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September 27, 2012
CALGARY, AB, Sep 27, 2012/ Troy Media/ – Lately, strategic voting – that is, casting a vote for an acceptable candidate rather than your first choice, in the belief that the former has a better chance to win an election – has been receiving bad press.
Unjustly, in my opinion.
People criticize strategic voting (SV) as driven by a negative desire to defeat a particular candidate or party. This is often true, but can we presume to step inside voters’ minds and generalize about their motivation? Perhaps many have positive reasons to prefer other parties and cast their ballot with hope, not hate, in their hearts. And maybe the result is constructive.
Is SV more negative than other votes? Many politicos believe that opposition parties rarely win elections – rather, government parties lose because people have become fed up with them. This motivation for voting may be negative, but I suspect the politicos are right, however much we might wish that surges of love always dictated how people vote.
In any case, why should only strategic voters be singled out for negativity? I bet thousands of voters loyally support their favourite party for negative reasons. We might think of an unnamed party which encourages voters’ negative emotions such as dislike of, or contempt for, other parties or leaders. To pick a random example, I recall ads attacking Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff of the Liberals or New Democrat Tom Mulcair for largely imagined flaws.
Personally, I dislike such a nasty approach to politics, but I just don’t see SV as being in this category.
Let’s take a famous Calgary example of SV. In 2000, former Prime Minister Joe Clark ran for the Progressive Conservatives in Calgary Centre against the incumbent Alliance MP, whose party ended up winning all but three seats in Alberta. Although the PCs came in fifth nationally, many voters in Calgary Centre who usually voted for other parties spontaneously decided to switch and vote for Clark, thereby helping to elect him. I was one of those voters and after the election was surprised to learn that, without consulting each other, many of my Liberal and NDP friends had done the same.
So was the result constructive? No matter who won Calgary Centre, a strong Liberal majority was the overall election tally. But the local Alliance MP was dismissed for a combination of reasons – respect for Joe, a preference for a Red Tory over red-meat conservatism, and desire for a more sophisticated local representative.
‘Anybody but the Alliance’ sounds negative, but I felt very constructive when I cast my ballot. Joe Clark was, simply, the best electable candidate. So, contrary to some critics’ belief (e. g., political scientist Michael Byers), the local candidate, not the national party, can be a strong factor in the result. (We’ll pass over the fact that, in 2009, according to Wikipedia, Byers, a recent critic of negative ‘us-versus-them’ SV, ‘suggested that the Liberal Party of Canada and the New Democratic Party (NDP) ‘should agree to not run candidates against each other in the next campaign’ in electoral ridings in order to prevent the Conservative Party of Canada from forming another minority government.’)
Let us think about SV in the context of the upcoming by-election in Calgary Centre. It seems that at least four opposition parties (Greens, Liberals, New Democrats and Progressive Canadians, a remnant of the old PCs) will run candidates. Since the retiring MP garnered 57 per cent last time, and the non-conservative vote will be split four ways, his Conservative successor shouldn’t even need to get off the couch to win.
Two possibilities for change, however, have presented themselves, especially after a recent public opinion poll showed the combined support for the Greens, Liberals and NDP in Calgary Centre at 47 per cent, as opposed to the Conservatives’ 44 per cent. (This latter number could decline, as some Conservatives think their party’s candidate is divisive and too hard-line to support.) First, some members of all these opposition parties briefly considered the possibility of presenting a single ‘unity’ candidate, but for reasons of partisanship and overly-optimistic expectations that their candidate would be the obvious rallying point for non-Conservatives, that idea fell by the wayside.
Second, a citizens’ group is calling for people to mobilize ‘the progressive vote to support one consensus candidate in the 2012 by- election.’ It has set up a website – 1CalgaryCentre.com – and during the campaign will ask Calgary Centre residents which candidate it should be, and will urge voters to support that person.
To me, this is a classical SV approach. Yet the 1CC organizers oppose SV, because it ‘comes from a vindictive place.’ They say it stems from negative, not positive, emotions and constitutes ‘a directive, lacks respect and is based on a poor emotional connection.’
I don’t criticize 1CC’s entirely constructive and praiseworthy initiative – I entirely support it – but what it’s trying to achieve equates precisely with my understanding of SV and I don’t agree with 1CC’s criticisms of it.
Interestingly, 1CC thinks the Joe Clark example of SV was motivated by positive emotion, although as already conceded, many voters like me crossed party lines solely in order to defeat the Alliance. So were we ‘Anybody but the Alliance’ voters simultaneously negative and positive?
Or were we simply more primitive emotionally than other Clark supporters?
Let us remember that SV is an individual decision. Thousands of people independently do it in every election. Thus, advising voters which candidate appears to be the strongest opponent of one’s least favourite party is not elitist or dictatorial, just a useful tool for voters to consider IF they want advice about which of several acceptable (to them) candidates has the best chance to win (I hope using the term ‘win’ doesn’t offend anyone). That is, provided the criteria and arguments for the choice are clear.
The important thing here, however, is that individual choice is facilitated, not manipulated, by SV advice. Let us remember that public opinion polls are consulted by SVers in every election, even though their accuracy has not been very high..
Perhaps there’s some technical definition of SV which distinguishes between my view of it and 1CC’s. Or perhaps it’s merely a matter of ‘branding’ and 1CC wants to avoid the negative image SV seems to have, which is fair ball. Otherwise, I can’t understand 1CC’s opposition to it. True, its process is more participatory and open than the Democratic Renewal Project used in the last provincial election, but the ultimate hope is the same – that people will unite behind the strongest non-Conservative candidate.
Using a different process to decide which candidate to support does not change the fact that, ultimately, 1CC is recommending that people vote strategically to elect a particular candidate.
To conclude: I support SV and regardless of hair-splitting between SV and what 1CC offers, I respect its efforts and hope they will affect the by-election’s outcome. I look forward to its ultimate recommendation, based on its crowd-sourced choice procedure. I’m not clear on 1CC’s exact process, but my impression is that it will be pretty sophisticated.
In any case, time will tell how accurate or representative the decision of 1CC’s self-selected cohort is, and how its chosen candidate does. 1CC is an exciting experiment in ‘post-partisan’ politics, which could motivate voters to turn out in greater numbers because they realize their vote can matter.
Phil Elder is a former federal Liberal Assistant (1967-70), NDP provincial candidate in 1982, and was a strategic Green voter in the last federal election.
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