OPINION | Five things to think about before you vote

“Tonight’s leadership debate will be critically important in cementing a voter’s impression of those auditioning to be premier.” Former MP and MLA Brent Rathgeber on things to think about before you vote.

Deciding how to vote is much more art than science

The key to victory for parties in the Alberta election will be how well organizers can get their likely supporters to the polling stations, a strategist says. (David Ramos/Getty Images)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one opinion. Under the heading Opinion, we are carrying a range of different points of view on the issues facing Albertans during the current election. You can find them on our Alberta Votes 2019 page.

The Alberta election has passed its halfway point, the major parties have released their policy platforms, and later today the leaders will engage each other in a debate.

At the same time, and more significantly for many, the lawn signs decorating major thoroughfares have notified the casual observer of Alberta politics that an election is indeed underway. Many voters are now becoming engaged.

I would like to examine what every voter should contemplate before deciding who to support on April 16.

Five questions

Let's start with five questions voters should ask themselves before they vote.

1. What issue or issues are the most important to me? The economy, health care, education or the environment? Or is my ballot box question something different such as infrastructure? The justice system? Agriculture? Or support for the arts?

2.  How do, or could, I weigh my issues and the party platforms against issues surrounding ethics and integrity? How important is it to me that I be comfortable with the party leader (in addition to, or as opposed to, party platforms)?

3. How much significance (if any) do I put on the qualifications of my local candidates versus allegiance to party or leader?

4. Would I, after serious contemplation and based on my own values and conscious, consider voting for a party unlikely to win the election or a fringe party unlikely to win even a single seat? Or would that be considered a principled but wasted vote?

5. Where do I gather the information I need to discern how I will vote? And have I gathered sufficient information?

Each voter will answer the questions differently and rank priorities separately. Once voters have determined their priorities, they will be better equipped to determine how the various platforms and leadership aspirants correspond to those priorities.

There are no right answers.

Deciding how to vote is much more art than science, so let's look a bit deeper.

What issues are important to me?

Every voter will place different weight on different issues and will have different priorities.

The economy and job creation will be top of mind for many. For others, it will be the state of the province's finances and the deficit. Older voters might be concerned about health care, voters with young children about the state of public education. Millennial voters are increasingly concerned about the environment.

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Other voters will place emphasis on an issue or topic specific to them; if they were a victim of crime, they might be concerned about the justice system. If they are an artist, support for their craft might be top of mind.

Research is the key to finding out where the parties stand on matters of importance.

The challenge is when the voter is concerned with multiple issues where different parties offer reasonable solutions to each of them. The voter must prioritize.

How important is leadership?

As most Albertans do not belong to any political party, many will determine their vote based on their assessment of the various leaders.  

It is mentally easier to ask oneself which leader do I trust to tackle my specific issue or issues, than to develop a complicated matrix comparing various policy platforms.

Tonight's leadership debate will be critically important in cementing a voter's impression of those auditioning to be premier.

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Candidates will be judged on the quality of their statements and answers, their poise, style, perceived ethics and integrity and their confidence. Again, most viewers will not carry a score card. Their analysis is much less objective. Who do I like? Who do I trust? Who do I think would make the best occupant of the premier's office?

It is often more of a feeling or an impression than a scientific evaluation.  

But always keep in mind who you are electing; you are not electing a premier. You are electing a local representative to represent you, whose leader you probably favour to become premier.  

Leaders dominate our politics at all levels. Your impression of the leaders will likely dominate your voting calculation.

Local candidates? 

Most voters will tend to make a decision based on some combination of the party and the leader.

Many will not support a candidate whose party or leader they do not support. Even a so-called superstar candidate will do poorly in the absence of a popular party brand to run under. Independent candidates seldom win.

The exception is if the voter has a personal connection to a local candidate — work related, social or familial. A popular local candidate can make the difference in a close contest.

Undoubtedly, it is more difficult to learn about your local candidate than it is to get information about the parties and their leaders. But learning at least something about a local candidate will assist you in determining your vote.

Attend a local candidates' forum or engage the candidate when door-knocking.

Strategic voting?

Strategic voting is becoming increasingly popular — where a voter will cast a ballot not for the voter's first choice but for a party that is seen to be competitive.

Only one candidate will be elected, and for many people voting for a fringe candidate is seen as wasting their franchise. They are frequently correct, as in the first-past-the-post system, it is really only the votes for the top two candidates that determine the outcome.

However, many voters will not appreciate that the candidate or party of their choosing is not competitive in a particular riding. To that voter, they are simply voting for their chosen candidate without any reference to polls or strategic manoeuvring.

There is value in understanding that the path to power is sometimes an indirect one. We are choosing who will govern us.

Who we don't want is as relevant as who we do want.

There is an abundance of candidate and party information available — pamphlets, advertisements, websites. The trick is to discern the credible from the not so credible.  

Social media is rapid and current but not always accurate. The mainstream media's electoral coverage is probably the most objective and unbiased.

Only the voter knows when she has gathered sufficient information to make an informed choice. However, we should always question our sources: is it accurate? Is it unbiased?

Considering alternate viewpoints is critical in obtaining a broad perspective and will result in a more informed choice.

Before the vote

These are critically important questions, but there are no right or wrong answers. There are as many answers and outcomes as there are voters. Choose yours.

Gather sufficient information on the issue or issues most important to you, to assess which leader of which party you most trust to tackle those issues. If you are on the fence, consider the strengths and weaknesses of the respective local candidates. If you are uncomfortable with the so-called contenders, consider making a principled vote for a less competitive party or candidate, or strategically vote for a party in contention to prevent another party from succeeding.

Voting is a profound act of citizenship and should be rooted in personal contemplation on the part of the individual. It is critical to democracy. You only get one vote; make it count.

About the Author

Brent Rathgeber QC served as a Progressive Conservative member of the Alberta legislature, representing Edmonton-Calder from 2001 to 2004. He represented Edmonton-St. Albert in the House of Commons as a Conservative from 2008-2013, before resigning from caucus to sit as an Independent until 2015.