How Much of the Election Could Green Voters Have Changed?

In the wake of a very close election in BC it is worth considering the effect that strategic voting might have had. The rise of the Green party had many leftists in the province concerned that the Greens and NDP might split the vote and allow the Liberals to win several ridings. After the election, it is possible to check to see which ridings might have changed parties had there been more or less strategic voting. A look at the results shows that, because the election was so close, strategic voting could have changed the result. It is important, however, not to overstate strategic voting’s impact. Had the seat difference between the Liberals and NDP been in the range of 5-10 seats, it is unlikely that such voting would have mattered.

The first question that arises with respect to strategic voting, is whether the NDP could have taken more seats from the Liberals had more Green supporters switched their support to the NDP. To test this, I looked at the percentage of Green voters that would have needed to move to the NDP in order for the NDP to match the Liberals’ vote percentage in any particular riding. When doing this I assume that the remaining Green voters stick with the Green party.

The graph below shows that a large number of Green voters would have had to move to the NDP in order to have anything more than a minimal impact on the number of seats that Liberals won. The NDP would have added only two seats to their total had 20% of Green voters switched to them, and only 3 more seats had 40% switched. In addition to this, Green switching to the NDP would have increased the safety of two ridings, Coutney Comox and Mission Maple Ridge, that the NDP barely won and which could switch to the Liberals after absentee ballots are counted or after a re-count. The NDP would have had to win 80% of the Green vote in order to flip 10 seats. For this to happen, the overwhelming majority of Green voters would have had to both prefer the NDP to the Liberals and would have had to decided to vote strategically.

Green Vote Needed to Increase NDP Seats

It is also worth considering the impact that individuals who strategically voted in this election might have had. To do this I looked at the number of NDP seats that the party would have lost had various percentages of NDP voters chosen to vote for the Greens instead.

This analysis also shows that strategic voting had a limited impact on the result. If the NDP lost 5% of its vote, it would only lose two seats. These are the two extremely close seats that may still change hands when absentee votes are counted, Courtney Comox and Mission Maple Ridge. If the NDP lost 10% of its vote, it would lose 3 seats, and if it lost 20% of its vote it would lose 8 seats. If 20%-30% of the NDP vote came from Greens voting strategically, strategic voting affected a large number of seats in this election. Otherwise, Green strategic voting only affected the outcome in couple of seats.

Seats the NDP Would Lose if Their Voters Switched

Because this election was so close, even things that had a small effect on election results mattered. When one or two seats that are decided by less than 1 percentage point make the difference between a majority and a minority government there are a large number of things that affect an election. In such a close race, strategic voting in close ridings matters. In Courtney Comox, Mission Maple Ridge, Coquitlam Burke Mountain, Richmond Queensborough, Vancouver False Creek, and Fraser Nicola the decision over whether to strategic vote mattered. In most other ridings, however, it likely did not.

This has two major implications. First, voters should be very careful to check the competitiveness of their ridings before strategically voting. In a close election, a strategic vote in a close riding can have a critical impact on the election result. In most ridings, however, a strategic voter may not be getting much out of such a vote. Second, moving to an electoral system such as a ranked ballot or run-off that allows voters to, in effect, cast a sincere and a strategic vote (by expressing multiple preferences on her ballot) are unlikely to change election results all that much. Unless 30% of NDP voters are actually Green supporters strategically voting for the NDP, there are few ridings where the Greens would be competitive under a ranked ballot or run-off system. Strategic voting is not a magic bullet that can fix the disproportionality of first past the post electoral system, nor is it a powerful force denying smaller parties like the Greens seats.

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Strategic Dilemmas: The Anti-Liberal Vote in the BC Election

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.

