3 min

The limits of strategic voting

The 2008 federal elec-tion was dominated by discussion of strategic voting. This election, not so much.

Those who advocated strategic voting, you’ll recall, encouraged lefties to vote in such a way as to deny Conservatives a majority government.

We’ll never know how many voters cast their ballots that way, but we do know that the Green Party garnered a historic number of votes and the NDP came close to its best showing in that party’s history. That’s probably a clue that strategic voting was not as significant as people thought it might be.

This time out, there has been very little discussion of strategic voting, in part because Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has publicly distanced himself from the idea.

First, let’s clarify something: strategic voting has nothing to do with national polls and everything to do with what’s happening in your riding. It’s about selecting the candidate in your riding who’s most likely to defeat the Conservative. In London, Ontario, that’s a Liberal. In Burnaby, BC, that’s an NDPer. In Beauport, Quebec, that’s the Bloc Québécois.

It doesn’t work in ridings where Conservatives are a shoo-in, nor does it work in ridings where Conservatives don’t have a hope in hell of winning.

More than any other election, this one is being fought riding by riding. Since the Conservatives need to pick up only 12 seats to win a majority, they’re targeting key swing ridings heavily. And indeed, on election night, all eyes will be on a handful of nail-biter races.

At the bottom of an story about the Green Party’s Green Vision (which has the most gay content of any party platform), Donald from Thornhill, Ontario, urges strategic voting.

“Strategic voting has never been more important than in this election. There are only two choices, Harper’s Conservatives or the Liberal or NDP candidate most likely to win in a given constituency. Votes for third parties and also-rans are votes for Harper and more years of deceit, contempt and corruption,” he writes.

George from Chilliwack, BC, replied.

“Strategic voting is stupid. Vote for the candidate or the party that you believe in. The reality is that the only time you throw away a vote is when you vote for a party or candidate that you do not believe in,” he writes.

Ah, democracy at work. Our readers are clever people.

Now remember, strategic voting is local, not national. In Thornhill, where Donald is writing from, the Liberals held the riding until 2008, when Conservative Peter Kent snatched it from the incumbent. Although Kent won by a wide margin — 5,500 votes — it’s easy to see why Donald sees the Greens and NDP as spoilers. After all, they accounted for more than 6,000 votes in Thornhill in 2008.

In Chilliwack, where George was writing from, things look very different. There, Conservatives have had a stranglehold on the riding for a long time. Chuck Strahl, first elected as a Reform MP, has held the riding since 1993. In the last election, he pulled in nearly two thirds of the vote.

If he’s a Green Party supporter, George has good reason to bristle. For one thing, in his riding the Greens got more votes in 2008 than the Liberal candidate. And in a locked-up riding like Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon, voting his conscience is unlikely to affect the outcome.

As a bonus, whomever he votes for gets a $2-a-year per-vote subsidy, so his vote helps his party of choice, even if it doesn’t change the course of the election.

Similarly, in ridings where the Conservatives place third or lower, strategic voting doesn’t make any sense. Many downtown ridings fit this description, including Vancouver East, Toronto Centre, Trinity-Spadina and Ottawa-Centre.

One more caveat: strategic voting makes sense only if you find the alternatives palatable. If you’ve been chanting “Liberal or Tory, same old story,” for years, then strategic voting probably isn’t for you.

Clear as mud, right? The bottom line is that strategic voting is about local races, not federal polling. It doesn’t make sense in every riding in the country, and it doesn’t make sense for every voter. It’s up to you, as a voter, to decide if it fits for you.