Think Twice About Voting Strategically
However there is one issue I'm going to weigh in on during this election, and that's the advocacy of so-called "strategic voting". It's based on faulty assumptions, is frequently clumsily calculated and executed, often by people with hidden but vested interests, and most seriously: it can lead to quite perverse outcomes.
Faulty Assumptions: Many of the strategic voting sites are based on the assumption that past performance can predict future outcomes. This is no more true in electoral politics in a multi-party system than it is in the stock market (say no more). Last February, struck by the tendency of the Hill Times to use "close races" in the last election as a proxy for "swing ridings", I decided to test that hypothesis. As it turns out -- and this is true for each of the last 3 elections -- more of the seats that changed hands in an election had previously been won by margins of more than 5%, than had been won with margins under 5%. Unfortunately, this "close contest" shorthand for determining what are the swing ridings was picked up and adopted in this campaign by no less than CTV, the Globe and Mail and their pollster the Strategic Counsel. The resulting polling numbers have been a mish-mash of Liberal-Conservative contests with Conservative-Bloc contests, Liberal-NDP contests, and NDP-Conservative contests. How can you possibly tell who's winning when you roll them all up together?
Clumsy execution: Consistent criteria are not applied, and incomplete data is used to determine the "likely" outcome in a riding or the "best" way to vote. This first came to my attention when folks were linking to riding profile pages on this website, to question how in the heck one of the strategic sites could have come up with the conclusion it did in a given constituency. In other cases, the site's authors were claiming it made no difference how a person voted since the race was so close between the two front-runners from the last election, completely ignoring the fact that the riding in question had been a 3-way race in the last campaign (that entry has since changed). Still further cases claimed that a party had no chance of victory, since it had no history of success in the seat, even though it had finished 2nd by just over 300 votes in a by-election within the last decade, but on the old boundaries.
There are some major limitations in using the current batch of previous results to predict future outcomes: first of all, most of us are only using data from 1997 forward, since that's all that's available in easily downloadable form from Elections Canada. But voting patterns completely changed in 1993, and with them the composition of Parliament. Ditto for 1984, and to a lesser extent 2006. Secondly, past voting behaviour is not a straight-forward indicator of future behaviour in elections where the government changes. Heck, polls two weeks out from Election Day can still swing widely. Incumbency matters, as does the absence of an incumbent, whether they are first-time incumbents, and whether they are on the government side or the opposition side going in (and perceived to be, going out). And candidate recruitment matters significantly (a point that pretty much makes itself in this campaign, to be sure).
Like it or lump it, the first-past-the-post system of parliamentary democracy is what we've got now, and it has to produce a number of contradictory outcomes in each election. First, it demands that voters consider and return the best representative for their community to send to the House of Commons. Second, it takes a collective reading of those constituency votes to select a Prime Minister and determine the composition of the Commons. And finally, it gives a "mandate" on one or more issues of the day to those elected representatives. All with one vote.
The mandate politicians are given, or believe they've been given, is paramount. The reelection of a government is taken by the members of that government as an endorsement of its policies. Holding an incumbent M.P. to a smaller margin of victory after their voters raised holy heck about a local issue is read very clearly by that M.P. as a signal to shift priorities. Public engagement on an issue during an election campaign is heard loud and clear by any candidate whose name is on the ballot.
I am sorry to say this, but people who claim to be "voting for the environment" are spending more time poring over past voting statistics (as prepackaged and interpreted for them by others) and daily rolling-polls, than they are actually spending poring over the environmental platforms and proposals of the political parties they are considering voting for. In the Skinnerian world of electoral mandates, these voters are unfortunately and unwittingly rewarding cynically manipulative electoral strategies, rather than thoughtful platform development, in our politicians. And afterwards they'll be more disappointed than ever.
If you really want to vote based on the environment, then get yourself informed on the issues, and vote for the policy you support. Do you believe climate change is a problem? If it exists, is it man-made or natural in origin, and if man-made can it be reversed. If reversal is possible and desirable, how much change is required and how quickly, and at what other cost. Which approach would be the most effective: a carbon tax (whether revenue neutral to individuals or to government), a cap-and-trade system of emission permits, carbon capture and storage, emission regulation, or something else. The answers you arrive at should determine your vote, because that's the message that will be received by the politicians you elect.
If all a politician has to do to get your vote is convince you they're more likely to win, just think what kind of Parliament you're going to get: an even scrappier place filled with people who've learned the only way to survive is to win at all costs.
What would have been really helpful is if, in urging voters to vote for the environment or any other issue, the authors of those websites had spent their time documenting the issues, and the past behaviour of politicians on them. Where were their records in presenting legislation, their speeches and other activites on environmental issues, or their voting records? The past behaviour of politicians is by far the more accurate predictor of their future behaviour, but is nowhere to be found amidst all the poll results.
If I were any kind of expert on any of these issues, that's the kind of website I would have produced. Unfortunately the only thing I'm qualified to do is crunch the historical voting numbers.
But I'm doing my reading, and I'm going to vote passionately and with conviction. That's my strategy for voting.
Labels: Strategic Voting