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Strategic Voting Doesn’t Work?

September 29, 2008

Update: Strategic voting and vote swapping are gaining ever more attention, watch this CBC piece on vote swapping by Susan Ormistan

We’ve all had a horrible voting choice before us at some point. A choice between several parties or candidates we don’t really want, and we pick the one that is least offensive. That’s the reality of our system.

Even worse, sometimes there is one party or candidate we really, really want to win, but we know it’s a pipedream. They never win, and it’s not going to change this time. Do we vote for them? If we don’t, and no one else does, then things will never change. This is what we hear. It’s pointless to complain we are powerless if we’re not willing to make the sacrifice. So we should just vote with our heart. Only then will that party slowly rise in support. Election after election they will gain a toehold. And someday, maybe when you’re children are old enough to vote they’ll be rewarded for all that work, you will be rewarded for decades of support. And they’ll win…a seat in parliament. That’s where the Green party is today, on the brink of winning a seat or two after decades of work. But if everyone just gave up and voted strategically to avoid their worst choice, the Greens would never be where they are now. It’s a strong argument, it’s compelling, people believe it.

Too bad it’s completely wrong.

You see, even after decades of hard work, the Greens may not get any seats this election (oh, but next time!). The NDP formed a new party, the Alliance did too. But those were both born out of concentrated movements, geographically concentrated movements, where whole legions of people abandoned one side and threw in with a new one. That works because our first-past-the-post system fundamentally wires geography into the electoral count. But if you have widespread support across the country centred on the most important single issue of our time, the environment, even with 10% of the population voting for you, you could easily wind up with absolutely nothing. And it is nothing. The Green party gets funding per vote, that’s not nothing. Elizabeth May’s voice is being heard more than ever, that’s not nothing. But once parliament is back in session they’ll have no seats and no voice, and that’s the nothing that counts.

The fact is, that given the way votes are counted in Canada, if you vote for party A (who you love) instead of party B (who you’re lukewarm about) but party C  (who you hate) ekes out a narrow win over party B, then you’re vote was wasted and contributed to a worse outcome than the strategic vote for party B. Even if it’s not close, and party C wins, you are just as unhappy and your voice is not heard in parliament, even if hundreds of thousands of people think the exact same way as you. That’s not democracy, it’s a sham.

The reality is that there is only democracy in our country for the lucky people who guess right about who will win in their riding. For everyone else, their vote does not contribute to the makeup of parliament. That’s just a fact. Its not my opinion. You can argue about whether the vote for the second party in a riding is ‘wasted’ or not, but you can’t argue that those votes contribute to the makeup of parliament. They don’t, in any way. Only the winning votes in each riding contribute to the makeup of parliament. Maybe it’s not wasted in the battle, but it doesn’t count in the end, and to me that feels like a waste.

So why is it verboten for the media or a political leader to utter this plain truth aloud? Today, Elizabeth May, Green party leader, had to explain why she doesn’t support strategic voting. Of course she supports strategic voting! She’s a rational human being running for a party with no chance of winning government and a slim chance of winning a seat or two. She wants people to vote strategically so that parliament is full of lots of Liberals and NDP and a few Greens so they can run the country together. That’s the only plausible scenario for the Greens. And there’s nothing wrong with it. But to talk about it in Canada is to somehow betray yourself as some kind of traitorous freak who doesn’t believe in democracy. Why is coalition government a bad word in this country, why does strategic voting make me a traitor? The only people that kind of talk supports is the incumbent government, watch the Conservatives talk about it a lot when referring to Ms. May.

I do believe in democracy, that’s why I want every vote to contribute to the makeup of parliament. It is possible you know, lots of countries do it. In fact, most western countries do it. Only Britain, ourselves and our neighbours to the south believe that only the winning votes in small, arbitrary geographic districts should be the ones to count and the rest discarded. First-past-the-post encourages regionalism, stifles dissent by minority opinions and reduces interest in the political process. Canada needs a proportional system. But until we have one, Canadian voters should do whatever they can to make their vote count.

If that means strategic voting, good. If that means vote swapping, even better. If that means voting for electoral reform, now you’re talking!

We don’t really have a democracy for everyone in Canada. The system is stacked in favour of regions that vote as a bloc (ahem, sorry, I meant block) and incumbent parties. Before you vote, look at polls for your riding, talk to people, see the candidates debate. Think about who you think will win in your riding and what you as a voter can do to affect that. That’s our responsibility as citizens and that’s the definition of strategic voting.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 30, 2008 4:31 pm

    Wow, amazing post, I’m going to link to this on Pair Vote (

  2. October 4, 2008 8:01 am

    No problem. Glad you liked it.

  3. Braz permalink
    April 27, 2011 4:38 pm

    I disagree. Strategic voting over the long term shapes the country towards a two-party system and/or even more regional division. Voting for the party or candidate you believe in most shapes the decisions and platforms of the parties as they jockey for votes over multiple elections. And it sends a message to other voters that parties with lesser support might be worth voting for. Even it takes generations it is worth it.

    Strategic voting is voting against the party that you dislike the most. It is inherently reactive and negative. It doesn’t push your values and beliefs forward, it pushes them sideways at best.

    I would call “strategic voting” “tactical voting” because it is based on short-term thinking.

    • April 27, 2011 5:08 pm

      You’re right, strategic voting or tactical voting, call what you will, is short-term thinking. It is a temporary but necessary hack to use the current system to get the right people into power and then change the system. If you assume the system can never change then there is no point in doing it unless you are afraid one of the parties will damage the country in the short term. However, I categorically and completely disagree with your statement

      Even it takes generations it is worth it.

      Are you immortal or something? I am impatient for true democracy, for fairness, for advancing the happiness and wellbeing of everyone in Canada. I am not willing to wait 10 elections to see a party right to perhaps get a seat or two and make some difference. I am not willing to wait 2 elections for that. I’m barely willing to wait 1. If you are willing to put off change for so long just to ‘play by the rules of the game’ you are doomed to be manipulated by those who benefit from the current rules. The game is stacked against voters right now and in favour of incumbent parties. People need to vote strategically and with a loud voice demand true electoral reform which will stop the need to vote strategically. If the party reneges, you strategically target someone else next time, or start your own party and tactically run only against candidates that don’t support reform.

      Our system is so broken at this point that what we really need is asymmetric electoral warfare, that means tactical voting, vote swapping, tactical running of candidates. Whatever is needed to fix the system.


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