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The Perils of “Strategic” Voting

Several Toronto Star and Globe and Mail columnists have suggested that the Conservative majority resulted from too little strategic voting for the Liberals. In every federal election that I can remember, the Liberals have appealed for progressive votes to stop the Conservatives (or their Reform-Alliance predecessors).

A major flaw in this logic is that relatively few ridings are close Liberal-Conservative races. (Non)strategically voting Liberal is counterproductive in ridings that any party wins by a wide margin and in NDP-Conservative races. Such misplaced votes divert public funding away from the NDP and can help elect Conservatives.

Honest proponents of strategic voting have tried to focus on ridings that they believe will be close Liberal-Conservative races. Even if national advocacy of strategic voting could be effectively confined to targeted ridings, does anyone know which ridings to target?

It is easy to wring hands over ridings that Liberals narrowly lost to Conservatives. However, proficient strategic voting would require identifying and targeting those ridings before election day.

Among progressives, the Canadian Auto Workers union has probably been the most prominent and consistent advocate of strategic voting. Outside of Quebec, it has been endorsing NDP incumbents and NDP candidates deemed to have a sufficient chance of winning. But two days before the vote, the Auto Workers also reaffirmed “supporting 34 Liberal candidates in identified close ridings, where they have the best chance of defeating the Conservative.”

In fact, many of these ridings were not especially close and six were actually NDP-Conservative races: Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, Bramalea-Gore-Malton, Brant, Kenora, Miramichi and Saint John (where PEF-member Rob Moir doubled the NDP vote!)

Fortunately, the NDP won Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca. Unfortunately, the Conservative defeated the New Democrat by just 538 votes in Bramalea-Gore-Malton.

Another anti-Conservative effort, Catch 22, advised voting Liberal or Bloc in Brant, Huron-Bruce, Simcoe-Grey, Montmagny-L’Islet-Kamouraska-Rivière-du-Loup, Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean, Fredericton, Miramichi and Saint John, all of which ended up being NDP-Conservative races. (It also advised voting for the Liberal incumbent in Newton-North Delta, where the NDP won.)

Of course, this election was extremely volatile, so some incorrect projections are no surprise. But that’s the point: electoral politics are inherently unpredictable. Uncertainty about when and where a breakthrough might occur was, or should have been, a strategic rationale for progressive organizations to support the NDP.

The good news is that there should be much less confusion next time. In the great majority of ridings, the NDP will be both the most progressive option and the strategic anti-Conservative choice. Building a left majority is now clearly a matter of rallying progressives around the NDP and chipping away at Conservative support through effective opposition.

Enjoy and share:


Comment from janfromthebruce
Time: May 7, 2011, 11:48 am

In Huron-Bruce, NDP signs for Grant Robertson were put up on the CAW Education Centre and also the summer homes of other well-known past leaders of the CAW leadership – the fact was that CAW members who lived in the area are part of the NDP riding association and actually worked on Robertson’s campaign. That said, it was a problem. May that not happen again – solidarity for the progressive movement.

Comment from Anomika
Time: May 9, 2011, 6:17 pm

Good article, good analysis. Not convinced that the NDP will ever be the strategic choice of these websites. The argument they make, even now, is that NDP MPs are mistakes. They will create some historical traditional math that will say vote Liberal. Against your own interests and heart, Vote Liberal. That is what they are for.

Comment from John Deverell
Time: May 10, 2011, 7:29 am

As a partiicpant in the Catch 22 exercise, I can tell you we tried very hard to avoid picking the wrong horse by focussing on those ridings where in 2008 the third place finisher was far behind the anti-Harper candidate we recommended.
Would advocates of sincere voting have recommended Elizabeth May to beat the Conservative in Saanich Gulf Islands? We did. We also picked the New Democrat to come from far back to take Esquimalt Juan de Fuca and supported several more New Democrats who won close races.
Generally our recommendations were based on the notion that tactical negative voting could move a small number of votes, and in chosen ridings that would be enough to change the outcome.
Where our calculations proved fruitless was where we recommended Liberals. Their support was ebbing to the Conservatives and NDP, putting Liberal victories out of reach, party of the general phenomenon which translated into a Conservative phony majority.

