Saturday, August 18, 2018

Is strategic voting dead in Peterborough?

GUEST COLUMN: Politics, next to hockey, is the closest thing we have to a blood sport in Canada


Strategic voting is viewed with contempt and hope, often by the same people. We hate it and love it, all at once. As political debate in Canada becomes more polarized, and the prospect of more minority victories at all levels increases, the need for voters across the political spectrum to cooperate becomes ever more urgent. Right-of-centre voters unsuccessfully tried strategic voting in the '90s, only to discover the necessity of merging under Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party in 2003. Left-wing voters voted strategically to defeat Harper and elected the Liberals in 2015.
Is this why strategic voting still around? According to Tim Etherington on the Pints & Politics podcast of June 27 (, strategic voting becomes an attractive default when…
(1) …voters on either side of the political spectrum think they must unite to defeat a common adversary. This happened in Peterborough federally in 2015 as some Green and NDP supporters voted for Maryam Monsef
(2) …it represents a means to an end to bring in electoral reform. For those voters, strategic voting is aimed at achieving electoral reform
Strategic voting is a consequence of our first-past-the-post electoral (FPTP) system. If we had some form of proportional representation, strategic voting would disappear. Did strategic voting make a difference in the local 2015 federal election? Monsef probably would have won without it. The test will be in the October 2019 federal election, when Green and NDP enthusiasm for strategic voting — voting Liberal — will be diminished. Which brings us to this June's provincial election results:
The Ontario Progressive Conservatives won this riding with 22,939 votes. The NDP came in a close second at 20,745 votes, only 2,194 votes behind, while the Liberals came in a distant third at 15,029 votes, almost 8,000 votes behind the Conservatives and 5,716 votes behind the NDP. The Greens came in fourth at 2,055.
Eric Grenier's Poll Tracker, the most reliable aggregation of polling data available (, showed the PCs and the NDP trading the lead from May 25 to Election Day. On June 6, Grenier's projections stood at 38.7 per cent for the PCs, 35.5 per cent for the NDP and 19.6 per cent for the Liberals. Clearly the strategic vote in Ontario to stop Ford had to be NDP.
But that's not what happened. Just over a week before the election, the Ontario Liberal Party issued a directive to all their candidates to release the following claim. In our riding, this directive took the form of a letter signed by Liberal candidate Jeff Leal: "One thing is absolutely clear — here in Peterborough-Kawartha the race is going to be tight ... Internal numbers show our riding is a race between the Liberals and the Conservatives ... it's going to come down to progressives uniting behind my candidacy to defeat Doug Ford…"
Was this letter persuasive enough to convince 2,194 undecided voters to throw their support behind the Liberals? We'll never know. With this letter, the Liberals claimed to have the one thing that undecided voters were searching for: Hard data on which to make their difficult strategic voting decisions.
Which party had the best chance of stopping Dave Smith and his PCs? What methods were used to collect these "internal numbers?" How many people were polled? What did the local Liberal team know about the development of these "internal numbers?" None of these vital details were ever released. The local Liberal campaign team claimed that they had talked to 30,000 voters and knew their voting intentions. Their posts on social media are still there. What happened?
There are only three explanations: (1) the polling firm — or campaign workers — who came up with these numbers were wildly incompetent, (2) many voters changed their minds in the polling booth and voted NDP anyway, or (3) these internal numbers were fabrications.
Leal's letter was enough to make NDP supporters who held their noses and voted Liberal federally in 2015 absolutely livid. But extreme partisanship can be a dangerous drug for anyone, regardless of party affiliation. Liberals felt just as angry, for different reasons: "We are the Natural Governing Party in Peterborough! How dare you NDP dimwits claim to be the only option? If you had voted strategically, Jeff Leal would still be our MPP and Ford would not be premier!" Their Twitter hashtag was #itsgottabejeff. It wasn't Jeff. It was never going to be Jeff this time. Not by a long shot.
To be fair, this is what all campaign teams must do. Every campaign team on earth needs to believe that they will win, especially when all the evidence shows that they are going to lose. It's a tough game. Politics, next to hockey, is the closest thing we have to a blood sport in Canada. There is tripping, holding and fighting in hockey; there is deception, dishonesty and lying in politics. If you want to play either game, don't say you weren't warned.
Local campaign teams must believe the directives that come from head office. Nonetheless, these tactics may have discouraged some undecided strategic voters from shifting their votes to the NDP.
Where does all this leave us in Peterborough- Kawartha? Is strategic voting dead? Perhaps. Strategic voting in our riding usually means "vote Liberal." On June 7, the shoe had to go on the other foot. Not enough Liberal and Green voters tried to put it on. When the call goes out from the Liberals in the fall of 2019 to rally around Monsef/Trudeau to defeat Skinner/Scheer, how many strategic voters will stand up to be counted?
Or is this the wrong question? Is strategic voting not only a wrong game plan, but by placing our faith in elections, are we all playing the wrong game? Are the major issues our day — economic disparity, job losses due to technology, resource depletion, and climate change — really going to be resolved by governments, or are they going to resolved by self-organizing citizens from across the political spectrum who come together because they know their governments are incapable of making long-term changes that stretch far beyond the 4-year election cycle?
In 50 years, when future historians sit down to explain the politics of the first two decades of this century, what will they make of the arcane election strategy we call "strategic voting?" A key to solving world problems or an outmoded reaction to a dysfunctional electoral system?
Bill Templeman is a local writer and consultant.

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