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The Green Threat (Part 3): Consequences for this Election

In my last two posts, I looked at what a Green surge would mean for the NDP in two scenarios. One where the NDP does as well as they were in April 18th polls, and a second where they did as poorly as in the 2013 election. Both analyses suggested that a Green surge would have a limited impact on the outcomes of the election. The NDP would lose some seats on Vancouver Island, but unless the vast majority of the increase in the Green vote comes as a result of NDP defections, in neither scenario do the Liberals pick up a substantial number of seats. This is not to say that a Green surge cannot contribute to a Liberal victory, but rather, that it will only do so if the election is already very close. Potential strategic voters should be aware of this when deciding how to approach this election.

The first danger that the NDP faces is that the Green party will win enough seats to deny them a majority in spite of a win over the Liberals. The previous posts suggest that this is unlikely to happen. Neither suggests that the Green party is likely to take more the 10 seats (all on Vancouver Island from the NDP). Indeed, most election forecasters would likely be surprised if the Green party managed to take that many. Yet, only three times since 1945 (1952, 1979, and 1996) has the difference between first and second in a BC election been less than 10 seats. One of those elections, in 1952, used a different electoral system and another, in 1996, saw the party with the second most votes win the most seats. BC’s first past the post system tends to give whichever party wins the plurality of the vote a healthy advantage over the second place party. If the NDP defeats the Liberals by a substantial margin, it is unlikely that loosing a handful of seats on Vancouver Island will prevent them from forming a government.

It is also worth considering the danger that voters switching to the Green party will allow the Liberal party to win seats by splitting the anti-Liberal vote. The last two posts suggest that, while this certainly matters in some ridings, defections from the NDP to Greens are unlikely to affect the outcome of most ridings. Where the Greens are strongest, on Vancouver Island, they tend to be stronger than the Liberal party. In most ridings on the Island, defections from the NDP to the Greens are more likely to a Green victory than a Liberal one. Many seats off the Island are either safe Liberal or NDP seats. In safe seats, the gap between the two parties is too large for a surge in Green support to take enough votes from the NDP to give the Liberals the riding.

It is important to note that in highly competitive seats, particularly those that the NDP are trying to take from the Liberals, a Green surge may end up costing the NDP seats. There is thus some merit to anti-Liberal strategic voting in some parts of the province. Anti-Liberal voters in ridings that have historically been close, or where it looks like a New Democrat might be able to unseat a Liberal, should consider backing the NDP. It is unlikely, however, that most voters live in those kinds of close ridings. Anti-Liberal voters in safe ridings should not be concerned that a vote for the Green party will hand the Liberals an extra seat.

There are two important points from previous posts that should be highlighted. The first is that the election needs to be very close for the growth in Green support to have an impact on the result. It is very possible that it will be that close. The NDP have only won the popular vote in the province twice (in 1996 they won a third election despite losing the popular vote). Even though they are leading in the polls, the NDP has to deal with the fact that they are fighting an election in a province where historically most voters have supported other parties. This does not mean that one should discount the likelihood of NDP victory, but one should also not be surprised if the election ends up being closer than the polls currently predict.

The second important point is that strategic voting is a lot less likely to have an impact on the election than is often assumed. In certain, very competitive ridings, strategic voting can affect which party wins. In a large number of ridings, however, the margins between the two strongest parties are simply to big for strategic voting to change anything. In these ridings, anti-Liberal voters ought to back the party they prefer regardless of which one is stronger. They should pay careful attention to the competitiveness of their ridings when deciding whether or not to vote strategically.

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The Green Threat (Part 2): A Green Surge Would Have Changed Little in the 2013 Election

In my last post, I looked at how the rise of the BC Greens might affect the NDP if they manage to hold on to their current levels of support. Polls in British Columbia are not always as reliable as one would hope, and with the main leadership debate still to come, there is plenty of time for the polls to change. In this post, I will look at what would have happened if a Green surge similar to the one happening now occurred in 2013. Where in my last post I looked at what would have happened had the parties had their current poll numbers, in this post I look at what would have happened had the Liberals and NDP won vote shares similar to their 2013 numbers. Together, these posts provide a sense of the possible outcomes of two different scenarios. This one provides a look at a case where the Liberals are ahead by a substantial margin and the last post a scenario where the NDP has a slight lead. A Green surge in the last election would have changed very little.

