Strategic voting misreads parliamentary democracy

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Photo: flickr/ mtsrs

Canadians elect a parliament, not a government.

That, at least, is the way our Westminster-style democracy is supposed to work.

Each riding selects its Member of Parliament (MP), using the admittedly flawed and unfair first-past-the-post system.

Those MPs go to Ottawa, where they express their "confidence" in prime ministers -- and, as a rule, the parties they lead. To stay in power, a prime minister (PM) must retain the confidence of parliament.

That does not mean PMs must win every vote. Not all are confidence votes; but a good many are, notably votes on any measures that entail raising, borrowing or spending money.

U.S. has no confidence vote

The Americans do the same thing as we do, in part.

They elect a House of Representatives -- every two years, in fact -- which is quite similar to our House of Commons.

They also elect Senators -- two per state, regardless of population -- who serve staggered terms of six years.

The Americans' chief executive, the president, is separately elected, unlike Canadians' prime minister who is, almost always, merely another MP, elected in his own riding.  

There is no such thing as a confidence vote in the U.S. system.

When the House of Representatives or Senate vote down measures presidents propose, they remain president.

And, by the way, that president is not directly elected, as is, say, the French president.

The U.S. president is chosen by an arcane Electoral College system, in which each state gets a fixed number of "electoral votes" equivalent to its combined number of Senators and House members.

California, the most populous state by far, has 53 House members and thus 55 electoral votes.

A number of states with small populations, such as Vermont and Alaska, only have one House member, and thus get three electoral votes each.

Almost all states have a winner-take-all, first-past-the-post system for awarding their electoral votes.

That means the candidate with the most votes, even if it is far less than half, gets 100 per cent of the electoral votes.

The only purpose of the Electoral College is to select the president. It is not a legislative body, and has no other role.

Parliament is not an Electoral College

Because our systems are superficially similar some Canadians could be forgiven for confusing them.

Some seem to believe that our parliament is a sort of Electoral College, whose only purpose is to select a chief executive -- a prime minister.

Stephen Harper should know better, but seems to labour under that illusion.

In 2008, when his Conservative Party won a plurality of seats, but not a majority, with well more than half the seats going to the three opposition parties, Harper described himself as the "winner" of the election.

When two of the opposition parties proposed to form a coalition, supported by the third, Harper said the "losers" were trying to take over.

That was nonsense.

What happened was that well more than half the newly elected MPs had expressed their willingness to vote confidence in a leader other than the leader of the party with the largest number of seats.

That would be a perfectly constitutional and democratic procedure.

Harper saved his skin, then, by bullying Governor General Michaëlle Jean into accepting an unprecedented request to prorogue parliament after it had met for only a few days following the election.

Now, an election later, and on the eve of yet another one, Harper's false idea of how our parliamentary democracy works seems to have taken hold.

Even his staunchest critics seem to accept the idea that if the Conservatives lose their majority and scrape by with only the thinnest of pluralities in October they will have won the election.

That is what seems to motivate a good part of the very intensely committed strategic voting movement.

Many of them took to rabble's comments section to denounce this writer's suggestion that working to get folks to cast their votes "strategically" was, in essence, a colossal waste of time and effort. 

The following comment is typical:

"Have you calculated what will happen if both the NDP and the Liberals fall below, say, 32 per cent in the polls at the time of the election? This would likely put Harper in office again by the slimmest of margins -- because he would split the vote and move up the middle."

The point is that if Harper "wins" by only the "slimmest of margins"-- i.e. far from a majority -- he will get the chance, as the sitting PM, to meet parliament and seek its confidence. But he would not automatically get to remain in power.

Parliament could easily vote down Harper the first chance it gets, and then other parties could go to the governor general and propose either a coalition or plan for legislative cooperation, and form a new government.

Such an option would be preferable to a new election, which would be costly and might produce exactly the same result.

It is legitimate to fear another Harper majority, of course -- which is certainly possible.

But the best way of countering that would not be through an arcane process of encouraging "progressives" to vote "strategically."

As we wrote in this space the other day, the best way to stop another Conservative majority would be to boost voter participation.

Liberal Party is the only one to have repeatedly pushed voting 'strategically'

Many strategic voting proponents say they are not encouraging all who wish to defeat Harper to vote Liberal.

They want Canadians to vote for the non-Conservative most likely to win in their ridings -- assuming there was a reliable way to figure out who that was.

However, the only party that has habitually and repeatedly used the strategic voting argument is the Liberal Party.

Until very recently getting the anti-Harper vote behind the celebrity candidate Justin Trudeau -- based on the argument that only he could defeat the Conservatives -- was pretty much the Liberals' main campaign strategy.

One well-connected Liberal told this writer, months ago, that the party's pollsters assured Liberal headquarters that even recalcitrant francophone Quebeckers would eventually fall into line, once they saw that, for the rest of Canada, Trudeau's Liberals were the only way of kicking out Harper.

Now the Liberals have to go back to the drawing board, and they're getting a lot of advice from pundits.

CBC's The National devoted a whole At Issue panel to what to do about Trudeau's current dilemma.

They could not agree on anything, except on the fact that current polls only describe what is going on now, they do not predict the election in October.

Chantal Hébert pointed out that at this stage in 1993 Progressive Conservative Kim Campbell was leading in the polls. She went on to win two seats in that fall's election.

All three panelists did miss one important reason for Trudeau's dip in popularity: voting in favour of Bill C-51.

The mainstream media may not like Harper's so-called anti-terror legislation, but they can't seem to believe that opposition to it is motivating many voters.

Campaign workers who make calls on behalf of Liberal candidates are, however, getting lots of push back on C-51.

Liberal voters or potential voters do not seem to like the party's confused and almost hypocritical position one bit.

They are also turned off by Trudeau's pushing the candidacies of former Conservative Eve Adams and former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, and, of course, by the Liberal leader's too frequent verbal pratfalls.

And so, while this writer is sensitive to the sincerity, and even anguish, of those who want to do something to assure that Harper gets the boot in October, he cannot see a costly, massive national effort to encourage strategic voting as worth the candle.

Individual voters will, of course, make their own choices based on a great number of factors, one of which is how they think their neighbours will vote.

Good for them.

However, those who want to work, in an organized way, to unseat Harper next time can find much better outlets for their energies. 


Photo: flickr/ mtsrs

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