It’s exactly the alliance right-wingers crow about. So-called special interest groups: environmentalists, unions, artists, Newfies, women’s groups, and gays. Their rallying point appears to be the same — in the words of Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams: “anything but Conservative” — and it could influence the outcome of the Oct 14 election.
Strategic voting has existed for decades in Canada, but the internet is empowering an ever-growing group of disgruntled voters who could make an impact never before seen in Canadian politics.
Toronto activist and sometime drag king Flare Smyth is one of those people.
“I feel Harper brings his own personal religion and desires into government,” Smyth writes in an email to Xtra. “He and his party members have spoken negatively about gays, immigrants, and people of colour. This reflects in government policies and therefore affects us.”
Smyth is running her campaign, an event called Harper This, on Facebook. She suggests that strategic voters should back the second-strongest centre-left candidate in ridings where the Tories are vulnerable, and even encouraged Conservative voters to consider another party.
All strategic voting is local, so most groups suggest which candidate has the best shot to beat Conservatives riding-by-riding and encourage voters to back that candidate.
The most popular and sophisticated of these appears to be Vote for Environment, which predicts riding-by-riding which candidate is the most competitive alternative to the Conservatives. Their website, voteforenvironment.ca, boasted 65,000 unique visitors in its first five days.
The barometer of success depends on the group. Vote for Environment spokesperson Alice Klein hopes her site will make a tangible difference.
“It’s not a shoe-in, but the ability — the effect — of moving a small amount of votes is actually quite large in terms of affecting the outcome of this election,” she says.
Nelson Wiseman, a professor in political science at the University of Toronto, says that at the end of the election, it is hard to determine the popularity of strategic voting.
However, interest groups or unions who encourage strategic voting can have an impact on the final tally, says Wiseman. And that’s where the women’s movement, environmentalists, the artistic community, and queers could be Canada’s best line of defence against a Harper majority.
“Those groups do have some impact because they have organizational muscle,” he says.
André Blais has likely studied strategic voting more than any other Canadian academic. He is the Canada Research Chair in Electoral Studies and a Université de Montréal professor.
Blais has long studied the frequency of strategic voting in Canadian elections, and he has looked closely at the 1988 election — the campaign famous for its reputation as an informal referendum on free trade.
He found that about six percent of voters cast strategic ballots in that election, despite a movement — perceived to be strong — opposed to former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s free trade deal with the US. Blais now says he might have underestimated strategic voter strength in that election by a slim margin.
He was sceptical that this year will be any different than past elections. Despite the strength of the Internet campaigns to unseat Harper’s Conservatives, Blais suggests that it might be all talk.
“In 1988, there was a lot of talk about strategic voting — probably about as much as this time,” he says. “The fact that there are all these things going on might mean people think a bit more strategically — possibly. I’m not convinced.”
Blais also found that strategic voters accounted for about three percent of total voters in the 1997 election.
But Blais’ estimates do not discourage Klein, who says that six percent or even three percent of voters could make the difference between a Conservative and Liberal government.
“Six percent is a very high number depending on how it is concentrated. Those kinds of numbers concentrated in appropriate ridings would make huge differences,” she says.
The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), the largest private-sector union in Canada, encouraged its members to vote strategically to foil Harper’s chances at winning in 2006, and they are running the same campaign this time around.
David Robertson, the organization’s director of work organization and training, says it will work to re-elect all NDP incumbents — there are 30 across Canada — and candidates who are CAW members. Robertson also counted 49 ridings where the Tories won by five percent or less and where the second-place party is perceived to have a legitimate shot at unseating the incumbent.
“If you take a look at the election results of the last two elections, you’ve got an actual group of voters that can be characterized as strategic voters,” he says.
“They wait until the last days of the election campaign to make up their mind. They vote on the basis of trying to stop something from happening rather than trying to make something happen.”
Gerry Kirk is the creator of VotePair, based in Sault Ste Marie. He says that these groups are all grassroots initiatives with limited resources.
“We’re not big organizations pushing this thing with a huge campaign,” he says. “We’re doing this out of our bedrooms, putting in two or three hours a day trying to make it happen and make a lot of noise.”
“This is the kind of thing that the Internet was really made to do,” says Mark Kuznicki, the administrator of anyonebutharper.ca.
“On some level, it’s an experiment, but really what I think a lot of people are scared by is that we’ve got a fractured centre-left and a united right.”