THE 180

Strategic voting is based on flawed data

As the B.C. election approaches, strategic voting campaigns are ramping up in an effort to turf the governing BC Liberals. But math instructor Brenda Fine says strategic voting is based on flawed data - polls that consistently call elections wrong.
Advanced poll at Vancouver Community College. (David Horemans/CBC)
Listen4:07

As the provincial election in B.C. approaches, strategic voting campaigns are ramping up in an effort to turf the governing BC Liberals. But math instructor Brenda Fine at the British Columbia Institute of Technology says strategic voting is based on flawed data — polls that consistently call elections wrong.

Here is her radio essay for The 180:


Strategic voting campaigns are common during elections in this country. 

It's easy to see the appeal — especially if you're more interested in keeping one party out of office, than getting a particular party in.

You can stumble into the voting booth and mark an 'X' with no regard for the broader implications of your choice, or you can approach your civic duty with a strategy. 

With the future of the province — or country — in your hands, it may seem somewhere between selfish and negligent to risk splitting the vote.

This time around, the strategic voting plan is to keep the Liberals out. 

From left: B.C. Liberals Leader Christy Clark, B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan and B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver. All three parties are expected to win seats in the 2017 B.C. provincial election. (Canadian Press photos)

The basic premise is this: check the polling data for your riding.

If any party, Liberal or otherwise, has a huge lead, vote your conscience. 

If, on the other hand, the numbers are close, vote for the candidate most likely to beat the Liberal.

This approach essentially instructs voters to disregard any difference between the NDP and Greens, and defer entirely to polls.

Therefore, it is shrewd to ask whether polls have actually earned their standing as the anti-Liberal voter's Magic eight-ball.

Let's look at the polls from the 2013 B.C. election.

For a solid month, the Liberals trailed the NDP in every poll.

Established polling companies projected the majority of the seats would go to the NDP.

The front page of the Province newspaper on March 7, 2013. (The Province/Canadian Press)

If ever anyone had a lock for the B.C. premiership, surely it was NDP leader Adrian Dix.

"If this man kicked a dog he'd still win the election!" blared the front page of The Province newspaper. 

But the only poll that mattered told a different story.

Voters delivered 44 point 4 per cent of the popular vote and 50 of the province's 85 seats to the liberals.

That's not exactly confidence-inspiring.

To two groups that encourage poll-based decision-making I posed the question: "Could you tell me what makes these polls more reliable than the ones that predicted an NDP government at this time four years ago?"

Their answers were frank: they didn't know, and one said, "At the end of the day, we can only hope."

It is illuminating that they don't assure us that the misses in the last election were outliers.

They don't even point to the fine print at the bottom of polls, which tells us that we can count on polls to be accurate within three percent or so, 95% of the time. 

Because that's only true if the sample is representative of the people who actually cast ballots on Election Day — and that's a lot easier said than done. 

In practice, Canadian political polls are nowhere near that reliable.

The trust Canadians have in political polls was largely earned by their more accurate American counterparts, where voters are more sharply polarized and less likely to change their minds at the last minute.

And yet even the golden age of American political polls may be ending. for the results of the last U.S. election caught nearly every pollster off guard. 

Canadian strategic voting organizations are undeterred by these facts.

In the last federal election, the head of prominent stop-Harper group Leadnow appeared at an election party to talk to a reporter about how strategic voting had impacted the federal election. 

She spoke a full two hours before any results had even been released.

While she celebrated their anointed candidates' wins, a cursory glance at the numbers revealed that in many of those ridings the Conservative candidate wasn't even a factor.

In other words, the anti-Conservative vote could have split evenly and the Conservative still wouldn't have won. 

Meanwhile, some ridings in which a Conservative eked out a narrow victory weren't even on Leadnow's radar. 

Proponents of strategic voting have granted political polls a status that they haven't earned.

They have certainly not made a compelling case for why this time, before casting ballots, voters should consult only polls — not party platforms or pundit analyses or candidate records.

To be sure, it's possible this time polls actually do predict voter intentions so accurately that a few good strategic voters can change the course of British Columbian history. 

It's also possible that the next lottery ticket you buy will be a winner. 

You still shouldn't quit your job though.

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