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So, how did that strategic voting go?

October 26, 2010

So in case you haven’t heard, Rob Ford was elected Mayor of Toronto last night. But you knew that, to find out why (oh why??) read my post from earlier today explaining how Toronto electing a conservative mayor and a progressive council actually makes a lot of sense.

But this comment is about the vigorous debate around strategic voting this election created. During the campaign I very vocally argued in favour of strategic voting. That is, I argued supporters of Joe Pantalone needed to consider the impact of Ford being mayor and really make their voting decision as one about who should win rather than just who they like as a person.  I still think that was the right advice. Technically, I was correct. If all of Pantalone’s supporters had voted for Smitherman he would have won by a hair,  1813 votes. Since Joe himself and his team would not jump ship it would be even closer. Now that’s not very compelling, no one is saying we should never have third candidates, that wouldn’t be democracy. Once a candidate is running and doing well, with a successful organization, you’d expect at least all of their family and supporting team will vote for them.  So strategic voting isn’t the long term answer at all, even though, it can technically change the results. And I would argue results should be what we care about in elections.

No, the real solution would have been to let everyone vote their heart AND provide information on what they thought of Smitherman vs Ford.  If we had been using a fair voting system we could easily have had this information  from all of the Pantalone supporters as well as the other 5.56% of Torontonians who voted for someone else.  If we had a even a simple system such as RaBIT then every single one of the voters who came out would have listed a number beside any number of candidates. You can be sure that almost all of them would have put either Ford or Smitherman somewhere on their ballot.

What this result shows us very clearly and is that under such a system the two viable candidates were essentially tied with about a 5% spread between them rather than the 13% decisive victory for Ford we now see.  (This is assuming all Pantalone supporters ranked Smitherman above Ford which I think is pretty safe.)  We can never know how all the other voters would have voted for sure because we didn’t collect that information. But the fact is that if Pantalone were gone those people who voted for minor candidates who they knew would not win, would have decided the election entirely!  The election would have come down to a photo finish, with perhaps only a few thousands votes separating the winner from the loser.  And we’ll never know who it would have been.

In such a world, Toronto might still be waking up today to Mayor Ford on the tv screen.  But think of the different tone such a result would have. There would be no notion that Ford had “won the support of Torontonians”.  There would be no shame for botched campaigning by Smitherman. There would be no guilt and stress for voters who really did want to show support for progressive candidates and other passionate people they believe in.  There would have been a city, clearly divided. With two halves choosing different directions, and one of them had to win.

Imagine if our elections worked that way? Would there be apathy about voting then, when every vote really does count? Would there be anger by unrepresented conservatives in a liberal city (or vice-versa) when there choices makes a difference?  Wouldn’t a message about support be more clear when its about the winner and the runner up rather than the third or 5th place loser?

This isn’t some dream, it’s not at all impossible, its actually quite easy. Voters just have to demand it. Luckily all the leading candidates for Mayor said they supported change to something like RaBIT, so lets hold them to it.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 26, 2010 6:47 pm

    There were three major candidates because there were at least three major perspectives. If you look at the elected councillors, likely more than three. If this was a baseball game with only two teams, like American politics, it would be simpler, yes. But Canada isn’t like that, thank heavens.

    “We have two possible solutions. Many major European cities have parliamentary style mayors, elected by the council so that person is reflective of the majority and has a built-in working relationship with the council. The second approach is to use an instant run-off ballot for electing the mayor, allowing voters to rank candidates, and requiring the winner to gain 50 percent plus one. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. Both deserve full consideration by voters.”

    • October 26, 2010 9:20 pm

      Agree Wilfred, its great that there are more than two points of view. Its just that after the discussion is over our system really only works when there are two competitors, ignoring that leads to wasted votes and twisted outcomes. But its impossible to know how to take that into account, its all guesswork, strategic voting based on polls is just a kludge to do the best with a horrible system. I just saw the fair vote toronto press release you linked to. Looks great, hope it gets wide spread. I also hope it is done in a very open way, not fixating on proportional representation for example. I’m very glad they mentioned alternative vote for the mayor’s role as that fits with other campaigns out there. The 53% of people who voted for someone else this election need to be vocal and demand a change.

      Not that Ford shouldn’t have won, like I said, be very likely would have won anyways, that’s fine. But in a race with so many small candidates and more than two points of view we need a more subtle system. And there’s so much waste votes in the individual wards as well which are usually 4 or 5 candidates.

  2. October 26, 2010 6:47 pm

    Strategic voting only works if enough people understand that we now live in a world where your choices are just downright evil and less evil. Many, unfortunately, didn’t get it. Many, still, stayed home, which is generally the same as an endorsement for the front runner.

    Strategic voting will be required if there is to be a minute chance to at least, prevent a Harpercon majority. Now that there is a Conservative base planted in TO, thanks to Ford’s win, that just became even more of an uphill climb.

  3. John Deverell permalink
    October 27, 2010 5:20 am

    If one accepts that the mayor should be presidential, and elected separately from council — i.e. the division of powers — then the ranked ballot becomes the obvious way to choose a consensus winner.

    If one wants coherent accountable democratic government, then the council should be elected by a democratic method and the leader of the majority should be the chief executive — i.e. the parliamentary system.

    Unfortunately nearly every politician in this land is elected in a single member district and this fact guarantees, no matter what ballot is used, that a large portion of the electorate will be denied representation of its choice.

    It is a short step from AV for mayor to AV for council, legislature and Parliament, and still no democracy in sight. For democrats AV is a blind alley.

  4. Rod Challis permalink
    October 31, 2010 9:13 am

    I think what this election says about so called “strategic voting” is that it is a good strategy for the right. “Strategic voting” allows candidates and parties who are percieved as centerist or left of center to shimy ever rightward. And this allows or forces the right to move a step or two to the right to differentiate themselves from the phoney centerists.

    I don’t think George Smitherman, by any measure was a “progressive”. The fact that his campaign threw around the idea of running from the left or the right– not based on what they thought Toronto needed as policy, or from personal conviction, but on a cold blooded, oportunistic judgement on which “face” was likely to win.

    And, I’m not sure that a different election system would do much to stop this kind of threat to democracy.

    But I do know that if we are “progressive”– whatever that conveniently undefined term means to each of us– we have to stop rewarding Tammany Hall North type politics.

    • October 31, 2010 9:56 am

      indeed, the existence of strategic voting does change the incentives for politicians, they can stake out different positions to target voters. But this will happen anyways and strategic voting won’t go away just because we wish it to. A different election system would remove this threat, though as John points out, a simple ranked ballot AV system isn’t much of an improvement for certain types of positions. I would argue its still some kind of improvement but multimember ridings would be a much better approach. I just don’t see that discussion happening anytime soon in the current political atmosphere.

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