The electoral system remains undemocratic. Those who don’t want Conservative government still have to figure out how to make the opposition vote more efficient, and imagining that everyone will vote NDP is not a persuasive plan.

Comment from Malcolm French
Time: May 10, 2011, 7:40 am

There are essentially three types of people who advocate “strategic” voting:
* those who do not understand politics,
* those who do not understand arithmetic,
* partisan Liberals.
(Noting, of course, that some “strategic” voting advocates may fall into more than one of these categories.)

As Pundit’s Guide clearly demonstrates yet again, using previous election results to project future election results is a mug’s game at the best of times, and utterly futile in a volatile electorate.

Quite apart from this, one has to wonder about the sanity of people who continue, despite a century of evidence to the contrary, to hold up the Liberal Party as a viable option for progressive voters. The Chretien-Martin ministry, despite the hype of well-meaning dilletantes, was well to the right of any Canadian government in at least a generation, and only incrementally to the left of the present ministry. Indeed, Chretien-Martin slashed social transfers farther than the most doctrinaire neoconservative could have ever dreamed.

Today, the Harper government merely carries forward the rightwing direction inherited from Chretien-Martin, just as Chretien-Martin merely carried forth the policy agenda of Mulroney-Campbell.

One will never achieve a progressive government by voting for rightwing parties. The problem is not nor ever was that the cats were red or blue, but that they were and are and always will be cats.

Comment from John Deverell
Time: May 10, 2011, 11:27 am

There is also the probability that, after many decades of adapting to fight cats, the NDP has acquired some cat-like attributes.

What is more hopeful about the present conjuncture is that a clear electoral triumph by either the NDP or Liberals over the Conservatives seems unlikely, which in turn offers two scenarios .

One is a repeat of the Ontario experience, where on thin votes the Conservative Party governed uninterrupted for 40 years.

Another is that Liberals and New Democrats, having learned something about each other’s tenacity, will find their way to a pre-election non-compete agreement in ridings where the Conservative Party is highly vulnerable.

The only plausible basis for reaching such an agreement and explaining it to the citizenry is a commitment by both parties to legislate democratic voting and proportional representation if their alliance is able to form the government.

The citizens want in, but who will actually let them in?

Can the two main opposition parties be brought to tolerate and together advocate the concept of liberal democratic representation? The NDP says it’s there already except where it governs (Manitoba, Nova Scotia) or reasonably hopes to govern (BC, Saskatchewan).
The Liberal democratic tradition is also questionable, but there are some useful precedents. Trudeau’s 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms promises citizen equality, and Jean Chretien’s government in 2003 legislated an element of proportional financing for political parties.

We should all encourage the Liberal Party as it regroups to stop mouthing empty phrases about “democracy” and call the federal NDP’s bluff. It should propose some joint Liberal/NDP action to make Canada a representative democracy as quickly as possible.

John Deverell

Comment from Malcolm French
Time: May 10, 2011, 4:14 pm

Right. If only the mice would make a deal with the red cats, then we can get rid of the blue cats.

Cats is cats is cats.

Comment from Erin Weir
Time: May 11, 2011, 10:57 pm


I do not doubt the sincerity of your effort. My argument is that even well-intentioned and well-informed groups cannot accurately call the ridings where a slight vote shift from the NDP to the Liberals (or vice versa) would defeat the Conservatives.

Your two options provide a false choice. I am no expert on Ontario political history, but I do not think the Conservatives governed for 40 years due to Liberal-NDP vote splitting. The provincial Conservatives firmly occupied the political centre and were left of the Liberals for some of that period.

