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I’ve seen a lot of talk about “strategic voting” lately, and as someone who witnessed the efforts up close and personal last time around, I want to talk about why it is not such a great idea – and, more importantly, why it simply won’t work.

It’s slimy

Whatever your thoughts on FPTP, it is a system that serves a population as large as dispersed as Canada quite well, by localizing politics. Even people living in remote parts of the country have a voice in Parliament. Their local issues are heard, because they vote for someone locally. Each vote counts at the local level.

What you are actually doing when you decide who to vote on not in favour of a candidate, but rather against a candidate, is render the vote of your neighbour invalid. This is an intrinsically negative action (more on that later). This negativity really shouldn’t be part of our political process. A much better solution would be to get involved with a campaign, or to run for office yourself, and try to change things for the better, like so many thousands of Canadians do each election season.

Are you voting for policies you don’t actually support?

Secondly, there is the glaring issue of potentially giving your support to a party that at best, you don’t truly support, and at worst, might do serious damage to the country.

In this election, people are being encouraged to vote for either the Liberal or NDP candidate, whichever has the best chance of beating the Conservatives in any given riding. The inherent problem with this recommendation is that these two parties are completely at odds with each other on several key issues that are of great importance to the environment, Canadian citizens, and Canada itself.

I won’t take up half this column by listing all the differences, but here are a few examples:

  • the NDP want to balance the budget; the Liberals want to go into debt to the tune of billions of dollars per year over the next few years.
  • The NDP opposes the Keystone XL pipeline; the Liberals support it.
  • The NDP wants to pull Canadian troops out of Syria; the Liberals have been murky on the issue.
  • The NDP voted against Bill C-51; the Liberals supported it.

You get the idea.

Opting to vote for ‘either one’ of the vastly different parties shows that you don’t care about those crucial issues. Or, it shows that you are so uninformed that you don’t believe those issues are important. Or, you are so blinded by your hatred of one party that you are choosing to ignore these gaping differences in policies.

None of those are noble or endearing badges to wear.

Wrongly grouping “left wing” voters together

On that note, there is another glaring issue: grouping the supporters of these two parties together in one group labelled “left-wing” or “progressive”. This is incredibly problematic because it… well, it simply defies common sense. But the numbers don’t back it up either.

Proponents of strategic voting ignore the fact that even the most recent polls show that it’s actually the Conservatives that are the second choice for 18% of Liberal voters; 5% of NDP voters; 11% of Green voters; and 14% of Bloc voters.

Those are not insignificant numbers.

This is the mistake the Liberals, NDP, and Bloc Quebecois made in 2008 when they formed a coalition after the election with the intention of taking control of Parliament. After promising not to form a coalition, they simply added up their total number of votes and came to the incredibly misguided conclusion that, given the choice, every single one of the voters who voted for any of their parties would also vote for a coalition of the three. (That assumption was quickly proven wrong as polls showed massive public objection to the coalition.)

Lesson learned? Treating this diverse group of voters as one homogenous bloc is incredibly simple-minded – not to mention intellectually dishonest, as the numbers proving the theory wrong are readily available.

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Now those are all very important points, but let’s put all that aside for a minute, as what I really want to talk about here today is of a much more practical nature: why strategic voting simply won’t work.

Obviously, if you’re in a riding where the CPC is polling at 35, and the Liberals are at 33, and the NDP is at 10, then yes – a “strategic vote” for the Liberals might make sense if your sole objective is to defeat Harper. But in all the hotly contested swing ridings, where strategic voting is purported to have the ability to shift the outcome of the election, strategic voting is dangerous and hopelessly ineffective.

Reason #1 is that no matter how many times you re-post it to Facebook and yell it inside the echo chamber of decided strategic voters, the number of people actually voting strategically is pitifully small.

I live in the riding of Richmond Hill, which elected a Conservative last time but has the potential to elect a Liberal candidate this time. I checked out LeadNow’s “VoteTogether” page and plugged in my postal code. There are a whopping 145 people committed to voting strategically through that website. There don’t appear to be any other websites that are actively soliciting sign-ups as a way to gauge how many strategic voters will participate in any given riding. But let’s be generous and say that TEN TIMES that many people will vote strategically. That puts us at almost 1,500.

