The efficient vote to #HeaveSteve

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With less than five months to the next federal election (October 19 is the election date fixed by law), polling by EKOS Research confirms a tight three-way race is underway.

Current EOKS projections show the Conservatives losing their majority in the House of Commons, but winning the most seats.

There are enough Canadian voters who want to "heave Steve" to ensure a Conservative defeat … except that the Canadian electoral system makes votes for winning candidates efficient votes, and consigns votes for losing parties to the dustbin.

Barely more than one-third support (37 per cent) at the polls can re-elect the Harper government, and even give it over 50 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons.

In the first-past-the-post system, as in Canada, when voters want to reject a government, they make an efficient vote by turning to the party the best placed to defeat it, explained the late French political scientist Maurice Duverger.

The Duverger idea of the efficient vote has proven solid enough to be called Duverger's law. New Democrats have experienced its effects often enough to get apoplectic when "strategic voting" proponents emerge at election time.

In 1993, Canadians who wanted to dump all memory of Brian Mulroney designated the Chrétien Liberals as the vehicle for change, and left the Conservatives two seats. Voters bypassed the NDP and went to the Liberals -- better placed to defeat Conservatives -- and the NDP failed to win enough seats to maintain party status.

Who is best placed to defeat the Conservative government on October 19, 2015? The NDP are closest to power. With 96 sitting members, compared to 34 Liberals, New Democrats go into the election with an incumbency advantage the party has never experienced in its 54-year history in federal politics.

Duverger's law now favours the NDP (a surprise to long-time party supporters). But voters still have to believe that a vote for the NDP will be an efficient vote, one that will defeat Conservatives.

For the NDP to be elected, and its leader Tom Mulcair to become prime minister, it matters that anti-Conservative-government voters decide votes for other parties are wasted votes.

A vote for a party with no chance to form government is obviously a wasted vote for those who want to see Harper defeated. That goes for the Bloc in Quebec, and for the Green Party nationally, as well as for the various fringe parties that field candidates.

When enough people want to defeat a government, votes get concentrated. A strong performance by the Greens on election night would be good news for the Conservatives, as wasted votes piled up.

Team Trudeau have been busy courting unhappy centre-right voters. The Liberal strategy has been to offer Conservative voters tax cuts and spending prudence, counting on traditional Liberal voters to vote for their charismatic leader.

But citizens who reject the Harper economic package and are aghast at its anti-democratic practices, have found little to encourage them to vote Liberal.

Abandoning the historical policy of running to the left (and then governing from the right) may prove costly for the Liberals. Progressives increasingly see that if they want to replace the Conservatives with a centre-left party, they need to vote New Democrat.

Both the NDP and the Conservatives have been working to undermine Justin Trudeau. A successful anti-Liberal campaign by the Conservatives turns voters towards the NDP. However, continued attacks by Mulcair on Trudeau build him up as a serious rival.

Elections work themselves out across Canada on a riding-to-riding basis. The greatest advantages accrue to parties that can concentrate their vote regionally.

Across Canada, thanks to its support in Quebec, the NDP are a strong second in seats, and a nose ahead of the Conservatives in popular vote.

Polling by Quebec-based CROP has the NDP at 42 per cent in that province, well ahead of the second place Liberals at 25 per cent.

Sitting third, the Liberals are disappointingly down from their best numbers. After Justin Trudeau took over the leadership from Bob Rae, the Liberals led the other two parties in popular support. It's no consolation that the party is poised to do better than in 2011, its worst performance in modern times.

At the moment the Liberals dominate in the Maritimes but nowhere else.

In 2015, Conservatives count on strong participation from Conservative voters, and low voter turnout overall, to hold on to power. To this end, they have crafted an electoral law that makes it more difficult for people to vote, and are avoiding putting Steve into big national televised leaders' debates. 

With no more than one potential voter in three in its base of support, the Conservatives need as many voters as possible to stay at home on election day.

The Council of Canadians is addressing the low voter turnout issue with its Go Vote campaign. The Canadian Labour Congress and its affiliated unions have a national voter recruitment tour underway.

The challenge for the NDP is to be more than the party that least resembles the Conservative. Supporters need to see a genuine alternative, not a party doing its best imitation of the Liberals, and waiting for the Conservatives to defeat themselves.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Andrew Bates/flickr

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