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Ontario Election 1999 Background Papers By York University Professors Robert Macdermid & Fred Fletcher

Backgrounder #7: Strategic Voting

TORONTO, May 21, 1999 -- What is strategic voting?

To vote strategically is to vote for your second, rather than your first, choice of political parties in order to defeat your least preferred party. In this election, strategic voting only makes sense for Liberal and NDP supporters: a Liberal supporter will have to decide whether to vote for the NDP candidate in order to defeat the Conservative candidate; an NDP supporter will have to decide whether to vote for a Liberal candidate to oust the Tory one.

Strategic voting is only an option if you have the following three electoral conditions:

  • A first-past-the-post electoral system*
  • Three or more political parties contending for election
  • A majority of voters opposed to any one party

    It is important for all three of these elements to be present. If the race is not close, and one party is able to exceed 45 or 50 per cent in the polls, strategic voting is pointless since one party has a majority or close to a majority of votes, and thus a certain majority of seats.

    *In first-past-the-post electoral systems (also known as single member plurality systems), the winning political party receives a plurality -- the most votes -- as opposed to a majority of votes, 50 per cent plus one. First-past-the-post systems are particularly conducive to strategic voting. If one party is opposed by two or more other parties whose combined popularity is in the range of 55-60 per cent of the vote, there may be an incentive for the two opposing parties to combine their support to defeat the other one. But short of a formal agreement or formal coalition, in which two parties decide to run a single candidate in certain ridings, voters who may be motivated to defeat the third party will have to consider several factors to determine how they should vote in order to do so.

    While strategic voting sounds simple enough, gathering enough information to vote strategically is a challenge.

    First, voters cannot vote strategically if they do not prefer party A to party B to party C. Many party loyalists don't distinguish between the other two parties they do not support. Liberal supporters, for instance, might dismiss both the NDP and Tories as extremist parties from either end of the ideological spectrum. And a vote for the NDP, in some Liberal's eyes, is just as unacceptable as a vote for Conservative Premier Mike Harris. Strong NDP supporters might dismiss both the Liberal and Conservative parties as the tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee of the corporate sector, and may simply be unable to vote for either of them.

    Even if voters do distinguish between the two parties which are not their first choice -- and can rank them -- they still need other information to be able to vote strategically.

    What do voters need to know before voting strategically?

    I. They need accurate information about the provincial race: What do the polls say about who is running first, second and third, and by how much? Without that information, it would be difficult to decide whether one should vote strategically.

    This election has been marked by fluctuating polls. In one, the Liberals are ahead, then the Tories, then they are tied. Consider, for instance, that you are a Liberal in a riding where it looks like an NDP candidate might win and you want to defeat the Tories. If you don't know how the provincial race is going, perhaps the Liberals have moved well ahead in the provincial polls, you might cast your vote for the NDP when the Liberals are actually winning. Is that a strategic vote or just a bad mistake?

    There is also always the possibility that your strategic vote may not be needed, since your least favoured party would have lost anyway. In that case, you may have unnecessarily weakened your preferred party. A number of votes cast in this manner might cost your preferred party a seat, reducing their representation in the legislature, or reducing their popular vote and, therefore, their moral authority to speak for your interests.

    II. Strategic voters need information about individual constituency races. It is the most difficult information to obtain, and the most crucial to making up your mind about strategic voting. For example, if I am a Liberal, I need to estimate how strong the NDP candidate is to decide whether a vote for them would help defeat the Tories.

    There is virtually no credible polling information available for constituency races. What polls are available have very large margins of error (though parties will probably make the results known if it is to their advantage.)

    In the absence of accurate constituency poll numbers, what else should voters consider when deciding whether to cast their ballot "strategically"?

  • The history of the riding: if a riding has a long tradition of returning Liberal members but a Tory won in 1995, then the best anti-Harris vote might be a Liberal vote.
  • The number of signs and the extent of canvassing can tell a voter whether the Liberal or NDP campaign is more active and better organized.
  • A third clue to voting strategically might come from the lists of endorsed candidates issued by groups such as union, environmental, or citizen groups. A caveat: many voters may be unaware of these lists, and it is possible that some of the recommendations conflict, one group endorsing a Liberal while in the same riding another group endorsing the NDP candidate as the preferred anti-Harris candidate.

    Finally, the impulse to vote for a party other than your first choice has to overcome a potentially strong sense of loyalty and a nagging feeling that your vote will end up counting for nothing, or even worse, harm your preferred party. If voters think through the process, they may conclude that the chances are slim that their vote for their second choice will be the pivotal vote that defeats the Tory candidate. They may conclude that if the odds are so small, why betray their long-term loyalties?

    Strategic voting: an example

    In Letting the People Decide, R. Johnston, A. Blais, H. Brady and J. Crete examine the 1988 federal election during which the Liberals and NDP strongly opposed the Mulroney Conservative's Free Trade initiative. The authors conclude that while some small, though potentially decisive, percentage of voters contemplated strategic voting at some time during the campaign, there were not enough correctly placed strategic votes to deny the Mulroney Conservatives a second majority government.


    For more information on fund-raising by Ontario's political parties see the paper by Robert MacDermid, Funding the Common Sense Revolutionaries: Contributions to the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, 1995-97 on the website www.socialjustice.org.

    Robert MacDermid teaches Political Science at York University and is the author of "TV Advertising Campaigns in the 1995 Ontario Election," in Revolution at Queen's Park: Essays on Governing Ontario. Sid Noel, Editor, (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1997). Fred Fletcher teaches political science at York University and is among the co-authors of Government and Politics in Ontario. He has written extensively on election campaigns.

    For more information, please contact:

    Professor Robert MacDermid
    Political Science
    York University
    (416) 736-5265
    (705) 357-2459

    Professor Fred Fletcher
    Political Science
    York University
    (416) 736-2100, ext. 88819

    Sine MacKinnon
    Senior Advisor for Media Relations
    York University
    (416) 736-2100, ext. 22087


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