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Backroom politics - How federal elections work in Canada

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The Catch 22 Harper Conservatives strategy is to target winnable ridings, recruit volunteers and communicate with voters before the next election is called. The rationale for this strategy is based on understanding Canada's "single member plurality" voting system and factors such as voting patterns, voter attitudes, campaign dynamics and local issues. Our main premise is that an informed electorate will vote in their interests, and not strictly in the interests of political parties, politicians and lobby groups.

Everyone is familiar with the voting ABCs. Election day rolls around, you go to the polls, cast your vote, the results are tabulated and the winners & losers announced. Sounds pretty simple? It is on one level, but in order to understand how we end up with the governments that we do (and their executive abuses of power), we need to take a deeper look at the electoral system. This knowledge will put us in a better position to impact future results while working as a grassroots movement outside of the political party system.

The first thing to note is that a Canadian federal election is really made up of 308 separate election campaigns in 308 electoral districts (aka ridings and constituencies) across the country. Under our antiquated voting system, it is ridings (aka constituencies or electoral districts), not voters, that are the primary "unit of currency". Why? First, because the party that wins the most ridings gets to form the government. The leader of that party (elected like any other MP) becomes Prime Minister. The only voters who vote for a PM are the ones living in his/her riding (and the party members who elect (or appoint) them party leader).

If a party wins more than half of the ridings, they form what's called a "majority government" and have 100% of the power (winner take all). If they have less than 50% of the seats, they form a "minority government" and need the support (confidence) of other Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Commons in order to govern. In either case, they do not need the support of the majority of voters.

The second reason that ridings, and not voters, are supreme, is because the candidate with the most votes wins the seat in the House of Commons (winner take all again). A majority of 50% + 1 is not needed in a riding election. MPs from all parties routinely win elections with less than 50% of the vote, often with less than 40%.

The last time a governing party had popular support of 50% + 1 was in 1984 when Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives won 50.03% of the vote. The time before that was in 1958.

The next concept to understand is "stronghold and swing" ridings, polls and voters. Loosely speaking, stronghold ridings are ones in which the same party wins election after election. There are surprise upsets but for the most part, stronghold ridings are very predictable.

Swing ridings are those that elect MPs from different parties from election to election. It is the swing ridings in which political parties put a lot of their resources because a small shift of voters in 3 and 4-way splits can make or break a candidate (and a government and Prime Minister). (More on wedge issues, polling, negative campaigning, dirty tricks, etc. in a future post.) 

It should also be noted that in both stronghold and swing ridings, each political party has a loyal base which votes for their party of choice each and every election. When these voters are unhappy with their party, they tend to stay home and not vote rather than switch to another party. The 2008 election saw a drop of more than 6% in voter turnout from 2006. It was the first time in Canadian history that turnout dipped below 60% of eligible voters. (A number of factors contribute to the overall trend of declining participation in Canada).

When we go to vote (with the exception of advance polls and mail in ballots), we go the polling stations assigned to us by Elections Canada. This is based on a "permanent voters list". The last time the list was updated through enumeration (door to door registration) was almost 20 years ago (the obstacles this creates is an issue for another day).

When the polls close on election day, the ballots are counted at the poll by election officials. Candidates are allowed to have scrutineers to observe the vote count. Once the count is finished, the results are communicated to the riding's Deputy Returning Officer who tracks and tabulates the results for all polls. After all the polls in a riding have reported, the winner is determined and the results sent to Elections Canada which announces the final election results once all the ridings have reported.

Elections Canada makes the poll by poll election data for every riding available to the public. A close examination of this data shows that there are "swing polls" within every riding that go back and forth between different parties from election to election. Why is this important? In swing ridings, (i.e. those without deep loyalty to a particular party) it is the swing voters who determine the outcome of the local election. A targeted campaign, such as Catch 22 Harper Conservatives, can make a big difference by focusing on swing voters and other demographic groups that have the potential to influence election results, (e.g. voters who sat it out in the last election, young people who have come of age, new citizens, tenants who may not be registered and disaffected Conservatives).

In conclusion, in order to have an impact on the next election, we don't need to influence every voter in every riding. By targeting specific ridings, polls and voters and getting our message out early, we greatly increase our likelihood of success.

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