Bluffs Advocate

Opinion Optics

Should you vote strategically?

Swing ridings spawn calls for strategic voting

By Marc Zwelling

            With a provincial election likely this year, expect to hear about strategic voting.
           The parties, unions, and interest groups target the few ridings where the winning candidate barely beat the second place finisher in the last election.
           In these swing ridings, campaigners for the two most probable winners tell other parties’ supporters, “Don’t waste your vote. Vote strategically.”
           Strategic voting looks attractive because in some ridings, small shifts in vote shares will change the result. For example, in the 2011 provincial election, the PC candidate won the Perth-Wellington riding by 210 votes out of more than 37,000 with a 40.09 per cent share of the votes. The runner-up Liberal got 39.53. The third place NDP candidate, 15.76 per cent.
           To defeat the PCs in Perth-Wellington, strategic voting implies that NDP supporters should vote Liberal since the NDP candidate can’t win. Strategic voting promoters think, “Why is that a problem?” The NDP is spiritually closer to the Liberals. NDPers and Liberals all want the Tory to lose.
           Strategic voting looks attractive for another reason: half of us want to know how to do it. In a 2012 poll by Environics Research, 49 per cent of Ontario residents approved of “advocacy organizations publishing information during a federal election to help voters determine which party in their riding has the best chance of defeating another party they don’t want to see elected.” In Toronto, 55 per cent approved.
           The problem with strategic voting, however, is that there’s no evidence it works.
           A true strategic voter feels closest to one party but votes for another to help defeat a detested candidate. Most self-identified strategic voters aren’t defectors, however. They say they voted strategically—for their favourite party.
           In a Vector Poll after the 2006 federal election, a quarter of those who made the trip to the polling station said they had voted to stop another party’s candidate from winning. But in reality, only 5 per cent of all voters defected from the party they felt closest to and supported another party.
           The Canadian Election Study, a national survey conducted after federal elections, confirms that true strategic voters are about as rare as NDP senators. The strategic vote in the 2000 federal election was 4 per cent; in 1997, 3 per cent.
           Polls reveal there are strategic voters supporting all the parties. So strategic votes for NDP candidates, for instance, are voided by people voting strategically against NDP candidates in other electoral districts.
           If only strategic voters cast ballots, it wouldn’t change the election results. Overall, strategic and non-strategic voters divide their votes the same way, according the Vector Poll.
           In the 2006 federal election the Conservatives won 36 per cent of all votes and 38 per cent of strategic votes. The Liberals’ share of the vote was 30 per cent; their share of strategic votes, 29 per cent. The NDP got 17 per cent of each group.
           Pursuing strategic voters is expensive. It devours time and volunteers’ effort. Election turnouts are declining steadily; just 48 percent of eligible voters voted in the 2011 Ontario election. With such low turnouts, half the leaflets, ads and other voter outreach deployed in elections are unproductive. To find five strategic voters you need to knock on 200 doors.
           So vote strategically if you insist. But remember, you’re wasting your vote.

Marc Zwelling is the founder of the Vector Poll™ ( and author of Public Opinion and Polling for Dummies, published by Wiley (2012).