Discussion of strategic voting and wasted votes is common in Canadian electoral politics. The first past the post system can often leave voters frustrated, votes cast for candidates that finish third or worse have limited effect on the composition of parliament, leaving many to feel that their vote has no impact on government. For this reason, strategic voting is often discussed as individuals vote for their second or third preference party in order to defeat their least preferred party. In a close race between the Liberals and the Conservatives, New Democrats might vote for the Liberal party in the hopes of preventing a Conservative victory. There is another, somewhat counter-intuitive way that one might approach strategic voting. One could vote for a single issue party with no chance of winning in the hopes of signalling one’s preference to other parties and ultimately pushing them to change their policies. For some voters casting a strategic a vote for a party like the Green Party can make sense, even if that party will finish third or worse in the voter’s riding.
Parties have strong incentives to move to the centre of the political spectrum in two party races. In order for parties to win they have to find policies that appeal to undecided voters who are usually moderate in their policy preferences. Parties can also feel secure that their supporters with preferences further from the centre will continue to support them because this voters do not have an alternative. The Conservative Party can become increasingly moderate and not fear the loss of less moderate right wing voters because there is no major party to the right of the Conservatives. The result of this is that two-party systems tend to see parties cluster around the middle of the political spectrum. Traditional strategic voting, which commits voters will less moderate positions to support to a “lesser of two evils” moderate party, can limit the ability of less moderate voters to influence the positions that parties take. They might be able to prevent the party they like the least from getting into government, but they have limited ability to get the policy outcomes that they prefer.
Voting for third and fourth parties can, over the long term, offer these voters a way to influence the positions that parties take. When there are viable third and fourth parties on the flanks of moderate parties, moderate parties have to be far more careful about moving the centre. Doing so can cost them the votes of less moderate supporters. Environmental politics offers a good example of how this might work. Without the Green Party, the Liberals and the NDP have to adopt only marginally stronger environmental policies than the Conservatives in order to be the “least bad” alternative for voters with a strong commitment to environmental protection. The presence of a Green Party changes the strategic calculus for the Liberals and the NDP. They can no longer simply outdo the Conservatives on environmental policy, but they also have to demonstrate that they are sufficiently strong in that policy area to convince voters not to defect to the Greens. The more people defect from the Liberals and the NDP to the Greens, the greater the incentive the Liberals and the NDP have to adjust their environmental policies in order to win those voters back.
Voting for third parties can also be a way for voters to try to force parties to talk about issues they may otherwise try to avoid. Environmental politics can create difficult dilemmas for left-wing parties such as the NDP. On one hand there are substantial numbers left-wing voters that favour strong environmental policies. On the other hand, environmental policies such as carbon taxes or stronger industry regulations can have negative impacts on low income and working class individuals. The NDP has to walk a careful line between supporting environmental regulations that cater to its environmentalist supporters and avoiding imposing costs on low income and working class voters concerned with the economic ramifications of regulations. The incentive for the NDP is to downplay the importance of the environment to avoid exposing this conflict in their base. The less they have to talk about the environment the less they have to choose sides on this issue. A challenge from an environmental party like the Green Party can force the issue back onto the agenda. The presence of a substantial Green Party raises the threat that the NDP might lose environmentalist supporters. This forces them not only to change their policies, but also to make environmental issues a larger part of their campaign and legislative agenda than they might have otherwise.
There are three caveats that should be placed on the idea of strategically voting for third and fourth parties. The first is that voters choosing this strategy have to care more about the policies that are adopted by parties and governments more than they care about who gets into government. The goal of this strategy is to try to influence policy by changing the incentives that parties face in elections rather than trying to change the party in power. A necessary consequence of this is that voters will have to relinquish some ability to influence the party that gets into government. A benefit to this though is that the more parties that a third or fourth party can appear to threaten, the more influence that the party can wield over policy. A Green Party that can credibly threaten to take voters from the Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP can exert more influence over policy than a Green Party that can only credibly threaten to take voters from the NDP. As a third or fourth party draws votes from a greater range of parties, changing the party in power becomes less important to getting the policy changes that that party is seeking.
The second caveat that should be placed on this strategy is that it works best over the long term. Ultimately strategic voters supporting a third or fourth party are trying to cause short term pain to moderate parties in order try to change their policies over the long term. This may result in those parties losing elections in the short term. Indeed the influence of a third or fourth party becomes stronger if they can show that they can cause a moderate party to lose an election. Individuals that try to blackmail a moderate party into changing their policy will have to live with governments that do not always reflect their preferences in the hopes that they can change the dynamics of the party system over the long term.
A final caveat is that this strategy probably works best for voters who care about a particular issue. A third or fourth party like the Green Party may be able to push competitors to change their positions in a single policy area, such as the environment. It is much harder to try to get parties move the overall ideological bent of their platform. Adopting stricter environmental policies to win over a few more voters is a much more reasonable proposition for a moderate party than trying to restructure large portions of their platform to respond to such a challenge. The more policies a party has to change to respond to a challenger, the more the moderate party risks losing its current voters over those issues.
I remember quite clearly the first campaign that I ever volunteered on. At the end of a losing campaign, the candidate remarked that if we could just convince the Green Party voters to support us in the next election, that we would stand a good chance of winning. Candidates and parties are cognizant of the votes that they lose to third and fourth party candidates. Supporting such a party can send a clear signal to moderate parties about how they have to adjust their policy in order to be successful in the next election.