Is strategic voting a good idea?

Many groups are now trying to organize strategic voting efforts. It’s not easy.
An aerial view of a Canadian farm in Brantford with an "Anybody but Harper!!" sign carved into the field. (Geoff Grenville)


For anyone who would rather have anything other than a Conservative government—witness the farmer in Burford, Ont., who has plowed “Anybody but Harper” into his field—the math must seem tantalizing. In 2011, 60.4 per cent of voters cast a ballot for someone other than a Conservative candidate. And now, six weeks from another vote, the Conservatives are polling around 30 per cent.

But the incumbent party is not out of contention. If it can get to, say, 35 per cent of the national vote and the non-Conservative vote splits just right, maybe the Conservatives can come away from Oct. 19 with enough seats to retain government. Such is life in a multi-party democracy conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.

If you are of the anti-Conservative persuasion, what can you do about this? One theoretically alluring answer is to vote strategically: to try to figure out which non-Conservative candidate has the best chance of winning in your riding, then cast a ballot for that person. In theory, if enough people did likewise, a result could be swung. The trick is turning that theory into reality. Can a statistically significant number of voters be accurately mobilized to achieve a specific result? And can enough of those efforts change, or assure, a result in a national election?

When Leadnow, the progressive organizing hub, asked its community to consider options for the 2015 campaign, “the vast majority of them said they wanted us to back candidates who could defeat Conservatives in swing ridings,” says Amara Possian, Leadnow’s elections campaign manager. The result is, a strategic-voting campaign that has so far drawn more than 59,000 pledges to “support the best local candidates to defeat the Harper Conservatives and move Canada forward.” The campaign covers 72 ridings where either a Conservative won by less than 15 per cent in 2011 or a New Democrat or Liberal won by less than five per cent with a Conservative in second. In 12 of those ridings—nine of which feature a Conservative incumbent—Leadnow organizers are on the ground and going door-to-door to solicit support. Since launched on Aug. 20, about 650 people have signed up to make phone calls to voters in those 12 ridings and 600 have volunteered to canvas door to door. “What we’ve heard from our community is that they’re upset about the first-past-the-post voting system, where a majority of people can vote for change and still have a Conservative win, and that’s the problem that we’re trying to address,” Possian says.

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Leadnow is not alone in its efforts. Unifor, the private sector union, is advising its members to vote for NDP incumbents, but otherwise to vote strategically for the Liberal or NDP candidate who has the best chance of defeating a Conservative. In British Columbia, the Dogwood Initiative, an environmentalist organization, is running an “informed voting” campaign that has surveyed the province’s candidates about a set of issues—pipeline proposals, coal shipments, Aboriginal relations, democratic reform and national security—and is organizing voters to consider both those responses (just one Conservative, John Weston, has responded to the survey) and each candidate’s likelihood of victory. “We’re truly non-partisan. It just so happens that on most of the issues that we’re working on, the current government is kind of offside with the majority of British Columbians,” says Will Horter, executive director of the Dogwood Initiative. “What we’re saying is: In this particular election, which is the candidate that carries your values forward the best? And who has the best chance of winning the seat?”

Leadnow and the Dogwood Initiative are both conducting riding-level polling to help voters understand the state of play—each has released one round of polls so far and has promised to do two more rounds before Oct. 19—and Unifor has said it will do likewise. “We think it’s really important for people to have access to local polling, something that the parties have but don’t release publicly. This is crucial information that people need to make a decision on election day, and it’s not available,” Possian says.

There are potential problems of both principle and practice. In a letter to Leadnow in April, Paul Moist, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), accused organizers of blurring the distinctions between non-Conservative parties. “Only the NDP has a progressive platform,” Moist wrote.

It’s also not clear how feasible such a project is. Voters cannot simply be divided between those who will vote Conservative and those who will not. There are those, for instance, whose first choice might be the NDP, but whose second choice might be the Conservatives (and traditional Conservative voters who would sooner vote NDP than Liberal). Past elections are not necessarily indicative of future results. And votes can shift suddenly. Strategic voting campaigns in 2011 did not prevent the Conservatives from winning a majority. “I think it’s time to say that these projects are not politically sophisticated enough to get their calls correct,” Alice Funke of wrote afterward, “and while they get a lot of people engaged in our democracy, which I can’t ever be opposed to, they do so under false pretences, namely, that you can know the outcome in a riding ahead of time, and game the system to your own ends.” An analysis published in April 2011 by Bryan Breguet of, which analyzes public polling, suggested that as many as 60 per cent of Liberal and NDP voters would have to vote strategically to have a significant impact on that year’s election. “Stop worrying about splitting the vote and simply cast your ballot for your first option,” he advised. “Yes, the current electoral system is not perfect, but you will at least have voted for the party and/or candidate you prefer.”

A certain degree of strategic voting in any election is perhaps natural, as voters consider the possible outcomes. Edmonton–Strathcona in 2008 might be such an example: In that case, former Liberal voters might have helped to boost the NDP’s Linda Duncan ahead of a Conservative incumbent. (Though not quite the same, Danny Williams’s Anything But Conservative campaign in Newfoundland helped to decimate the federal Conservatives in the province.)

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The question now is whether Leadnow and Dogwood have significantly improved upon previous efforts. “Historic examples of strategic voting have often been big failures because they were poorly designed. If you have bad inputs, you get bad outputs,” offers Horter, who says Dogwood has 2,800 volunteers and 119 teams of organizers across 20 ridings. That level of organization and direct contact with voters could matter. So, too, could several rounds of local polling, as opposed to the national or regional polling. “Nobody has ever run a strategic voting campaign in the way that we’re running Vote Together,” Possian says. “Previous strategic voting campaigns have been focused on putting information on a website and hoping people see it. This campaign is about a little bit more than that.”

Beyond Oct. 19, it is also interesting to consider what these third-party efforts might amount to. “We’re building an independent political force that can hold whomever is in power accountable to the issues and values that our community cares about,” Possian says. “The campaign is very focused on building strong relationships and building the organizing capacity of our hundreds and thousands of supporters across the country.” Hortor similarly envisions a “battle-tested ground game” of people sharing values, ready to make demands of whomever is in government.

Demonstrating an ability to significantly move votes would surely bolster that cause.