To look at the impact a rise in the Green vote I use April 18, 2017 polling data from CBC’s poll tracker to estimate party’s vote shares in each riding. Rather than estimating the support for the Liberals and NDP though, I take their 2013 results as is. I consider two scenarios when reducing Liberal and NDP support to account for Green growth. First, I consider a scenario where the Greens get 60% of their increase from the NDP and 40% of their increase from the Liberals. Second, I consider a scenario where the Greens get 80% of their increase in support from the NDP and 20% from the Liberals. This takes into account two different cases, one where the Greens draw only a slightly higher share of their increase from traditional NDP supporters and a second where the overwhelming majority of Green growth comes at the expense of the NDP. As in the previous post, it is important to note that these are crude estimates. They are designed to demonstrate the potential impact of a rise in Green support on the other parties, not to give a definitive account of which parties would have won which exact seats.

In the first scenario, the effect of the rise in Green support is small and largely confined to Vancouver Island. When only 60% of the growth in Green support comes at the expense of the NDP, only 5 seats change hands. Only one of those, in Burnaby/Coquitlam, is not on the Island. In this scenario, there are also 8 seats whose competitiveness changes. These seats either go from being safe seats (the winner no longer has a 5 percentage point lead over the second place finisher) to competitive ones, or from competitive to safe seats. All of these seats are on the Island (the riding in Burnaby Coquitlam was competitive both before and after the rise in Green support was estimated).

Seat Changes Due to Growth in Green Support (2013 Result)

The impact of the Greens is more significant in the scenario where they draw 80% of their increase in support from the NDP. Under these circumstances, 9 seats (or 11% of the BC legislature at the time) would change parties. Again, these changes are largely confined to Vancouver Island. Only two seats off the Island (both in Burnaby/Coquitlam) would have elected a different MLA. A substantial number of seats, 14, would see a change in competitiveness, though most of those would also be on Vancouver Island.

The likelihood that a Green surge would lead to the NDP losing a large number of seats to a Liberal party taking advantage of vote splitting is also limited. Of the 5 seats that the NDP would lose if the Green party got 60% of their increase from the NDP, 4 would be won by the Green party. The Liberals would take only the seat in Burnaby/Coquitlam. If the 80% of the Green rise would have come from the NDP, the Liberals would take an additional two seats. There would also be two tied races, one between the Greens and the NDP, and one between the Greens, Liberals, and NDP. In both scenarios, the Greens and not the Liberals are the main beneficiaries of a rise in Green support.

Gains by Parties Due to Green Growth

Had the Green surge that is happening now occurred in 2013, not much would have changed. Vancouver Island would have elected more Green MLAs, and would have been more competitive, but for the most part, the rest of the province would have elected the same candidates. This is not to say that a rise in Green support cannot work to the advantage of the Liberals, but the Liberals and NDP have to very close in support in order for that to happen. In 2013, the gap between the two major parties was large enough that a rise in Green support would have had a relatively small impact on the election result.

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The Green Threat (Part 1): 2017 Polling Numbers suggest the Greens are Unlikely to Prevent an NDP Victory

Polling in the BC election is showing a remarkable increase in support for the provincial Green party.   The party that won less than 9% of the vote in 2013 and 2009 is now polling at around 20% across the province and over 30% on Vancouver Island. The potential for the Greens to significantly increase their vote raises important questions about what effect a Green surge would have on the NDP. If the Greens draw large numbers of left wing voters to them, vote splitting between them and the NDP could allow the Liberal party to pick up significant numbers of seats. It is thus important to examine where the Green party is having success, and test the its potential impact on NDP electoral prospects. In this post, I look at what would have happened in 2013 had polling numbers been where they were April 18, 2017.  If the NDP can establish a solid lead over the Liberals, they should be protected from a Green surge. In a close election, however, a strong Green party is likely to be a problem for the NDP.

