My first encounter with strategic voting, and with using it to Stop someone, came during the 1997 provincial election in Alberta. I got a call from the NDP campaign in my riding, Edmonton-Strathcona. When I suggested that I might be voting Liberal, the caller insisted that the Liberals were way back in third place and it was a two-way race between the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives; if I wanted to Stop Ralph Klein and prevent the Tory candidate from being elected, I had to vote NDP.

In the end, the NDP’s Raj Pannu won the seat, with a narrow, 58-vote margin … over the Liberal candidate. The PCs were in third place—a close third place, only another 118 votes further back, but in third place nonetheless.1 I don’t remember how I voted in that election, but I took two lessons away from the experience:

  1. The NDP are a bunch of sanctimonious pricks who are just as willing to lie and engage in dirty tricks as any other party.2
  2. Strategic voting is a con—a way to trick you into voting for their candidate instead of yours.

I’ve been wary of strategic voting ever since. It has never, ever been a politically disinterested tactic. You always have to ask yourself who benefits from it, and you always have to question the underlying data being brought out to justify it.

Ontario is going through a provincial election campaign right now, and because I have a lot of friends in Ontario, and also because social media ad buying is stupid, I’m seeing a lot of ads and memes even though I live in Quebec. A lot of them are presenting evidence that the NDP candidate in a given riding is just a few points behind the PC candidate, and if just a few more people who want to Stop Doug Ford vote for the NDP candidate, we could do it! We could Stop Doug Ford!

Here’s the problem. Who’s telling you that? Social media is full of front groups that sound independent but are really working for one of the parties. And where is that riding-level data coming from? Is it based on polling data or is it a projection based on province-wide numbers? Is it even real?

That infographic telling you to switch your vote to the NDP from the Liberals in your riding? That might just as easily help the Conservative candidate win, if the NDP candidate was actually running a distant third and the Liberal and Conservative candidates were running neck-and-neck: a few votes moved from the Liberals to the NDP might make all the difference.

Again, don’t think that parties can’t lie to you in order to influence your vote. Don’t think they won’t. And don’t discount the possibility of a disinformation campaign.

Because we won’t know until after the election whether those numbers are dubious or even outright fantasies. I keep thinking about the 2015 federal election, during which a number of online voting guides were set up to help people vote strategically, because in 2015 people needed to Stop Stephen Harper. Some of their riding numbers seemed a little … off, especially in hindsight: ridings where a candidate was said to be competitive but ended up finishing a distant third. Whether this was a function of partisan funny business or simply the shifting political fortunes during a very volatile election was not something I bothered to investigate.

Stop Klein, Stop Ford, Stop Harper: the ostensible premise of strategic voting, remember, is to Stop someone. It’s based on the fear that a party, candidate or leader who they desperately wish to Stop will get in with less than 50 percent support because the voters who wish to Stop them have split their votes among the parties interested in Stopping them. Then the party, candidate or leader they wish to Stop will not be Stopped.

It sounds like something that would transcend grubby partisan politics, something born of compromise and coalition building—only in practice it isn’t. It’s actually shitty and toxic.

Campaigns that are all about Stopping someone are predicated on fear: scaring the bejeepers out of the electorate in hopes of triggering a stampede of support toward us. And they’re predicated on negative campaigning: we don’t have to earn your vote, we just have to give you no other choice. They’re predicated on limiting voter choice between us and them.

Which means that in a system with three functioning political parties, the other party capable of Stopping someone must be crushed so that your own party can harvest all the votes to Stop them. The Liberals and NDP play this game a lot, because there’s a voting bloc that is comfortable switching between these two parties, but is not comfortable with the Conservatives. The Liberals tend to do well when the NDP is reduced to a rump, and the same is true with the NDP. So in the Canadian context, strategic voting is a way of moving that voting bloc their way in the absence of any other factors.

Basically, campaigns to Stop the Conservatives are really about stopping the other non-Conservative party.

In the 2015 Canadian federal election, the NDP was in full Stop Harper mode, and its pitch to Liberal-leaning voters was that they had to vote NDP to Stop Harper, because only the NDP could form a government; this pitch imploded when the Liberals moved ahead of the NDP in the opinion polls, and the Liberal/NDP voting bloc shifted en masse to the Liberals. Those voters were happy with the outcome: the Liberals won, so Harper was Stopped! But NDP supporters, many of whom had made a big deal about how Harper had to be Stopped, were pissed. Because for them Stop Harper was a means to an end—an NDP government—not an end in and of itself.

But some measure of payback is taking place in the Ontario provincial election. Any hope on the part of the provincial Liberals that fear of Doug Ford would overwhelm dislike of Kathleen Wynne and have voters stampeding back to the Liberal fold was thwarted by, well, Andrea Horwath showing up to the debates and reminding people that they might have a slightly less toxic option.3

It’s not preventing the NDP from playing the strategic voting card themselves. It’s a weapon they can’t help but use, especially when they’re running against Doug Ford—who really does need to be kept as far away from the premiership as possible. But it’s a weapon that only works when you’re in second place; it can be employed just as effectively against you when you’re behind.

Notes

  1. Results for Edmonton-Strathcona in the 1997 Alberta provincial election: Raj Pannu (NDP), 4,272 (31.8%); Mary MacDonald (Lib), 4,214 (31.4%); John Logan (PC), 4,096 (30.5%); John Forget (Social Credit), 552 (4.1%); Myles Kitagawa (Green), 236 (1.8%); Eshwar Jagdeo (Natural Law), 47 (0.4%).
  2. For the record, I have voted for said sanctimonious pricks when I felt they were the best option.
  3. It’s a favoured tactic used by provincial Liberals in western Canada in the late 1980s and early 1990s, where the NDP and right-wing parties were established and entrenched: offer voters sick or wary of both parties a way out.