Abandoning Your Principles On Principle: The Dilemma of Strategic Voting

This post is over 3000 words.  I’ve created a trimmed down version here, that summarizes the post to 1000 words.

There is an election coming up this October, and many Canadians think I should vote Liberal.

Common sense seems to dictate that I should vote Liberal.  If I want to have the best representation in Ottawa for the next four years, if I want to oust a party that is anathema to almost everything I believe, if I want to cast the most immediately effective vote- and truly and honestly I want all those things- I have no choice but to vote Liberal.

As everyone I know has dutifully pointed out-  my choice has been all but made for me; I need to vote against my conscience in order to have a voice.

The question I need to ask myself, and the question I’d like to ask all of them, is whether those three things are all we should want.  Should we myopically focus on the next four years and potentially just put ourselves back in the same position in October of 2019 or sooner?  Should we elect a new government that continues the decades long tradition of under the radar governance, so long as they whisper the right sweet nothings in our ear?  These are the real consequences, to me, of voting against a Conservative government as opposed to voting for meaningful change.

Some voters really want a Liberal government- and a good many of them will be able to vote their conscience.  Many of them might find themselves in the same boat as me- feeling the pressure to vote for an NDP candidate in order to “stop” Stephen Harper.

Other voters really want an NDP government- and it appears, at this juncture at least, that even more of those people will be able to vote for their preferred candidate. Yet some of these voters might be tempted to vote against both their conscience and the current government.

Some Canadians- I think more than polls suggest and growing quickly- want a Green government.  These are the people that hear the most about vote splitting, partly because their preferred government stands a snowball’s chance at the Calgary Stampede of happening this election cycle and partly because outside of Saanich-Gulf Islands the Green Candidate is not the best shot to beat the Conservative.

Vote splitting is real and it happens, but how bad is it?  Who is most responsible for it?  What are the pros and Cons (pun intended) of voting for the party that most represents your views?  Do we all need to vote for the Anybody But Conservative (ABC) who polls highest in our riding? Is the ABC movement good for Canada and good for democracy?

Vote splitting has historically not been a problem in Canadian politics. If anything, the several third and fourth parties that have run in opposition of the two major parties have increased the choice and amplified the voice of voters in this country. It is impossible for only two parties to properly reflect the diverse views of a country as regionally distinct, economically heterogeneous, or geographically varied.  Yet for the majority of the last 150 years, we have engaged in the experiment of trying to represent the best interests of a myriad of citizens inside the prism of a political dichotomy.  Democracy in Canada has evolved from a dearth of options at the dawn of Confederation into several options but no real choice in the last two elections.  It’s easy to get cynical about a system that seems providentially calculated to produce the bare minimum definition of a democracy.
In 1874 Alexander Mackenzie became the Canadian Prime Minister by virtue of his Not-Sir-John-A-McDonaldness; becoming the first ever Prime Minister to govern because he was the only real alternative to an unpopular leader.  141 years later we are still staring down that very same dilemma.

There have been 13 or 14 (or 14 or 15, depending on how you count) minority governments in Canadian history.  Undoubtedly they were all the result of vote splitting.  In the case of minority governments with a third party to the left of the government, history has shown us that this is rarely a bad thing; this is especially true if you are a left-of-center voter.  We have only had six (or seven, depending on how you count) Conservative minority governments, and that includes the comically short reign of Arthur Meighen. None resulted in any serious right wing policy, since each government had to reach to center-leaning Liberals or chronically uncooperative SoCreds for support.  Liberal minority governments gave us CPP (Canada Pension Plan) and Universal Healthcare.

It seems like vote splitting makes for good minority Governments.

Where vote splitting really got itself a bad name is in the 2011 win by Stephen Harper that afforded him a majority government.  That said, it is important to note that Stephen Harper is only the third politician in Canadian history to earn a majority because of a vote split¹, and the first to do so since 1984.   He’s also only the second Prime Minister in history to win a majority with less than 40% popular support, and he’s the first Conservative (in party affiliation, at least) to do so.