To examine the impact of the Green surge I compared aggregate polling data from CBC’s Poll Tracker to the results for the 2013 election. I looked at the numbers the tracker has estimated for three regions (Metro Vancouver, Vancouver Island, and the North/Interior) and compared them to the results the party received in 2013. I then adjusted the riding scores to account for the difference between 2013 and current polling numbers. For example, if a party is polling 5 percentage points above where they were in 2013 in Vancouver, I would add 5 percentage points to the parties’ vote percentage from 2013 in Vancouver ridings. This is a very crude measure of party support in different ridings. Unfortunately, however, without riding level polling, it is impossible to account for how popular opinion is spread across ridings in a particular part of the province. I classified ridings as safe if the gap between the first and second place party was more than 5% and competitive if the gap was less than 5%. For the 2017 numbers (though not for 2013) I also count any riding that looks would switch parties as unsafe, even if it looks like the margin between first and second place is higher than 5 percentage points. I do this because of the uncertainty surrounding polling, I am more confident in the 2013 analysis that uses actual election results. It is finally important to note that there has been redistricting between the 2013 and 2017 elections. This means that predictions for individual ridings for 2013 will not necessarily be accurate for 2017. This analysis can provide a general sense of where the election is competitive, but the exact numbers presented should be taken with a grain of salt.

A look at the 2013 results shows that the Liberals had a large number of safe seats. Of the 49 seats the Liberals won in 2013, 40 were by more than 5 percentage points. In contrast, the NDP won by more than 5 percentage points in only 26 seats, and the two parties were within 5 points of each other in 16 seats. The Greens were largely a non-factor. They won one seat in Victoria by a fairly margin and were competitive with both the Liberals and NDP in another.

2013 Safe Seats by Party

Adjusting to match 2017 polling numbers shows some remarkable changes. The Green party is somewhat more significant. It still has only one safe seat, but the 2017 numbers would have been made the Green party competitive with the NDP in 6 seats and competitive with both the Liberals and NDP in an additional one. The big change, however, is the number of seats in which the Liberals and NDP would have ended up competing against each other. There are 31 seats in which 2017 polling numbers would have put the Liberals and NDP within 5 percentage points of each other or in which the 2017 number would have changed the party that won. The NDP would have only needed to win 14 of these seats (in addition to holding on to their 29 safe seats) in order to win a majority government. In these 31 competitive seats, the NDP would lead the Liberals by an average of 42% to 38% and would have had the highest predicted vote share in 17. These number suggested that if the 2013 election had finished with the numbers the parties are polling at today, the surge in Green support would not have prevented the NDP from winning a majority.

Seats that Would Have Been Competitive with 2017 Numbers

An examination of how this would have broken down regionally demonstrates that the Green threat is generally limited to Vancouver Island. In the Capital Region (Victoria and the surrounding area), the NDP would have had no safe seats, and would have had to compete with the Green party to win each of the 4/5 seats it won in 2013. Off the Island though, the NDP has significant numbers of safe seats in the regions were the Greens are most likely to be competitive in Vancouver and Burnaby. The bigger gains to be made by the NDP are in areas where the Green party is weakest, Northern and Interior British Columbia, and the suburbs around Vancouver.

Seats that Would Have Changed Hands by Region

New Democrats should be concerned by the regional distribution of seats they would need to take from the Liberals in order to compensate for losses to the Greens. They would have to pick up competitive seats in regions such as the North Shore, Richmond/Delta, Langley/Abbotsford, and the Okanagan, where they have been historically weak. The party would also have to do well in Central British Columbia, a region where the Liberals have had an average lead of 8 percentage points over them in elections between 1991 and 2013. Even though aggregated numbers suggest that the NDP would have been able to survive a Green surge, doing so requires the party to have success in areas of the province where they have struggled in the past. As such, the rise of the Greens presents the party with a significant threat.

