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What Elections Are REALLY About, Mr. Goldenberg

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Adam Goldenberg has an opinion on strategic campaigning and he is off base in so many ways. Green party leader Elizabeth May has suggested that her party and the NDP refrain from running candidates in the Etobicoke Centre by-election.

But Goldenberg says:

Elections are not primarily about picking winners and losers. The process matters more than the outcome. All of us have the right to vote for any candidate, and to have that vote counted. If there is a by-election in Etobicoke Centre, then every voter in that riding deserves the same full and fair choice, no matter how they cast their ballot.

Actually, elections are about the choosing representatives to govern in our stead. They are about policy and the future of the country. They are about Canada's place in the world, how to prepare our children for the future, how to maintain the richness and beauty and wealth of our nation for them as well as ourselves.

Elections are about choosing the people you trust to spend your tax dollars in a responsible manner and who agree with you about what the outcome of that spending is supposed to be.  So elections are exactly and primarily about who wins and who loses. It is only a side benefit that we also see how many votes all the non-winners get.

In that sense it is simply a much more accurate poll, like a census, that politicians, pundits and citizens can use to see which way the political winds are blowing. But make no mistake, the point of the election is to choose a government and that means choosing who goes to parliament. Our current system does that by picking winners and losers in the simplest and most unfair way possible, allowing the "winner" to have far fewer voters, even just half as many votes, than the combined votes for all the "losers."

May is not suggesting that the courts should consider this in their decision. Nor is she suggesting that elections Canada should consider this. She isn't even suggesting that all by-elections should be run as paired runoffs between the top two candidates.

May is suggesting the parties should make the strategic choice to not run in order to raise the probability of her desired outcome. That is simply playing within the rules of the current, incredibly flawed system. That is the only game that can be played until the system itself is improved, something May's party has committed to doing.

Goldenberg was a speech writer for former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, which is not surprising since Iggy was perennially unable to think outside the old assumptions of our democracy and what voting means.  The Liberal party has always been opposed to broad electoral reform and I really don't understand why. It could really benefit right now.

There seems to be an idea that voting with your heart is the only honest thing to do. Personally, I don't care which name is under the X I mark on that piece of paper. All I care about is who represents me in Ottawa. As a voter I know who I would want to represent me and I know who I'd like as a backup. I also know who I would certaintly not want to represent me in Ottawa. Since our current voting system does not allow me to express those preferences I need to use the hand I'm dealt with.

I need to guess how others are going to vote and mark an X under the candidate that gives me the greatest chance of getting the best outcome. This is called strategic voting and it is the only kind of voting that makes any logical sense in our system. It sucks, it's horrible, but it's all we can do right now.  May realizes people are voting strategically and is trying in her own way to make the decision easier for voters by removing the options which can have no impact on the final outcome. It's a touch decision and it's not foolproof since it involves a lot guesswork but it's better than the alternative.

Goldenberg again:

Other democracies have adopted various forms of proportional representation to enhance the electoral impact of votes for losing candidates. Canada has not yet done so. But even if, in a first-past-the-post election, votes for non-contenders have little impact on the outcome, they are not without value-and just because they do not contribute directly to the margin of victory does not mean that they should not be cast or counted.

Actually vote's for non-contenders have no impact on the outcome! That's why they're called non-contenders. The problem is we don't actually know for sure who the non-contenders are until everyone votes. This is why now is suggesting these votes shouldn't be cast or counted if there are candidates running. They are saying that the outcome is much, much more important than the vote itself.

So, when you have a situation where the possible outcomes are well known it is perfectly reasonable to consider if  some of the choices should be removed. The author argues that the benefit of a very accurate poll coming out of the election is worth suffering through a government you hate for four years.  I'm sorry but all the charities that are losing their funding would disagree. So would a large part of the 60 per cent of the country that did not vote for the Conservative party last election.

Now to be clear, I don't know if May's proposal is the right choice in every riding. People need to look at the polls and find out if the NDP have a shot in Etobicoke Centre in the new post Orange Wave world, but I gather they still don't. I also wouldn't say that strategic campaigning should be done for all by- elections as a rule. Each case should be looked at on it's own details. But we need to stop demonizing people who dare to speak the truth that strategic voting is a necessary evil in our flawed system; that there is no way to fix the system with passing through a period of strategic voting and perhaps even strategic campaigning as May is suggesting.