Vote splitting made a difference in three majority elections out of 42, so vote splitting as a cause of diminished representation is both novel and rare in the history of Canadian politics.

It’s important to point out that vote splitting to a majority government (or even an over representative minority) is not merely rare but novel as well.  It’s a pretty new problem in Canada; this doesn’t mean that it will continue to be rare.

A few things have changed that could make this a trend rather than an aberration.

  •  The NDP exercises far more influence in Quebec, where a combination of a robust fourth party and a better than average population per seat ratio makes it a province where fewer votes can translate into a larger seat take. If the NDP repeats their strong showing in Quebec they put themselves in the position of needing relatively sparse seats in the rest of Canada to form a minority government.
  •  The rise of the NDP vote across the whole country has diminished the returns of Liberal votes- allowing in many cases the Conservative nominee to sneak up the middle while the center left vote is split between the two, especially in seat rich Ontario. If the NDP and Liberal fortunes stabilize above 23% nationally in coming elections, and particularly if this trend happens in Ontario- Conservative minorities and majorities become much more common.
  • If there are three strong national parties, this means that the growth of fourth or fifth parties, both regionally or nationally, will meaningfully sap votes from one or more of the main parties. When 34% is a three way plurality, every percentage point counts.  In the Quebec riding of Ahuntsic, the Bloc MP won with just 31.8% of the vote, the smallest plurality of the 2011 election.  My own riding  of Nipissing-Temiskaming had the smallest margin of victory, with just 18 votes separating the winning Conservative MP from the Liberal incumbent.

For the last 100 years, our parliamentary system has struggled to exist in defiance of Duverger’s law, a principle in political science that states that single vote, first past the post elections tends to favour a two party system.  We have had surprising success creating governments that are roughly representative of our electors choices- though certainly we have seen our share of failures.  The success we have seen has mainly come as the result of third and fourth parties having mainly regional and focused support.  The reality we are facing for the first time ever is that we have three parties with significant and broad national support.

This is why vote splitting will likely become a problem in future Canadian elections, and why it has become an issue in at least the last two elections.

The obvious answer to vote splitting is electoral reform, and the NDP has promised that, if elected, this will be the last election in Canada under a First Past The Post (FPTP) election system.  In the meantime, Canadians have been pressured, as I have, to vote Anyone But Conservative (ABC) in an effort to have a more representative government.

Does voting ABC really give us a more representative government?  I’d argue not.  I’m not going to be happy with a Liberal government, for example.  I would be happy with an NDP government, though not entirely satisfied. Yet I shouldn’t vote NDP, since they have no reasonable chance of winning my riding.  If I want to cast a vote against the Conservatives, my most effective vote is for a party that I’m only slightly more happy with.  There are many voters who would be dissatisfied with an NDP government- and for many of them, by this logic, they ought to vote for a party that they feel doesn’t represent their values in order to oust a party that doesn’t represent their values.

How exactly are we supposed to have a representative government if we continue to vote for ideas that we don’t support?  If every anti-Conservative Canadian votes against Harper, and not necessarily for the party that best represents their interests, we would have an NDP majority elected with over 45% popular support.  Do 45% of Canadians really support the NDP and their platform?  Do less than 20% of people really support the Liberals?  Do only 2% of Canadians really support the Bloc? Do less than one half of one percent of Canadians support the Greens?

This, of course, is not how negative voting works.  Everybody isn’t going to vote against a party.  But I think it illustrates that voting strategically doesn’t result in representative governments, just governments with a synthetic base of popular support.  How many NDP voters would vote Green if they were not worried about allowing a Conservative candidate to charge up the middle of a field of four strong candidates?  How many Liberal voters in my riding are naturally NDP supporters, but won’t allow our Conservative MP to repeat his 18 vote win from 2011?  How many Liberals win thousands of extra votes in Ontario by pure dint of being the only candidate who can beat the Conservative?