A Green surge would have a decisive impact on an election in two scenarios, both opf which are ver plausible. The first is a situation in which the NDP and Liberal seat shares end up being quite close. In this case, losses on Vancouver Island may keep the NDP from forming the government. The second, is a scenario in which the Liberals and NDP numbers end up converging, and even the small numbers of voters that the Greens might pull from the NDP in the Interior and suburbs of Vancouver could allow the Liberals to win those seats. In this vein, it is important to note polls have the NDP and Liberals within the margin or error of each other, and that a significant number of the competitive seats are in areas of the province that have been traditionally Liberal. In a close election, a Green surge may prevent an NDP victory, and this very well may be a close election. At the same time, if the NDP can win with a 4 or 5 percentage point lead over the Liberals, they should be able to protect themselves from losing as a result of vote splitting with the Greens.

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Be Careful Strategic Voting: A Look at Where Strategic Voting Matter and Where It Does Not

As the 2015 election enters its last couple of weeks, the tight race between the Liberals and Conservatives has many progressive voters considering voting strategically in order to keep the Conservatives out of power. In my last post I wrote about how strategic voting might have long term costs for strong supporters of the Liberals or New Democrats, in this post I will look at how first past the post systems can complicate strategic voting. Because parties have different levels of strength in different ridings, strategic voting for progressives is not simply a matter of selecting the party on the left most likely to win the most votes nationally. The Liberals may be well ahead of the NDP in national polls but there are still several ridings where the NDP have a much better change of beating the Conservatives than the Liberals do. There are also a large number of ridings that are safe and where strategic voting will make little difference to the election outcome, and a handful of ridings where the Conservatives have little chance of winning but where the Liberals and the NDP (or NDP and the Bloc Quebecois) are in a close race. Strategic voting requires careful consideration and research into the kind of riding that one is voting in. In this post I will look at several different types of ridings and the strategic voting incentives in each of them.

In this post I try to give a rough account of the number of ridings that fall into each category. I have estimated this by using Three Hundred Eight blogger Éric Grenier’s riding projections. I use projections that were made with data from October 9th because they were the most recent posted at the time of writing. As the polls change the riding projections and the number of ridings that fall into each category will change. The estimates for the number of safe and competitive seats in this post are rough estimates and one should expect some fluctuations in these numbers over the next week depending on the extent to which polls change. I consider a riding safe if the party leading has at least a 75% chance of winning. Ridings are considered multi-party races if the high-end of the predicted range for the third place party is very close or within the low-end of the second place party’s predicted range.

Projections for individual ridings should be taken with a grain of salt. Because the projections that Grenier does are based on national and regional level polling they have a limited ability to take into account riding specific factors (such as the presence of a star candidate). Three Hundred Eight is a valuable resource for determining the range of seats that a party can win and in most ridings is the best reference point available for determining the competitiveness of a particular riding, but for the ridings in which riding-level polling has been done, that data is likely better for determining which parties are competitive.

Safe Seats

The majority of seats in this election are safe seats. There are about 217 seats in Grenier’s projections in which one party is 75% likely to win. In these seats strategic voting is of little value. Because the outcome in these seats is not in question, there is little value to changing one’s vote in order to either take the riding from the Conservatives or to keep the Conservatives from winning power. There may be value, however, in indicating the strength of each of the parties in the riding. In these situations voting one’s conscience is likely the best thing one can do. A surprisingly strong showing by a minor party in a riding can lead voters to see that party as competitive in future elections and might lead the party to benefit from strategic voting in the future. Such a vote may not impact the outcome of this election, but it could matter to future elections. A vote for a non-competitive party can also improve its support nationally. Strong showings nationally can indicate to all party’s the importance of adjusting their policies in order to adjust their policies to try to win the support of that parties’ voters. For example, if the Green Party wins a large number of votes other parties may adopt stronger environmentally policies in order to take votes from it. Because strategic voting is unlikely to change the party that wins a safe seat, voters in these ridings are better off using their vote to send signals to parties about their policy preferences than to trying ensure the non-Conservative candidate wins.

