The Failure of Strategic Voting

Justin Trudea caricature

In the Canadian Federal election last week, the Liberal party regained power, with a surprisingly strong majority government. The election campaign was long, and once again, strategic voting had a lot of news coverage. It was particularly apparent in my riding of Vancouver Granville, with two different parties using it as one of their primary tactics to convince me to vote for them.

In theory, strategic voting makes sense. In practice, in my riding, I’d call it a total failure.

The problem

To understand the basis of strategic voting, you have to look at election history.

In Canada, there are three main parties, the Conservatives on the right, the Liberals on the center-left, and the NDP on the left. Historically, the NDP has been the weakest of the parties, so the Liberals and Conservatives alternated rule for decades. In fact, in the 20th century, every Liberal party leader was Prime Minister.

In the early part of this century, a sponsorship scandal came to light, where the Liberals were providing inflated advertising agency commissions to their supporters. This, combined with rapid turnover in leaders, hurt the Liberal party. The NDP had a charismatic leader that enabled them to take advantage of the situation, leading to their best election results ever.

However, the main beneficiary of the Liberals’ downfall wasn’t the NDP, but the Conservative party. Though they never even reached 40% of the popular vote, they formed three consecutive governments. Many people theorized that, with the Liberals weakened, the left wing vote split between the NDP, the Liberals, and the Green party. This enabled the Conservatives to win elections simply because, though right-wing supporters were a minority, their vote wasn’t split between three parties.

What’s an unhappy electorate to do?

Of course, this outcome frustrated people. Almost certainly, a majority of the population would prefer one of the left wing governments. But, because of the first-past-the-post electoral system, the right wing candidates would win, gathering barely more than a third of the votes, but more than any other candidate.

What made it worse was that, among the left, the Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was reviled. To them, his policies and arrogance personified everything wrong with a right-wing government.

Thus, strategic voting was born. The idea is simple. Instead of voting for your preferred candidate, pay attention to the polls, and then vote for the candidate who is most likely to defeat the Conservative candidate. By doing so, the left wing vote would no longer be split, enabling NDP and Liberal candidates to defeat the Conservatives in many ridings.

In practice

Strategic voting relies on the premise that anyone who didn’t vote Conservative would prefer any non-Conservative candidate to the Conservative candidate. I don’t think this would always be true, but, considering the extent to which people seem to loathe Stephen Harper, I imagine it was true for the 2015 election. Thus, in theory, strategic voting should work.

In practice, in my riding, it didn’t. Both the Liberal and NDP parties claimed that polls showed that they were ahead, and the only chance of defeating the dreaded Conservatives. In essence, they were splitting the vote with their own stories.

This makes sense for them of course. They want to be elected, so need to jump on the narrative that will help them achieve that goal. It’s not their job to ensure that they’re providing accurate information to strategic voters.

But this is unfortunate, because it obfuscates the issue, potentially confusing voters.

The Internet to the rescue

To deal with this problem, an organization called Leadnow was created. Their stated goal was to analyse polling results and do their own polling to determine the candidate most likely to defeat the Conservatives, so that left wing voters could vote en-masse for them. To me, this is a great idea, providing accurate information for everyone who believes in strategic voting.

But in practice, it didn’t work in my riding.

At the time, the numbers left little doubt. One poll gave the Liberals a 35% to 33% advantage. Another, a 44% to 28% advantage. There wasn’t a single recent poll that had shown the NDP ahead and all over the country, polls had been swinging in the Liberals’ favor.

But instead of recommending the Liberals who clearly had a better chance of winning, Leadnow recommended the NDP candidate.

They justified this decision in a fairly crazy way. They claimed that their polling results were within the statistical margin of error (i.e. the poll says the Liberal is ahead, but there’s a possibility that it’s wrong). Then, since the poll could be wrong, they said that the majority of the “Leadnow community” preferred the NDP, so voters should vote for them.

The thing is, the local director of Leadnow is friends with the NDP candidate. To me, as an outsider with no direct knowledge of what actually transpired, it looks like they basically said, “our recommendation might make a difference. What justification can we come up with to recommend the NDP candidate? Are there any statistics that fit that goal?”

The way I see it, instead of staying true to their mission of consolidating the left-wing vote, they did the exact opposite. They deliberately split the vote in an effort to get their preferred candidate elected.

The result

In the end, it didn’t matter. The Liberal candidate won with 44% of the vote versus 27% for the Leadnow-recommended NDP candidate. But to me, this is a massive failure of strategic voting. In one of the key ridings where strategic voting could have mattered, an organization designed to reduce vote-splitting cast aside its mission simply to promote a politician it liked.

I don’t think that this is the end of strategic voting–the idea makes too much sense for someone who wants to vote against someone rather than for someone. However, it is a clear warning against blindly giving away your vote to an organization that claims it can cut through the noise and figure out the right strategic voting choice for you. Instead, spend the half hour to do the research yourself, and decide which candidate actually has the best chance of achieving your goal.

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