The problem with strategic voting

Election analysis: Political scientist Michael Byers sets out the argument against strategic voting.

I live on Salt Spring Island, B.C., which is ground zero these days for strategic voting in Canada.

Indeed, I sometimes think that I'm the only person on this island who is not voting strategically.

These southern Gulf Islands account for just 20 per cent of the riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, which has been represented by conservative-minded MPs since the Reform Party defeated the NDP here in 1993.

It's a situation that rankles my mostly progressive neighbours: the artists, musicians, authors, draft dodgers, organic farmers and well-educated retirees who call these islands home.

Michael Byers teaches political science at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Intent for a Nation and, most recently, Who Owns the Arctic? He ran as a New Democrat in the 2008 federal election.

As people in small communities often do, many of them have decided to act collectively.

In the 2008 election, that led to the Liberal candidate Briony Penn, a local environmentalist, coming within 3,000 votes of defeating Conservative incumbent Gary Lunn — after the NDP candidate withdrew.

Penn is not running this time, opening the door for Green Party Leader Elizabeth May who relocated all the way from Nova Scotia to take advantage of the strategic voting climate here.

Today, the southern Gulf Islands are covered with Green Party signs, though the same cannot be said of the more populous and conservative sections on Vancouver Island that are sometimes referred to as "Calgary by the sea."

Us versus them

I respect my neighbours' choices. But while I oppose Stephen Harper, too, I believe that strategic voting weakens rather than strengthens our democracy.

Strategic voting promotes an us-versus-them attitude in which people are seen as either firmly Conservative, or firmly not.

But I know there are many small-c conservatives who are uncomfortable with Stephen Harper and the record of his government.

It's wrong to assume that they cannot be persuaded to vote for another candidate or party. And it's wrong to try to back them into a corner by making the dividing lines so stark.

A surprising number of Canadians are open to changing their voting preferences from election to election, depending on local candidates, national leaders, changed social, economic or environmental circumstances, and new — or newly discredited — policies.

Personally, I've voted for Progressive Conservative, Liberal and NDP candidates in the past. (And, yes, I once ran for the NDP.) 

This time, I might just vote for Elizabeth May, though I would do so non-strategically.

Candidates matter

I say that because my other problem with strategic voting is that it implies that local candidates don't matter. I think they should.

Elizabeth May at a Green Party rally in Vancouver in April 2011. (Darryl Dick/Canadian Press)

If we want good people to seek public office then we have to treat them with respect and that respect includes not discounting them peremptorily on the basis of their party.

If you're thinking of voting strategically, make sure that you meet all your local candidates first. And read their party platforms, too.

Environmentally motivated voters might be surprised, for example by the sharply contrasting positions of the Liberals and NDP on the Alberta oil sands. (Michael Ignatieff thinks they are essential to the Canadian economy.)

Voters concerned about social justice might be surprised by the Green Party's support of income-splitting, which many regard as a regressive approach to taxation.

The strategic voting movement further stifles democracy by reducing the number of ridings considered "in play."

In ridings not identified by strategic voting websites, citizens desiring change are left feeling helpless. As a result, they don't bother to vote.

The reality, though, is that in most ridings, non-voters could make a huge difference. In 2008, for example, the number of non-voters in the country exceeded the number of people who voted for the Conservatives.

Winning at all costs

Ultimately, the rise of strategic voting might even be said to be shaping the choices made by national campaigns.

In this election, the Liberals, in my view, decided not to compete for the centre of the political spectrum, choosing instead to focus on persuading NDP and Green supporters to vote strategically.

This may be counterproductive: Every time Michael Ignatieff asserts that he's the only one who can stop Stephen Harper, he risks alienating the millions of moderately conservative Canadians who neither love nor hate the prime minister and his policies.

Worse, still, strategic voting websites are often wrong.

In 2008, a number of strategic voting sites recommended the Liberal candidate in the Nova Scotia riding of South Shore-St. Margaret's. The Liberal ended up third, while the NDP candidate almost defeated the Conservative incumbent.

Because strategic voting websites don't have big budgets, they either lack local polling results or rely on numbers released selectively by the parties.

Most of the websites use seat projections, taking data from a variety of national and provincial polling sources and putting it through mathematical formulae to produce what are, at best, informed guesses.

As pollster Nik Nanos told the QMI news agency: "It's a very tough business to be in. A poll is a facsimile of opinion at a certain point in time. A seating projection is like a photo copy of a photo copy of a photo copy."

Nor are the strategic voting websites necessarily run by people with experience or expertise. One prominent site is run by a graduate student; another by the editor of Toronto's alternative NOW Magazine.

In the end, strategic voting can turn what should be an affirmative, definitive action into a negative exercise in guesswork, which in turn perpetuates a general decline in civility.

As Alice Funke explains in www.punditsguide.ca: "If all a politician has to do to get your vote is convince you they're more likely to win, just think what kind of Parliament you're going to get: an even scrappier place filled with people who've learned the only way to survive is to win at all costs."

On May 2, I'm voting with hope rather than fear — even if that might, conceivably but implausibly, make me the one single voter who keeps Stephen Harper in power.