Toronto election raises prospect of strategic voting

The topic of strategic voting has been creeping into discussions about the mayoral race taking place in Toronto. Political scientists are divided on how much of a role it could play on Election Day.

Experts divided on role strategic voting might play at ballot box this month

Olivia Chow, Doug Ford and John Tory remain the top three polling candidates in Toronto's mayoral race, shortly ahead of the election. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

When Olivia Chow jumped into the mayoral race this past March, she was perceived as a major contender, with many election wins under her belt and a long history in Toronto politics.

Yet days before the election, she appears to sit behind Doug Ford and John Tory in the polls and has been facing questions about her plan of attack.

Some of those questions have been about how strategic voting could affect her bid to replace Mayor Rob Ford at city hall.

Olivia Chow entered Toronto's mayoral race in March as a front-runner. In recent weeks, she has slipped behind both Doug Ford and John Tory in the polls. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

On the campaign trail, Chow has been painting her two key rivals as being one and the same, while presenting herself as the clear alternative at the polls.

"We don't want another four years of empty promises [and] false hopes," Chow said Monday, as part of an answer to a question as to whether she believes Torontonians will be voting in terms of policy, or treating the election as a referendum on the Fords.

CBC Toronto to host candidates debate tonight

Join us at the CBC Broadcast Centre Thursday evening as CBC Toronto hosts a town hall debate featuring the top three candidates in the Toronto mayoral race. Metro Morning host Matt Galloway will moderate the debate, which starts at 7:30 p.m. Doors open at 6:30 and seating is on a first-come, first-seated basis. If you can't make it downtown, you can also watch the live stream at or listen on CBC Radio One, 99.1FM, starting at 7:30 p.m. Click here for more details.

Jonathan Rose, an associate professor in the department of political studies at Queen's University, said that there are opportunities for strategic voting in every political system.

And in Toronto right now, Rose said, it appears that an "anyone but Ford movement" has emerged, bringing strategic voting into play.

Strategic voting could be a factor in the Toronto mayoral election, should voters make it a priority to keep Doug Ford out of office. (Jamie Strashin/CBC)

"The ballot question obviously is that of judgment and fiscal probity. My sense of the race is that whoever wins, Torontonians don't want another circus-like council," Rose said in an email to CBC News.

Laura Stephenson, an associate professor in the department of political science at Western University, said it is possible that the switch in mayoral candidates from Rob Ford to Doug Ford may have lessened the number of voters simply marking their ballot on the basis of an anti-Ford vote.

However, Barry Kay, an associate professor in the political science department at Wilfrid Laurier University, believes the people supporting Chow or Tory likely favour seeing one or the other take the top job at city hall over Ford.

"As a result, there appears to be a trend toward strategic voting, which at one time seemed to favour Chow, but polls clearly indicate now is heading toward Tory," Kay said, in an unpublished article about the Toronto election that he shared with CBC News.

But not every political science expert watching the Toronto race is convinced this is the case, or even significant.

John Tory, seen standing with his wife, Barbara Hackett, before a debate in Toronto last month, joined the mayoral race just a few days after Olivia Chow did. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

"I don't think a lot of strategic voting is going to happen at the local level," said Livianna Tossutti, an associate professor in Brock University's department of political science, in a telephone interview.

Tossutti lists several reasons, including the fact that prior studies — most of which have concerned federal politics — have shown a relatively small percentage of voters participating in strategic voting.

Research has also shown New Democrat supporters have been shown to be loyal to their candidates. Given Chow's association with the party, this may make some of her supporters less likely to desert her.

If the race were to get closer than it is, Tossutti believes that would increase the likelihood of strategic voting taking place.

Staying distinct, keeping hope alive

If Chow is indeed facing a possible threat from strategic voting, there are tactics she can use to dissuade supporters from straying.

For Stephenson, two strategies come to mind for defending against strategic voting.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, seen in Etobicoke earlier this week, initially had sought re-election. But he withdrew from his mayoral campaign after doctors discovered a cancerous tumour in his abdomen last month. (Jamie Strashin/CBC)

One is for a candidate to stand out from his or her opponents, so that strategic voting is less appealing.

A second strategy is to keep hope alive.

One recent example would be how Jack Layton talked about being the country’s next prime minister during the last federal election, Stephenson said.

Sure enough, Layton came close to his goal — becoming the leader of the Opposition and taking his party to the next level.

"You're not going to switch your vote if you think your candidate has a chance of winning," she said.

Furthermore, Stephenson said that voters are unlikely to pursue strategic voting if they believe their preferred candidate is doing better than they actually are. Highly dedicated supporters of a candidate are also unlikely to pursue that option.

Tossutti and Rose both said another possible defence can involve appealing for voters to consider the very nature of elections.

Rose said this can involve emphasizing "that a vote for the second best candidate is insincere voting which means that your preferences are not accurately reflected in your vote."