Polls in the final two weeks of the BC election show a close race, with the difference between the Liberals and NDP within the margin of error. These polls also show a strong Green vote, at between 14% and 24%. The fact that this is a close race with a strong third party raises questions about whether anti-Liberal voters should vote strategically. In some ridings, strategic voting can indeed play an important role in preventing vote splitting and keeping the Liberals from winning seats. There are, however, many ridings in which strategic voting is not likely to affect the election result.
Strategic voting comes at a cost. Voting has both an instrumental and an expressive value. In addition to determining the strength of the different parties in the legislatures, elections provide an indication of parties’ public support. Elections are an opportunity for voters to send a message to politicians about the types of policies they prefer. When individuals vote strategically that message becomes less clear. New Democrat leaders that see large numbers of Green voters switch to their party may take that as an indication that many Greens prefer the NDP platform. As a result, the NDP may feel its policies on issues like the environment are sufficient to capture views of a large number of BC voters.
This has real implications for the policies that parties pursue. A strong Green party sends a signal to both the NDP and the Liberals that the two party’s policies on issues like the environment are insufficient to win the support of a substantial number of voters. The threat that a strong Green party can take votes from a party like the NDP can force the NDP to adopt some of the Green’s policies. If too many Greens vote strategically, the party will look weaker than it actually is and like less of an electoral threat. This reduces the likelihood that the NDP will try to co-opt Green policies. Thus, strategic voting costs voters the ability to send a clear message to the politicians they elect. This is not to say that individuals should never strategic vote, but rather that they should only do so when the impact such a vote has on election results outweighs the costs of such a vote.
Whether a strategic vote is worth the cost, depends on the kind of riding a voter lives in. It makes little sense to vote strategically in a safe riding where the gap between the two largest parties is too big for a shift in Green votes to one party to affect the election result. A large number of ridings in BC fit this description. In 2013, 61 seats (72% of all ridings) were won by a margin of over 10 percentage points. In 2009, which was a closer election, 64 seats (75%) were won by that margin. In these ridings, there are usually not enough strategic voters to change the result, and voters should be wary of casting such a vote.
It also makes little sense to strategically vote in a riding in which the Greens and NDP are competing with each other. In these ridings a vote for the Green party is more likely to lead to the Greens winning a seat than the Liberals winning one. A strategic vote in such a riding does a lot of harm because it could deny the Greens a seat and the ability to influence policy in the legislature. In ridings in the area around Victoria, where the Greens are particularly strong, anti-Liberal strategic voting makes little sense.
Where strategic voting can matter is in ridings that are close races between the Liberals and NDP. These are the cases where a vote for the Greens has a real chance of leading to the election of the Liberals, and where Greens that prefer the NDP to Liberals should consider voting for the NDP. There may be fewer of these ridings that people sometimes believe. In 2013, there were 15 ridings (18%) in which the two strongest parties were separated by 5 percentage points or less (and in one of these ridings all three parties were competitive). In 2009, there were 19 ridings (22%) that were won by less 5 percentage points or less.
The decision over whether to strategic vote is complicated. Strategic voting can only have an impact on election results in close races, and most ridings are not close races. Individuals considering strategic voting should pay careful attention to the competitiveness of their ridings. Such voting in a safe seat is likely to cost voters their ability to express their views on policy in exchange for little influence over election results.