An NDP triumph “seems unlikely” if you assume that the only votes it could gain went Liberal and that the Liberal vote will not collapse further. In addition to attracting progressive votes away from the Liberals, the NDP could increase turnout among progressive voters and chip away at Conservative support. These are the usual means by which an opposition party defeats a government.

The NDP should remain open to possibilities for cooperation with other parties. However, a Liberal-NDP non-compete agreement is not the only way to defeat Harper.

By the way, this post supports Malcolm’s characterization of Chretien-Martin as the most right-wing federal government in decades.

Comment from Todd
Time: May 12, 2011, 10:04 am

Malcolm wrote:

“As Pundit’s Guide clearly demonstrates yet again, using previous election results to project future election results is a mug’s game at the best of times, and utterly futile in a volatile electorate.”

But the opposite is hardly true either: that previous election results have no bearing whatsoever on future elections.

You have to look at the history of the riding and judge what to do from that and how things look currently.

“one has to wonder about the sanity of people who continue, despite a century of evidence to the contrary, to hold up the Liberal Party as a viable option for progressive voters”

Depending on the context, the Liberal Party might be the next best thing (relatively speaking) to a more progressive party.

I’ve come to the conclusion that, for some “progressives”, it’s a matter of not giving a rat’s ass about the danger of an even more right-wing party than the Liberals getting into power so long as they can enjoy their (bourgeois) right to vote for any party that is pleasing in their sight (consequences to others be damned in their atomized world-view).

Comment from Malcolm
Time: May 14, 2011, 5:39 am

I absolutely defend my right to vote for “any party that is pleasing in [my] site,” and my right to reject the phony appeals from pretendy progressives who support the right wing Liberals.

The dubious and completely unsupported assumption that the Liberals are “the next best thing . . . to a more progressive party” is only believable if one completely disregards the history of the Liberal Party in power over the last 20 years. I choose to judge the Liberals by their rhetoric instead of merely their rhetoric.

The Chretien – Martin ministry was, unambiguously, the most right wing government in Canada for 50 years – and arguably the most right wing government in a century. Their main economic accomplishment was to carry forward the Mulroney agenda unamended. Harper is merely the next logical step in the same rightwing trajectory that Todd apparently supports.

Comment from Adam
Time: May 14, 2011, 7:05 am

Or it could also be the case that those people genuinely believe that a Liberal government will in many ways be just as bad as a Conservative government and that voting for the Liberals is not an improvement over voting for the Conservatives.

And maybe, just maybe, the Liberals wouldn’t have fared so poorly in recent elections if they and many of their supporters stopped acting as though the Liberals were somehow entitled to peoples’ votes, and instead had to actually put together a platform and a vision for the country that people *wanted* to vote for, not because it was “not the Conservatives”, but because it was something that people really believe in.

Comment from Todd
Time: May 14, 2011, 7:37 am

Adam said:

“Or it could also be the case that those people genuinely believe that a Liberal government will in many ways be just as bad as a Conservative government”

Unfortunately, the voting system we have (not to mention the usual assortment of propaganda methods we’re subjected to as well as ideology and sheer ignorance) turns this line of thought in certain ridings into a death-knell for anything more progressive than the Liberals.

This is what I was talking about above: if you simply lump the Conservatives together with the Liberals _on all counts_ and vote accordingly in a riding where those two parties are (unfortunately) the only viable choices, you’re not thinking like a socialist should.

“the Liberals wouldn’t have fared so poorly in recent elections if they … had to actually put together a platform and a vision for the country that people *wanted* to vote for”

I doubt they could have: there wasn’t much space, if any, for them to have distinguished themselves from the Conservatives without utterly alienating themselves from the ruling class (not to mention the rest of the Canadian population by tacking further right than the Cons), and the Conservatives hadn’t given them any rope by openly appealing to “cultural conservatives” by signaling for more oppression eg anti-gay, anti-Muslim, or anti-abortion messages.