Competitive Races

A significant number of seats in Canada are also projected to be races between non-Conservative parties. There are about 43 ridings where the Conservatives are projected to be well behind the progressive parties, but in which some combination of the Bloc Quebecois, Liberals, and NDP are in a close race to win the seat. Because there is little chance of the Conservatives benefiting from split voting on the left in these ridings, strategic voting provides little benefit to progressives trying to keep the Conservatives out of power. The races in these ridings are far more about determining which of the Liberals or NDP emerges as the strongest competitor the Conservatives than they are about keeping the Conservatives out of power.

There may also be value to environmentalist voters supporting the Green party in these ridings. A Liberal loss to the NDP in a riding with strong Green support may force the Liberals to rethink their environmental policy. The same may be true for the NDP if the Greens are strong in a substantial number of ridings that they lose to the Liberals. Voting Green as a way to push parties to be stronger on the environment comes at less of a cost in these ridings than it ones in which the Conservatives are competitive, because doing so carries little risk of contributing to a Conservative victory.

Multi-Party Races Where the Conservatives are Competitive

The number of seats projected multi-party races in which the Conservatives are competitive is small. There are approximately 11 seats projected to fall into these categories. In principle strategic voting in these ridings can make sense as a way to keep the Conservatives out of power, but the problem is that the progressive alternative most likely to beat the Conservatives is unclear. When the Liberals and NDP (or NDP and Bloc Quebecois) are as strong as each other it can be very difficult to strategic vote effectively. In these races vote splitting could very well hand the Conservatives a victory, but coordination on the left to prevent this from happening is difficult to impossible. One may be best off voting for one’s preferred party and accepting that there is a danger that the Conservatives could benefit from split voting and that there is not a lot that progressives can do about that.

Clear Two-Party Races Involving the Conservatives

This leaves around 67 ridings that are projected to fall into this category. 43 of these are projected to be Conservative-Liberal races, 23 are projected to Conservative-NDP races, and in Fort Saskatchewan-Sherwood Park an independent (ideologically conservative candidate) as an outside chance of defeating the Conservative one. In these ridings strategic voting by progressives can be an effective way of keeping Conservatives out of power. Voters have to be careful to pay close attention to which of the Bloc Quebecois, Liberals, or NDP is best placed to defeat the Conservatives. The Liberals might be leading the NDP in national polls, but that does not necessarily mean they are best placed to defeat the Conservatives in any given riding. “Strategically voting” for the progressive party leading the national polls in a riding where the nationally third place party is running second could actually contribute to a Conservative victory in that riding. Strategic voters in one of the close two-party races involving the Conservatives should pay careful attention to Three Hundred and Eight’s projections as well as organizations such as Vote Together that have been doing riding level polling in some of the ridings in which the Conservatives are vulnerable.

Conclusion

Progressives’ concern over the potential for a Conservative government has led to a great deal of discussion of strategic voting. In some ridings strategic voting can play a role in keeping the Conservatives out of government. In a large number of ridings, however, strategic voting has a limited ability to influence results. In only around 67 (or 66 if Fort Saskatchewan-Sherwood Park is not counted) of 338 ridings is there a clear progressive candidate whom strategic voters can flock to in order to defeat the Conservatives. That works out to about 20% of Canada’s ridings. That number will fluctuate over the last week of the election, and it is not insignificant. At the same time, most Canadians will find themselves in ridings where strategic voting has limited value. These ridings are either safe ridings, races between the progressive parties, or races in which it is not clear which of the progressive parties has the best chance of beating the Conservatives. Voters should be very careful about the way that they approach strategic voting in this election.

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Blackmail Voting: Why Strategically Voting for Third and Fourth Parties can Make Sense

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.

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