There are 108,658 people in Richmond Hill. So with 1,500 strategic voters signed up, that adds up to only around 1.4%. Most ridings in Canada have between 80,000 and 130,000 people in them, so that number is going to carry pretty well across the country. “But hey, some ridings were decided by only a few dozen votes!” you’ll say. Yes, but even in those ridings, such a tiny number of strategic voters will not make a difference. Why?

Reason #2: The vast, vast, vast majority – I’d even be as bold as to say 100% – of people actively signing up to vote strategically, and those open to the suggestion, were already going to be voting anyway.

The likelihood of non-voters or undecided voters being swayed by strategic voting websites – or even by strategic voting door knockers, of which there are apparently some – is incredibly unlikely when there are actual parties with actual policies, multi-million dollar ad revenues, paid political activists, and full time dedicated door knockers pushing for their own platforms and ideas.

And it’s not just the obvious fact that voters will be exposed to much, much, much more political messaging from the three major parties than they will be from a ragtag group of anti-CPC activists, there is also a psychological aspect.

To get back to what I was talking about off the top, voting strategically is an inherently negative thing. Again, not necessarily in policies – advocates of strategic voting will paint their intensions and their motivations as positively as possible – but in sentiment, as you are not voting for something, but rather against something.

Endless psychological studies have shown that aggressive and negative messaging may linger in peoples minds and subconsciously affect people’s opinions / behaviours over the long term, but in terms of inspiring immediate action, humans are always more motivated by positive input / reinforcement.

We see this logic played out in political marketing all the time: parties launch negative ads to plant sentiment in people’s minds, but when election day comes, its all positivity, because human beings will always be more swayed to take action (i.e. vote) by positive messaging. The idea / hope that people will vote en masse against something rather than for something is dubious at best.

Reason #3 – and really, this is the only reason that matters – strategic voters are basing all of their strategy off of opinion polls. The same opinion polls that have been wrong time and time again, and only appear to be getting less and less reliable.

If there was ever a bulletproof argument against the effectiveness of strategic voting, it was the 2011 election. You can be excused for forgetting, as its proponents don’t like to talk about what a failure it was, but yes, there was a huge strategic voting effort only four years ago, in an election almost identical to this one.

In 2011, 10 days before the election – where we are right now – the Liberals and NDP were tied in the polls. No one – not a single pollster, not a single pundit, not a single “expert” – predicted just how strong the NDP’s surge would be on election day. They were estimated to maybe – if they were lucky, and if all the votes fell in all the right ridings – they might maybe, possibly, get as many seats as the Liberals.

Of course as we all know now, they ended up winning three times as many seats as the Liberals. They also came second to the Conservatives in an additional 107 races.

I can’t repeat this enough: that was UNHEARD of just days before the election. It could not have been predicted from any of the polls. Anyone who now says they saw this coming a week before the election is outright lying.

The truth is, if you were using the “most likely to win” criteria in 2011, you actually would have been voting against the vast majority of the NDP candidates who got elected, and against the 107 who came in second to the Conservatives.

So how, exactly, did those “strategic voters” help anything?

That 2011 election outcome considered, if you subscribe to the idea that a small number of people voting strategically in each riding can affect the outcome of the election, then you must also accept that it is likely that strategic voters helped Conservatives get elected in some ridings where the margins were exceptionally close.

It’s simple math: if a strategic voting effort convinced 300 NDP supporters to vote for the Liberals, and then the last minute NDP surge saw the NDP vote rise organically by 3,000 votes, and the Conservatives subsequently win by 100 votes, then those strategic voters just directly helped get a Conservative elected.

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Strategic voting is bad for democracy and for establishing good government. And, as 2011 showed, it simply won’t work. So don’t do it – throw your support behind someone who has good, positive ideas, and run with it. Run for office yourself. Get involved and try to affect policy decisions. But don’t waste your time on something as silly as strategic voting.