Living in a democracy with just two major political parties limits the amount of “strategic voting” Americans can engage in during an election. But in Canada, thousands of voters are streaming to the polls on Monday having pledged to vote for the local candidate best positioned to defeat the Conservative party and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
But first, one important definition. A “riding” is the equivalent of an American district for a House of Representatives election. In Canada’s parliamentary system, voters in each of the country’s 338 ridings select a candidate from one of the various parties to represent them in the House of Commons. The party that wins in the greatest share of ridings gets the first chance at forming a government. The three leading parties are the Conservatives; the Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau; and the New Democratic Party (NDP), led by Thomas Mulcair.
Trudeau, the son of the late, popular former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, has led a late-breaking Liberal resurgence as NDP poll numbers have sagged. And Harper’s government is unpopular: Six in 10 Canadians want a change. But a Huffington Post Canada analysis found that those who will be voting for a party other than the Conservatives can be their own worst enemy because of vote splitting. The conservatives won less than 40 percent of the popular vote in Canada’s last election, which occurred in 2011, but were still able to form a majority government in Parliament.
Political scientists say that actual strategic voting is a rare phenomenon because it requires a relatively high degree of political sophistication. Instead, experts say that voters tend to choose candidates with more sincerity than calculation. But a slew of organizations have jumped at the opportunity to mitigate vote splitting by encouraging Canadians to pledge to pick the candidate who, based on local polling, looks to have the best chance of defeating the Conservative candidate in their riding.
One of those organizations, called Leadnow, has run a grassroots campaign in ridings across the country to energize voters who are opposed to another Harper government. The group has crowdfunded local polls in more than 30 ridings where vote splitting could elect the Conservative candidate. (Some of its subsequent recommendations have led to accusations that it is a front group for the NDP, though the group has also endorsed Liberals.)
“People are tired of the Conservatives,” Amara Possian, the group's Vote Together campaign manager, told HuffPost. “There’s a huge appetite for change.”
Polling has shown that voters on the left of Canada’s political spectrum are relatively flexible with their party allegiances, even as the Liberals and NDP fight over which party truly represents progressive values. As the Globe and Mail reported, an October survey found that 52 percent of prospective Liberal voters would select the NDP as their second choice, while 49 percent of prospective NDP voters would pick the Liberals as their second choice.
"I definitely had to plug my nose to vote Liberal, but I went out of my way to do so in a riding where they actually have a shot," said William McClary, a 27-year-old engineer and law student who voted in Alberta's Calgary Confederation riding. Other voters expressed similar sentiments, saying that their ballot is going to whoever can win against Conservatives.
Christopher McClelland, 24-year-old bass-player and server, told HuffPost that he was voting for the NDP candidate in his riding, Vancouver Kingsway, though he considers himself a “Liberal at heart.”
“Even though I love Justin Trudeau and want to see him as Prime Minister, when doing my research on who I was going to spend my vote on I had to go with the stronger candidate for my riding,” he said.
While we’re still hours from knowing whether strategic voting will have a real impact on the Canadian election, the leader of Canada’s Green Party, Elizabeth May, has pleaded with voters to “cast your ballot for who you want.” If strategic voting stops the Conservatives from retaking a majority in Parliament, it also may block Canada’s smaller parties from maintaining a foothold in the chamber.