Just my guess, but, given where the Cons picked up unexpected votes around Toronto, I’d say (in addition to my “Fear and Comfort Hypothesis”) a lot of nearly wealthy people got wealthier during the Cons term and wanted more of the same.

Comment from Stephen Karr
Time: May 14, 2011, 4:29 pm

I prefer to view things in shades of grey rather than black and white. “Liberal Tory same old story” doesn’t wash with me. I’m a member of the NDP. The Liberals are not my first choice by any means, but of course they would not be as ideologically driven as the Cons.

Comment from Todd
Time: May 15, 2011, 7:04 am

Stephen wrote:

“they would not be as ideologically driven as the Cons.”

Oh, no: they definitely have an ideology that they’re behind 100%. The problem is that particular ideology was picked up by the Cons as well (probably some time after the World Wars I’m guessing). It seems that it’s really only on “social issues” (and even then it’s more of a moral stance than much of anything practical anymore) where they surpass the Cons.

Comment from Dave Mann
Time: May 16, 2011, 6:19 am

My Letter to the Editor, Brantford Expositor, May 11, 2011 page A6:

The title “Strategy born of Laziness” was added and the last paragraph omitted. What some may call plagiarism, I call “message discipline.”

In the last election as before, Liberals appealed for strategic votes. Doug Aitcheson, of Canadian Auto Workers Local 397 for example, advised attendees at a Brant District Labour Council meeting to vote St. Amand to stop McColeman. Two days before the vote, the CAW reaffirmed “supporting 34 Liberal candidates in identified close ridings, where they have the best chance of defeating the Conservative.” Among them Brant.

Many districts the CAW listed were not close and six were NDP-Conservative races. The NDP won Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca despite the CAW’s efforts; but the Conservative defeated the New Democrat by just 538 votes in Bramalea-Gore-Malton.

In Brant, if the CAW were serious about voting strategically, they would have used a more scientific method to determine the best candidate to defeat McColeman. They could have phone canvassed 1200 people and used the results from the first 400 that properly represented the demographics of those most likely to vote to determine who merited their endorsement. But the CAW leadership, being lazy perhaps, relied on the results of the last election.

Electoral politics are unpredictable so relying on the last result can never work but there should be less confusion next time. In most places, the NDP will be the strategic anti-Conservative choice. Building a left majority is now clearly a matter of rallying around the NDP and chipping away at Conservative support through effective opposition.

We’ll have to wait 4 years, or for the next by-election, to see whether the CAW’s actual goal is to stop the Conservatives or if there is some other purpose to their game. People who want to understand strategic voting should check out and If Liberals are sincere about stopping Conservatives they will work with the NDP to introduce a fairer voting system; otherwise, their Party will only exist to keep Canada’s economic elites in power.

Comment from tOM Trottier
Time: May 17, 2011, 9:15 pm

I think that anti-socialist Liberals did the strategic voting – for the Conservatives.

Instead of firm recommendations(vs party A, vs party B, etc), I think strategic voting sites should empower any “voting against” by notes on the candidates and calculating how polls apply to the particular riding by looking at the historical relationship of the riding results to the polling area and results, and the relation of the demographics to the polling demographics.

During the election, I recommended forgetting the text recommendation and just choosing the acceptable candidate who is doing the best in the latest poll – as calculated for the riding – or voting one’s heart if the void is too wide to make a diffence – then the rebates go to the right party.

Alas, strategic voting, by its nature, is beneficial to the 2 biggest parties and hurts the smallest – look at the green vote downturn this time.

So watch for NDPers moving more in favour.

Comment from Steven Lloyd
Time: May 18, 2011, 9:47 am

Erin, good analysis as always.

I agree with You and Malcom that strategic voting sites are bad at what they do. But I also agree with you Erin, when you tell people like John that they come from a sincere place.

The solution is for the federal NDP to put their money where their mouth has always been – for some form of PR. Now more than ever, we should be reaching out to the Liberals and making a pledge to co-operate in almost any way possible in the next election, in exchange for support for PR.

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