leader of the Green party said:

"In a democracy, every vote should count. We can’t have a perverse system in which a minority of the vote can elect a majority. … We need to change the culture around politics, from one that's competitive and toxic to one that’s willing to be collaboratively focused on positive outcomes for Canadians."

With respect to the Liberal party, it is gratifying that Justin Trudeau appears to have moderated his position on electoral reform from his initial view during the Liberal leadership race that, "The problem with proportional representation is that every different model of proportional representation, actually increases partisanship," which is the complete opposite of being true.

More recently Trudeau has said that if elected he would convene an all-party committee to study electoral options and then enact a process to replace FPTP within 18 months. It is important to point out that a ranked ballot system, which Trudeau has supported in the past as a preferred option, is not proportional and does not address the central issue of disproportionality that poisons the current Canadian political landscape. 

Albert EiseinAlbert Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity was, "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." On that basis Canadians have an insane electoral system. In 2011 some 60.1 per cent of Canadians voted against the policies of Stephen Harper, and instead we got …  a majority Conservative government in which Stephen Harper effectively had 100 per cent of the political power. As I write, CBC's Poll Tracker indicates that 68.4 per cent of Canadians oppose Stephen Harper's policies. Are we going to let insanity prevail again?  A better future is in sight -- but we have to find a way to get there.

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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