Here is what your vote should be doing:

  1. Shaping the policies of the parties to reflect the values of their base.
  2. Making candidates in your riding aware of the values they should represent.
  3. Helping to elect the candidate you think is best for your riding.
  4. Sending a message to the party that they are on the right track.
  5. Helping to grow the party’s base by expanding their organic vote.
  6. Signalling to other Canadians that the party has important ideas.
  7. Financially supporting the party (though the federal subsidy ends this year, parties still collect donations in some proportion to the votes they receive)

Here is the list of what your vote does with strategic voting:

  1. Possibly prevent a Conservative from winning a seat.
  2. Force parties to avoid sweeping and broad policies.
  3. Elect candidates who don’t represent your interests, and don’t know what your values are.
  4. Send a message that you agree with policies you don’t
  5. Perpetuate the impression that that party has broad support.
  6. Creating a false consensus around bad ideas.
  7. Financially supporting policies that go against your values.

For the record, you could achieve five of those things by voting Conservative.

The worst problem with strategic voting is that it’s likely not a one election deal, even if its proponents present it that way.  There will still be a Conservative Party after this election.  In all likelihood, neither the NDP nor the Liberals will become obsolete after October 19th either.  The left and center-left in Canada is still going to have to play a numbers game to win future elections. This might all change if Thomas Mulcair’s NDP gains power in the upcoming election, but don’t count on it.  If Mulcair wins a minority he has little chance of convincing Liberals that proportional representation is in their best interests.

In the long run, the only way strategic voting will work is if the Liberals, NDP, and Greens agree not to run candidates in targeted ridings in an effort to avoid vote splitting.  The NDP and Liberals both won’t do it because they see themselves as contenders at the national level and worry that pulling candidates might backfire with their supporters and be seen as conceding defeat on a riding by riding basis.  The Greens have seen some of their candidates already flirt with the idea of throwing support behind one of the other two parties. There were 16 ridings in 2011 where the Green Party vote, if transferred to the second place finisher, would have prevented a Conservative win². Five additional ridings had the second place finisher within 800 votes of beating the Conservative MP who won³.  The bulk of the 16 ridings transferring votes from the Greens to the second place candidate would have made the margin of victory under 600 votes, so almost every Green voter would have had to have voted for the second place candidate- essentially working to strategic perfection.  There were 9 ridings in Ontario where the Green vote, if given to the second place candidate en masse, would have defeated the Conservative candidate; two more where the cumulative vote would have got the second place party within 800 votes of victory.  In all but one of those ridings, Bramelea-Gore-Malton, the votes would have had to have gone to a Liberal; and only two others where a small shift from Green to Liberal would have made a difference. There is little chance that every Green voter, or even a plurality of Green voters, in any of those ridings would have supported the Liberal if there were no Green candidate.

If 12 or more of those 16 seats had have changed with a strategic Green vote, Stephen Harper would have had a minority- but he would still be Prime Minister; yet 8 of the 16 ridings where strategic Green voting would have made a difference require a significant shift from Green to Liberal. If every single one of the ridings where the Green vote in addition to the second place party’s vote would have had the seat change hands had done so, the seat count would have been 150-109-44, still a Conservative minority.  If you assume a small additional shift of 800 votes from the third party, the seat count would stiil be 145-112-46, with the Conservatives governing within ten seats of a majority.

On this assessment, it appears that the Greens could have, maybe, possibly prevented a Conservative majority if they all voted with Micheal Ignatieff and against a healthy environmental policy and democratic reform- the two key planks of the Green platform.  So voting against their interests would have made some difference, albeit small and not an actual change in government.  Yet reporters continue to ask why Elizabeth May would risk acting as the spoiler on the left- in essence enabling a Conservative government.  Ms. May had a reasonable answer to that during the debate, but I have a better one:

We would have silenced the voices of tens of thousands of Canadians just to prevent one politician from having all the power, even though he would still have had the power.

