There is a lot of loose talk right now heaping blame and negativity on the toughest, most dedicated fighters against the Harper Tories in the election. The story seems to be that the tough and courageous things they did are the reason Canadian progressives got an election result that was merely good and not great. Instead of thanking and congratulating our most tireless fighters, we are blaming them for things working out imperfectly. In this blog post, I am going to rehearse some of the tiresome points that are being made and offer my take on why these criticisms are unreasonable and counter-productive.
“Those strategic voting web sites and groups just stampeded everybody into voting Liberal. If they hadn’t advocated strategic voting so hard, there wouldn’t have been such a stampede from the NDP to the Liberals in the last weeks.”
In this election, the Dogwood Initiative and LeadNow.ca poured unprecedented energy into polling and a ground game to reach anti-Harper voters and get them to vote strategically for the candidate most likely to defeat the Conservatives in their riding. And, because of the 3-4% Liberal-NDP swing on the final weekend gave some incorrect advice because no pollster captured that final weekend switch, in the same way nobody could capture the swing in the last two days of the 2012 Alberta election.
Supposedly, these organizations should have known this would happen and that there was no need to keep piling up Liberal victories, pushing us into a majority government where the NDP and Greens could not check bad Liberal policy. This is simply unfair. This is always a risk in elections but most elections don’t feature a final weekend switch that pollsters fail to capture. Betting that this election would be like 90% of elections and not like the 10% where this happens was a calculated risk these campaigns took. We—and I say we because I was in on the ground floor of this, writing Logistics of Cooperation back in 2012, before pulling back and letting less divisive figures flog this thing—would have been subject to a whole other round of criticisms if the final weekend swing had been a 3-4% shift to the Tories. Then we’d be being indicted for backing too many NDP long shots instead of too few.
Yeah, there was some wrong guessing and we got an imperfect result. Some dyed-in-the-wool New Democrats have concluded that this means nobody should ever make guesses again about who is going to win their riding, that guessing is, itself, an immoral act, that we should all “vote with our hearts.” Except on Vancouver Island. No Green on Vancouver Island should vote with their heart because… uh… strategic voting is only good when people vote strategically for us, not against us. The New Democrats flogging this nonsense are ungenerous and blinkered in their perspective. Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi and Alberta Liberal leader David Swann very graciously encouraged strategic votes for Rachel Notley and the NDP in the final days of the Alberta election this year. And much of the Orange Wave in 2011 in Quebec entailed sovereigntists strategically voting for the federalist NDP and centrists strategically voting for the leftist NDP in a desperate bid to turf Stephen Harper.
If NDPers keep rubbishing strategic voting and telling everybody to just follow their heart all the time, my friends and I might just follow our hearts into the soon-to-be-founded Socialist Whiskey Party of BC.
As former Green Party city councillor Art Vanden Berg says, coordinated strategic voting under first-past-the-post is like performing precision surgery with a stone axe. But it’s the best we have got; we will often guess wrong and produce sub-optimal outcomes. That’s why we have to ditch our current voting system in favour of proportional representation. But it is grossly irresponsible to suggest that even trying to make guesses about who has a shot at winning your riding is somehow a morally vacuous and pointless act, that somehow we should vote as though we already have proportional representation. Sheila Malcolmsen will be heading to Ottawa because Green-inclined people chose not to live in this fantasy world thanks, in significant measure, to the Dogwood Initiative and LeadNow.
“By encouraging strategic voting, LeadNow and Dogwood made all those progressives in Ontario and the Atlantic vote Liberal because people are too dumb to understand the voting system and just voted based on national polls.”
There were two kinds of “strategic voters” in this election: the newer, younger, more ecologically-focused “stop Harper voters” who have come of age politically in the past decade. These people were located and mobilized by strategic voting groups focused on climate change. But they were not the majority.
The majority of self-identified “strategic voters” came from three far more venerable groups who have been shifting their preferences strategically for decades based on values and goals very different from those of climate action groups like the Dogwood Initiative. “Strategic voting” didn’t come into being because Jamie Biggar, Matthew Carrol, Lynn McDonald and Gary Shaul invented it after Harper won his majority four years ago. It has been a major issue in every election conducted under first-past-the-post since Canada ceased to be a two-party system ninety years ago.
For almost a century, huge chunks of the Canadian electorate have said “I’m voting strategically” every damned election, which makes sense, given that our voting system requires so much second-guessing and strategy to make one’s vote count. Most of the people who cast “strategic votes” for the Liberals in 2015, I will wager, are people who also claimed they were casting strategic votes for the Liberals in 2000, people whose voting strategy is radically different than that of the smaller, younger group of strategic voters LeadNow and company try to shepherd.
These older-school strategic voters fall into three broad categories:
Embarrassed Liberals: Especially in Toronto and Ottawa, there is a constituency of people, usually highly educated, associated with the arts, involved in the charitable sector, wealthier sorts who are actually Liberals. But they feel they should be New Democrats. Many were New Democrats (or even Communists!) in their youth and feel embarrassed about how their politics have drifted right as their hair has greyed and the Che posters on their university office or art studio walls have faded. These poor souls have to make up long, complex stories most elections about why they are reluctantly voting for the party that is actually their first choice. But sometimes, they get carried away, as a few did in 2011, and cast a nostalgic vote for the party they long ago abandoned.
To blame LeadNow and company for these voters’ “strategic votes” is absurd. This crew were doing this long before any leader in the contemporary Stop Harper movement graduated high school.
Benefit-Seekers: In huge swaths of Canada, whether you are represented by a member of the government makes a big difference, especially if you work in a key economic sectors like building trades, health care or social services or if you’re from a diasporic family who needs help from their local MP to reunite in Canada. Many benefit-seeking strategic voters stuck with the Liberals as long as the Liberals seemed to have a shot at governing but strategically moved to the Tories, at Jason Kenney’s invitation between 2008 and 2011. These voters comprise a significant portion of the now-famous 905 belt, as well as much of Northern Canada. And they, quite rationally, move their votes to align with state power. The risk to family-supporting jobs, immigration files and one’s reserve’s electrical and water systems is too great to do otherwise.
Again, this kind of strategic voting is older than Canada itself. Again, to associate these strategic voters with environmental and social justice groups’ strategic voting campaigns is ridiculous.
People Who Like Momentum: Because our current voting system makes one feel so powerless and one’s vote so useless, it is tough to get any significant emotional payoff from voting. One of the few ways one can derive such an emotional payoff is by deciding to be part of “the thing that happened.” A lot of powerless people align their vote with whatever force has momentum so that they can credit themselves with the Mulroney Sweep, Orange Wave, Trudeau Restoration (sorry – couldn’t resist one anti-monarchy joke) or whatever. Fortunately, our voting system provides them with a discourse to justify their fickleness. Rather than claiming constant changes of ideology, they can, quite reasonably, mask their desire for belonging and relevance with an ever-shifting set of post-hoc voting strategy rationalizations.
I am proud to have been an activist for electoral cooperation and strategic voting the past four years. Let’s hope that we have a chance, under the Trudeau government, to change Canada’s voting system to insure that high-stakes guessing becomes a less important part of our voting systems. But let’s not pillory the courageous souls who chose to help us guess how best to make our votes effective, even if our guesses weren’t as good as we would have liked.