10/16/2015 12:03 EDT | Updated 10/16/2016 05:12 EDT

The Sham of 'Strategic' Voting

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Person voting

In the final days of the campaign, depending on your riding, you will likely be told by one party or another that the only way to defeat Stephen Harper is to sacrifice your principles and vote "strategically." This is a sham.

Getting informed takes more work than simply looking at the latest poll. To put it bluntly, if someone does not see much difference between NDP, Liberal, Bloc and Green policies they have not yet done their civic duty. Read through the platforms and note the billions of public dollars that will be spent in dramatically different ways, the manner in which those promises will be funded and the starkly dissimilar approaches to democratic reform, climate change, civil liberties and foreign policy that these supposedly interchangeable parties advocate.

Strategic voting deliberately obscures these substantial differences. It leads to an obsession in the media and the electorate over polls rather than policies, which in turn narrows the scope of public debate and muddies whatever mandate emerges from the election. Strategic voting is based on the flawed premise that one's individual vote is more important statistically than it is as an act of principle. That if you only switch your vote the outcome of the election might change. In 2011 precisely zero ridings were close enough for that logic to be true.

Leadnow has attempted to overcome this individual dilemma through pledges to "vote together." This untested approach places tracking polls at the pinnacle of our democratic system, promising to replace the messy process of evaluating the integrity of candidates and the merits of their platforms with the superficially neutral supremacy of statistics.

However, Leadnow's supporters are no more firmly bound to its cause than supporters of other political movements. Each will ultimately make an individual choice by secret ballot, if they vote at all. Moreover, polls can change dramatically and rapidly, even between the time of an endorsement and election day. A wrong call in a single riding would deal a serious blow to the credibility of this approach, while wide margins of victory would suggest that Leadnow merely identified the candidate who would have won regardless.

The larger problem with masses of strategic voters is that they distort the very polls that they rely upon, causing a bandwagon effect in which initial perceptions become self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, the voting intention of a strategic voter responding to a poll in September would be influenced by the outcomes that poll respondents deemed to be possible in August, and in turn would influence the perceived realm of possibilities for voters in October. In short, to the extent that strategic voters exist and are accurately surveyed in polls, policy gives way to perception.

The temptation to vote strategically is the product of a deeply flawed electoral system that encourages vote splitting, perpetuates "safe" ridings and allows a single party to hold all of the power with the support of a minority of the popular vote. Many hope to bypass these structural flaws by rallying behind a simplistic platform: Anyone But Harper. This is an appealing message to most voters, but a mandate to simply not be Stephen Harper will leave the next Parliament with no clear direction or purpose.

Surely the public still has the capacity to rally behind a more complex plan. For those who struggle with the dilemma of vote splitting, the truly strategic vote must be for a candidate with a firm commitment to permanently fix the structural flaws in our electoral system.

According to Fair Vote Canada and the 10 Canadian commissions that have addressed the subject, the best fix is proportional representation, under which a broader range of perspectives would be represented in Parliament in approximate proportion to their national support. The NDP and Green Party have committed to this approach, albeit with some potentially significant differences. The Liberals have committed to some sort of change but are internally divided on the specifics and have only agreed to study proportional representation as one of many possible approaches. The Bloc likewise has no firm position on the issue.

Ultimately if Canadians empower themselves with equal and effective votes they are more likely to get the policies they support and the cooperative approach to governance that they deserve. This is undoubtedly an important election, but so too will be the next election and the one after that. It is not enough to have anyone but Harper if the system remains broken.


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