My question is: Is it worth it?  Is it worth convincing the three main parties that they can leave the environment on the back burner, that they all ought to continue the drive toward the center, that Canadians really want a government that is only marginally different from the one we have- in order to at best weaken the government we have?

I think it’s clear that the Green vote is not the key to getting rid of Conservative minorities and majorities. Of the 166 seats that were won by the Conservatives, 110 saw the NDP as the second place finisher and just 56 had a Liberal.  It takes, in the majority of cases based on 2011 and the latest polls, Liberals admitting that they have no chance and throwing their support behind the NDP. If that happens, people will begin to question if the Liberal Party- the “Natural Governing Party” of the last 115 years in this country- even needs to exist.  Strategic voting, if done right, would have us question the right to exist of a party that has spent more time governing this country than any other- even if that party has enjoyed polling numbers in the mid-30 percent range in the last year.

The whole idea that a vote for a third or fourth party is a vote for the winning party is fallacious.  It assumes, by its very premise, that all opposition parties are equal.  It assumes that I ought to be equally happy with a Liberal government, or a Liberal representative, as I would be with an NDP government or representative.  It assumes that NDP voters are naturally Liberal voters; that Green voters are naturally NDP and Liberal voters.  It assumes that every left of center voter has the same agenda, the same fundamental policies, and the same ideals.

Strategic voting would ask me to cast my vote for a party that has offered support to Bill C-51, the anti-terror legislation that diminishes Canadians right to association, speech, and assembly.  It would ask me to vote for a party that supports the Trans Pacific Partnership.  It would ask me to vote for a party that wants our democracy to run business-as-usual.  It would ask me to support these things in order to prevent a party that supports these things from governing my country- even if my newly minted Liberal MP will do nothing to stop these things from happening.  It would ask Liberals to support a party that has demonstrated an unwillingness to govern transparently, a party that has refused to have a dialogue on women’s issues in this election, a party that has been courting the separatist vote. Strategic voting would ask us all to unanimously decide that this election is a single issue election- and that issue is defeating Stephen Harper.

At the end of the day, strategic voting diminishes democracy.  It takes our immediate distaste for a government that has estranged a majority of Canadians, and proposes to solve the problem by estranging voters from their ideals.
My vote still means something if it doesn’t elect a candidate.
My vote still means something if it isn’t cast for the government or the official opposition.
My vote is still important- it is especially important- if it is reflecting what I want my country to be.

My vote is my vision of Canada, and you are asking me to be a bit more myopic.

Strategic voting does not result in representative democracy.  It results in a democracy that represents the lessor of two evils. It is an attempt to make a principled stand by abandoning your principles.  Democracy is done no favours by transforming it into a referendum on what we don’t want, instead of what we do.

Thanks anyway, I’ll be voting for my principles this election- not against them.


  1. The majority elections I contend that were decided by a third party were RB Bennett in 1930, Brian Mulroney in 1984, and Stephen Harper in 2011. Every other majority in Canadian history was decided by the winner receiving 50% of the vote or the cumulative left-of-center vote exceeding 50%.
  2. The sixteen ridings in question are Bramalea-Gore-Malton, Don Valley East, Don Valley West,Elmwood-Transcona, Etobicoke Centre, Kitchener-Waterloo, London North Centre, Lottiniere-Chutes-De-La-Chaudiere, Mississauga East-Cooksville, Nipissing-Temiscaming, Palliser, Pickering-Scarborough East, Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar, Vancouver Island North, Winnipeg South Centre, Yukon.
  3. The five additional ridings are Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River (<300), Etobicoke (<800), Labrador (<100), Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe (<200), and Scarborough Centre (<300).

One thought on “Abandoning Your Principles On Principle: The Dilemma of Strategic Voting

  1. Pingback: Abandoning Your Principles On Principle: Why I Say No To Strategic Voting | Raising Doubts

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