The last strategic vote

By Leslie Campbell, November 2015

Let’s make sure that next time we can vote our conscience and know it will count.

As I was working out the details of how I would get my mom, Jade, to the polls on election day, her careworker Cristina asked if there might be trouble. Trouble? What do you mean, I asked. She told me how the Philippines had often had trouble with “flying voters”—referring to electoral fraud where people are paid to get on lists illegally and vote a certain way. Well, there might be some robocalls misdirecting people to the wrong polls, but as far as I know, no “flying voters.”

She also wondered, would it be safe? Yes, of course, I answered. In her homeland, she explained, there had been “ambushes” around election time. Which led me to recall another caregiver, one who’d come from an agency to help over the weekend. Also from the Philippines, she’d told me that her husband had been shot and killed because he was seeking election as mayor of his town.

Thankfully, even with unwavering resolution on the part of so many to “Stop Harper,” ambushes and assassinations were not among Canadians’ strategies. Instead, we engaged in all sorts of non-violent, legal means to “heave Steve.” And though we whined about the extra-long campaign period imposed by Harper, it worked against him in the end, as the Liberal wave gathered strength in the latter half of the campaign.

Among our best strategies were simply encouraging more people to vote. Everyone got into the act. In a grocery store on election day, I listened as a cashier asked everyone who came through her till if they had voted and she gave them lots of praise if they had. The mass get-out-the-vote movement worked. There was a seven percent jump nationally in voter turn-out—at 68.49 percent, the highest since 1993. Locally, it was even more impressive with a whopping 73 to 80 percent turn-out in the various ridings.

We also became overly familiar with the refrain “vote strategically.” I for one will be very happy if there’s no need for it in the next federal election.

While the strategic vote chorus helped us all understand the way the first-past-the-post system is unfair to the electorate—allowing one party to have a majority government despite 60 percent voting for other parties—it also added an element of confusion, especially when polls showed close races between non-Conservatives. 

Its purpose was to unite us in order to defeat Harper, but ironically, in some communities, the pleas to vote for a candidate you didn’t want to in order to accomplish Harper’s banishment seemed more divisive than uniting. Perhaps in a few ridings it made sense. But it seemed contagious, spreading in ways the organizers didn’t intend—like in Victoria where there was no chance of electing a Conservative. And even in the ridings officially targeted by groups like Leadnow, it often didn’t work out well. In BC, where Leadnow made specific recommendations in 13 ridings, four of those went sideways, though only two of them ended up with a Conservative winning. In both North Okanagan-Shushwap and Cariboo-Prince George, Leadnow urged people to vote NDP, but the Liberals were the ones who ended in second place, leaving the Conservatives to win. Strategic voting is more art than science.

The “Anyone But Conservative” movement seemed at times an excuse to offer endorsements for a particular party. In Burnaby North-Seymour, No Tanker’s Ben West endorsed the NDP candidate despite that party not being committed to stopping Kinder Morgan’s pipeline. Understandably, the Green candidate, scientist Lynne Quarmby, who’d been arrested over the pipeline and had worked alongside Ben West, felt betrayed and perplexed. How did it work out there—besides the bruises? The Liberals won hands-down—and they were polling ahead, so why endorse the NDP or anyone?

Environmentalist Tzeporah Berman, like Leadnow, endorsed Mira Oreck (NDP) in Vancouver Granville. That was despite some polls showing the Liberals were in a clear lead and others showing a tie. In the end, Liberal Jody Wilson-Raybould won with a whopping 23,643 votes—9000 more than either her Conservative or NDP competitor. The seat was saved from Harper’s Conservatives, but Leadnow and Berman were proven wrong and unhelpful.

