British Columbia·Analysis

Strategic voting campaigns pit the heart against the mind

Strategic voters might make a difference in a hotly contested federal election, but experience shows the heart usually beats out the mind at the polls.

Websites want 'progressives' to band together, but history shows that's unlikely

Proponents claim strategic voting could make a big difference in tightly contested ridings, but experts say that may be a pipe dream. (CBC)

It's the political equivalent of the old "if a tree falls in the forest" conundrum: If a Calgarian casts a vote for anyone other than a Conservative, have they actually participated in the democratic process? 

Hisham Abdel-Rahman has his doubts.

Over the years, the information technology engineer has dutifully shown up at the polls and voted for every shade of party other than blue. So far, no luck.

"I didn't vote for a winning MP — ever," he says.

Noble idea or pipe dream?

Like millions of Canadians, Abdel-Rahman says, he voted in the last three elections, went home, and watched a victorious Tory government pledge to work with the party he supported.

And then, he says, it's like he never existed.

Which is why Abdel-Rahman channels his energy into a strategic voting website.

Strategic voting websites are united in one cause: getting rid of Stephen Harper. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

It may never affect the results where he lives, but he's hoping that elsewhere, like-minded voters might band together to defeat Conservatives rather than inadvertently electing them through splitting the opposition vote.

It's a noble idea, if you're not a Conservative — and if you are, it's proof your enemies really are planning a coalition. But political scientists say strategic voting is also a bit of a pipe dream.

"I think that those kinds of estimates are idealistic. If you think that everyone who supports one party will absolutely go to favour another party, then you could see those kinds of big swings," says Laura Stephenson, an associate professor at Western University.

"But there's so many reasons that's not likely to be the case."

Both Abdel-Rahman's Strategic Voting site and Leadnow's Vote Together are united by a single purpose: getting rid of Stephen Harper. 

The logic is simple: they're not trying to change the division of votes so much as rearrange it, so the final seat allocation better reflects the popular vote.

If that sounds like proportional representation, so be it.

"My first concern actually is people going to vote and casting a ballot without making any change," says Abdel-Rahman.

"There's five million people who went out to vote in 2011 and went home without anybody representing them in Ottawa."

Why not start a political party?

Abdel-Rahman says what began as an "intellectual" exercise in 2008 has turned into something much more "emotional" this time around. At least for the half million people who have visited his site.

They're united, they have a common purpose and they're clearly interested in politics. So why not start a political party?

Probably because the strategic voter's commitment to a cause doesn't go much beyond ensuring that anyone other than a Conservative wins a riding. 

And at the polls, that turns out to be a hard sell against even fringe opponents who dedicate time, money and resources to run on platforms including everything from Communism to animal rights.

Not everyone runs to get elected, says Stephenson.

Stephenson says it's that kind of commitment that works against strategic voting.

"I think these parties stand for something because they want to get their issues talked about and heard," she says.

"There's lots of different reasons why political parties may choose to form, and those aren't the same ones as the instrumental 'I want to influence the outcome of the election.'"

Stephenson and her colleagues studied the 2014 Toronto mayoral election, which was predicted to be huge for strategic voters hoping to unite the opposition to scandal-plagued former mayor Rob Ford (who had his brother Doug step in for him during his illness).

But in reality, a post-election survey found that only 2.9 per cent of votes cast were strategic.

"It does get talked about an awful lot, but does that mean it's going to make a difference?" Stephenson asks.

Vote available, any takers?

Then there's the issue of co-ordination.

Shannon Staples is ready to vote Liberal, not because she believes in the party, but because she thinks the candidate in her B.C. riding has a chance of defeating popular former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts, who is running for the Tories.

All she's asking in return is that someone, somewhere else, cast a vote for the Greens, whom she actually supports.

She made her plea through Vote Swap Canada. But no takers so far.

"Ultimately, my goal is to get the Conservatives out, so regardless if I'm able to swap, I'm still going to vote for the best competing party," she says.

So not much of a sales job for the swap.

But it looks like Staples will end up strategically voting for the candidate recommended by Abdel-Rahman's site.

That is kind of a victory for him — it may be the only one the non-Conservative voter enjoys in his Calgary riding on election day.

About the Author

Jason Proctor


Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.


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