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Toronto’s Future Isn’t Written Yet

October 20, 2014

If you make to the end of the Back to the Future movie trilogy, past the flying cars and cowboys the last scene has a sage bit of wisdom to help you get through life…and voting:

Jennifer: I brought this note back from the future (about Marty losing his job) and…now it’s erased!

Doc: Of course it’s erased!

Jennifer: But what does that mean?

Doc: It means that your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your
future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one.

In a way, opinion and voter intention polls are like that note, they are an attempt to look into the
future. Then pundits and journalists sit around looking at empty pieces of paper asking “what do they mean?”.

Polls come from asked people to predict how they’ll vote at some point in the future. These predictions are analyzed statistically but pollsters need to make assumptions. Assumptions about how good people are at predicting their own future decisions. Assumptions about how likely they are to lie to pollsters. Even assumptions about what kind of people the respondents are. After all, these are people already on their call list, usually with landline phones and who actually answered the pollster’s call rather than just hanging up the phone. That’s definitely not everyone.

The polling companies do their best try to correct for these biases but with limited data it is, unfortunately, more of an art than a science. In the past few elections in Canada, analysis of polls has been quite misleading. The current election for Toronto’s Mayor on October 27 could prove to be even worse. The reasons people would vote for any of the main candidates is very complicated and emotional. A lot will depend on who comes out to vote, which campaigns can get their supporters out and how afraid some of the city is of one candidate or another actually winning. The pollsters can’t predict how all of that complexity will affect the election result.

So there are lots of reasons to be cautious about what polls say but there is even more reason to be cautious, or ignore completely, what you see on the news about polls and polling trends. Just look at the media interpretation of polls in the run-up to the most recent BC, Quebec and Ontario elections, there were lots of surprises once the voting results started coming in.

And if the polls are suspect, if the outcome is unpredictable then strategic voting is even more dangerous than usual. I’ve supported strategic voting in the past, and I still believe that every vote is a strategic vote. But strategic voting doesn’t mean you always have to vote for someone you don’t like to avoid someone you hate. It just means you think about what is likely to happen and take that into consideration when making your decision. The polls are relevant but so are many other things: who’s supporters are likely to show up on election night? what population do the polls miss and how would they vote?

Pundits talk about inertia in polling numbers. But this is an illusion that can fade like a puff of smoke on election night, if we so choose. The citizens of Toronto are not a train barreling ahead off an abandoned bridge, that has inertia. It takes no more effort to change your mind in that little voting booth than it does to decide what to have for lunch today. But it’s much more important! So whatever you think, whoever you believe, wherever you think Toronto needs to go in the next four years: get out on October 27 and vote so your voice is heard. If you don’t know where and how to vote check out the Toronto Elections website.

Personally, I don’t think we need to worry so much about the precise details of each candidate’s plans for transit, child care (if they have one), jobs (if they have one) or how to bring in more business and tourists. Carrying out any plan requires all of council and usually all levels of government. So we need to rather worry about what their high level goals are, how they think about these problems and how they plan to work with others so the city can move on to reach it’s potential to be truly great for everyone who lives here.

When making your decision the most important fact to remember should be this one: we haven’t made our decision yet. So don’t make it out of fear, make it out of hope.

The future of Toronto is whatever we make it. So let’s make it a good one.

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