Pollyanna politics aside, voting should be pragmatic

A funny thing about Canada's electoral system is how a candidate who is the last choice of a majority of voters may still end up winning, thanks to vote splitting.

A funny thing about Canada’s electoral system is how a candidate who is the last choice of a majority of voters may still end up winning, thanks to vote splitting. No wonder that, with a federal election now underway, there’s plenty of talk among progressives about voting strategically to unseat Conservatives by backing whoever else, Liberal or New Democrat, is best positioned to win.

Our electoral system forces us to pick only one, but democratic choices are not that simple. I may prefer choice No. 1 to choice No. 2 by an inch, but prefer choice No. 2 over choice No. 3 by a mile. If choice No. 1 has very little chance of actually winning the election, doesn’t it makes a lot of sense to vote for choice No. 2?

The expression “lesser of evils” is often used to justify strategic voting, but it makes it sound worse than it is. Choice No. 2 (or anyone else) is not necessarily “evil.” It just is not our first pick. Sometimes not getting exactly what you want and accepting a “less good” option is just a part of being an adult.

Some feel that strategic voting is cynical, and that the principled approach is to always vote for who you think is best for the country. But that kind of Pollyanna politics focuses too hard on our actions and ignores the consequences of those actions. There is nothing wrong with being pragmatic and realistic about electoral outcomes.

But strategic voting can be complicated, because figuring out who has the best chance of beating who is not always that straightforward.

Since the merger of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives parties, here in Canada discussions of strategic voting commonly involve “Anyone But Conservative” (or ABC) voters.

The Liberal Party has historically tried to convince this group that a vote for the NDP was essentially a vote for the Conservatives. After all, the argument went at the time, the NDP wasn’t going to win the election, so you might as well vote for someone who can.

One problem with this reasoning is that we don’t have one election to decide who the government is. We have 338 mini-elections at the riding level to choose 338 members of Parliament. And in each riding there is a different dynamic based on the history and culture of the area, local issues and the profile and name recognition the individual candidates.

So while shifting a vote from NDP to the Liberals might help the Liberals pick up a seat from the Conservatives in Mississauga-Erindale, it could hand one to the Conservatives in Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar.

Proper strategic voting requires a local focus, but since we are generally lacking in meaningful statistical data at the riding level we only have a vague, imprecise idea of the relative positions of the candidates until after the election.

No doubt many “ABC” Yukoners are thinking long and hard about who has the best chance of defeating the Conservatives’ Ryan Leef in October. Leef, as we all remember, beat Larry Bagnell by only a handful of votes back in 2011. After four years of majority Conservative government – that have generally been received poorly by the progressive wing of the country – the “ABC” sentiment is probably stronger than it has been in some time.

Between sagging Conservative fortunes, a lower profile Green Party candidate, and disgruntled Liberal voters willing to return to the fold for an opportunity to hand Stephen Harper his walking papers, Bagnell has a compelling case to make that he is the “ABC” vote. After all he had far more votes in 2008 (6,715) than Leef won with in 2011 (5,422).

The NDP would counter that the national “orange wave” has to be taken into account. But what is rarely mentioned these days is that while the Liberal national polling numbers are quite dismal in comparison to the glory days of Jean Chretien, they are up far more when compared to 2011 than the NDP numbers. In 2011 the NDP and the Liberals received 30.6 per cent and 18.9 per cent of the vote respectively. CBC’s Poll Tracker currently has the parties at 33.5 per cent and 27.3 per cent, increases of 2.9 per cent and 8.4 per cent respectively.

The NDP would probably also note that they appear to be the only party that can beat the Conservatives in total seat count and thus remove them from power, so they need every seat they can get. It’s a high-risk argument that could ultimately make the task more difficult if our territory returns its Conservative MP to Ottawa – a more likely possibility than an NDP upset.

With over a month to go between now and election day, a lot can change. There are also various intangibles like the appeal of individual candidates and other local dynamics, so I am hesitant to make any predictions I’ll live to regret. But despite leading nationally, the NDP has a lot of ground to make up to be the best choice for “ABC” voters in the Yukon.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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