Here in Victoria, some NDPers displayed—in Facebook posts and in public—resentment towards the Green Party for simply having the audacity to run a strong candidate. While the NDP’s Murray Rankin won the intensely-fought Victoria race, the Green Party more than tripled its vote over the 2011 election—moving from 7000 to over 23,500 votes. The NDP had 30,679 votes in 2011 but dipped to 30,147 this time, despite 11,000 more voters coming to the polls. The Green’s Jo-Ann Roberts picked up a good portion of those votes. The Conservative vote went down by close to 6000 votes, ending at 8425; and the Liberals, despite the candidate’s ambiguous status, maintained about 8000 votes in each election. The Conservatives had no hope of winning the riding, and neither did the Liberals. So voters had to choose between two progressive candidates, neither of which had any real hope of forming government. We could afford to vote our conscience with no fear of helping Harper form government again.

It’s a great relief that we can now jettison both “Stop Harper” and “vote strategically.”


THE GOOD NEWS IS THAT HARPER is gone. And Prime Minister Designate Trudeau seems genuinely committed to ditching the first-past-the-post system that brought both Harper and himself to power. The Liberal platform promised a special, all-party parliamentary committee to study alternatives to the current electoral system, and, within 18 months, to introduce legislation to replace first-past-the-post, based on the committee’s recommendations. Trudeau reiterated this promise the morning after the election. 

Still, we must stand on guard. Other powerful people in the Liberal Party may lobby hard to not rock the boat. After all, Trudeau has a comfortable majority (54.4 percent of the seats) with only 39.5 percent of the people voting for him. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) Under the electoral reforms that will be considered, he’d have ended up with a minority government. Over the decades, parties have been highly reluctant to change the system that brought them a majority.

But let’s think positively, or at least be vigilantly optimistic.

In the next year and a half we’ll no doubt be learning more about the various forms of electoral systems, chief among them proportional representation. Close to 100 countries around the world use different forms of “pro-rep” and academics have done much research on them. There’s Mixed Member Proportionality (MMP) used in New Zealand, Germany, and Scotland; and the one we almost got in BC a few years back, Single Transferable Vote (STV), used in Australia, Ireland, and India. But right now the important thing to remember is they all allow every vote to count in shaping parliament. If your preferred party gets 20 percent of the votes, then it will get 20 percent of seats in the House of Commons. (In this election, nationally, the NDP’s 19.7 percent of the popular vote translated to only 13 percent of the seats.)

On Vancouver Island, what might that look like? Well it’s hard to forecast from the recent popular vote because it probably has been influenced by the “vote strategically” message and different types of pro-rep would play out slightly differently. But say it was representative and say we still had at least five seats from the Island. The 33 percent of us who voted NDP would likely get two seats, but the 21 percent of us who voted Liberal or Conservative (each), and the 24 percent of us who voted Green would all see one of their party’s candidates elected to the House of Commons. There’d be a far greater possibility for smaller parties and even independent candidates to do well. 

Kelly Carmichael, executive director of Fair Vote Canada, pointed out that under the current system, “Over 9 million [51 percent] Canadians didn’t get to vote in a representative in this election.” As the organization’s electoral expert Wilfred Day told DeSmogblog, “the winner-takes-all voting system is the ultimate voter suppression scheme: It throws 51 per cent of the votes in the garbage.”

Pro-rep electoral systems often result in minority governments, meaning there’s far more collaboration forced upon our parliamentarians.

So, while Trudeau and his Liberals have a lot on their plate (e.g. climate talks in December, 25,000 Syrian refugees welcomed by 2016…), his promises around electoral reform are crucial for the health of our democracy.

Next election, if Trudeau keeps his promise, we’ll all be able to vote our conscience because every vote will count towards the results. Hyper-partisanship will be diminished because the stakes won’t be quite so high. And strategic voting will die a good death.

Hopefully Cristina herself will be able to vote. On election day, she completed her application for permanent residency, a step towards citizenship and getting her husband and son to Canada. Which reminds me of another of Trudeau’s encouraging promises—to help reunite immigrant families.

Leslie Campbell congratulates all the candidates on their long, hard-fought campaigns and Canadians for voting in an imperfect electoral process. Fair Vote Canada has some Youtube videos explaining how the different forms of proportional representation would work.