Martyn Brown: The subtext of strategic voting in Canadian elections

All that’s Right is all that’s wrong

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      “Don’t split the vote!” How many times have you heard that plea, whether or not you have “obeyed” the command?

      We hear it every election.

      It is the rallying cry of those who believe that the only thing separating their party from power is the stupidity of “rogue” voters who would only invite the opposite of their “real” intentions by foolishly casting their ballots for minor parties.

      This time—again—it is the Green Party that is being vilified as the authors of the Left’s ongoing misfortunes.

      “Be smart! Don’t split the vote,” the New Democrats and Liberals urge all Green-leaning voters, baffled as to why so many of them are not currently persuaded by either one of their parties’ offered alternatives.

      Vote “strategically”, they implore the malleable Green masses, while shaking their heads at the folly and naiveté of those dim Stephen Harper-helpers.

      “Have they no soul? Are they so devoid of wit and judgment that they would risk reelecting the hated Harper government?”

      It is a question that the forces for Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau each ask in exasperation and desperation of May’s voter universe. As if their own combined split vote does not pose the most significant risk to their most unthinkable scenario.

      Damn those Greens and their maddening legions of dupes, demons, and dullards who dare to court the ultimate disaster: another Conservative majority government.

      Poor, misguided miscreants. They know not what they do. But if they do it again, they will not be forgiven.

      For there is nothing so heinous and inexcusable as voting one’s conscience, when it collides with “common sense” that suggests a higher imperative as the only legitimate moral choice.

      That highest duty, the NDP and Liberals both contend, is to elect the one True Savior who can deliver us all from the evil of Stephen Harper.

      Be it Tom Mulcair or Justin Trudeau.

      The subtext of both parties’ appeal to “strategic voting” is clear: all that’s Right is all that’s wrong.

      Change the government and all will be well again in Canada.

      And etched in invisible ink is this further assertion: there is only one “right” way to vote if you really care about stopping or avoiding all that is wrong in government.

      You must vote for their party to stop Stephen Harper and to get the change you really need, even if you are too dumb to realize it is the change you really want.

      Indeed, you have no real choice at all.

      Getting to a ballot question that drives all target voters to that singular conclusion is every party’s strategic mission. It is Politics 101.

      Yet the real subtext of that argument is this: candidates, as such, are irrelevant.

      True enough, if you are only concerned with winning power for the Left to replace the Right, or vice versa. That is, if you also accept that the strongest alternative is materially different from its professed ideological opposites—a dubious distinction for many voters.

      Many of us see the three main contenders more as tinted shades of the same liberal spectrum than we do as being either pure orange, real red, or true blue. For most swing voters, the biggest difference between the parties has more to do with the leaders’ projected personality, skills, and values than it does with their varying prescriptions for applied Canadian liberalism.

      Still, the unspoken core of the appeal to strategic voting is its innate denial of voter choice, firmly rooted in the conviction that individual candidates are basically irrelevant.

      The person who you think is best qualified to serve as your member of Parliament is irrelevant. The candidate whose policies, views, and positions most closely align with your own is irrelevant. Because ideas, values, and policies are themselves also largely irrelevant.

      Even the competitive political realities of your particular riding are irrelevant. Because voting for a “loser,” whose party can never hope to hold power in government, is always the wrong thing to do.

      Unless it’s not.

      Better to vote for a probable loser whose party represents the “best” national contender for power than to “split” that party’s “rightful” vote and elect, say, a Green MP, who might be best-positioned to win that seat, even at the Conservatives’ expense.

      As in my riding, for instance, where Elizabeth May is again hoping to use her vote-splitting powers to retain her seat that she won from the Conservatives.

      You will never hear Justin Trudeau urging you to vote “strategically” for Tom Mulcair’s local candidate, or for any more competitive Green Party candidate, to prevent his own vote-splitting “also-ran” from diluting the anti-Conservative vote, or vice versa.

      There are limits to what each party is prepared to tolerate and advocate in the name of strategic voting.

      If voting for the NDP or Liberal candidate causes the very thing that they accuse the Greens’ candidates of inducing, so be it. Others must be to blame.

      For theirs is a uniquely noble crusade that can never be faulted and that the other parties’ vote-splitting infidels choose to ignore at their peril.

      Welcome to the twisted and weirdly rationalized world of strategic voting. A world in which democracy becomes an ass.

      Its first casualty is democracy’s central assumption.

      The right of every individual to freely vote for their candidate of choice is coercively subordinated to the overriding imperative to vote for the candidate whose party claims to have the best chance of defeating the party that each voter fears or reviles the most.

      Its driving logic is negative, not positive.

      It is predicated on the false conceit that what should matter most to all “like-minded” voters is not so much who is most deserving of power, but rather, who should not be entrusted to hold it.

      Trouble with democracy is, it invites all voters to think for themselves and to make their own informed choices, which are not always consumed with the hunt for power.

      Therein lies the ultimate value of all candidates who dare to run for public office, to give us invaluable choices. Every one of them stands to split “the” vote. The more of them, the better.

      Their priceless gift is not just the time, resources, and personal commitment they each make, to make our votes more meaningful. It is also the choice they confer that strengthens the legitimacy of our collective democratic decisions.

      They all afford us more options. To elect a specific candidate. To express support for a party or its platform. To send a dissenting message. Or even to specifically convey a lack of confidence in any of the leading alternatives.

      All of those are valid reasons for voting that should be honored and commended, not ridiculed and denigrated by those who are so close to winning power, they can taste it.

      If dumping Harper’s Conservatives is your driving concern, good on you.

      Look at your candidates, make an educated guess at who can win and cast your ballot accordingly for anyone but a Conservative. Consider yourself a prudent ABCer.

      Just know that regardless of how you vote, the biggest vote-splitting threats to that enterprise are typically the NDP or the Liberals.

      They each command a much larger voter “market share” than the Greens—a party that also stands to siphon more than a few votes from the Conservatives. Especially in the ridings the Tories now hold, because the NDP and Liberals split their potential combined vote.

      Then again, if voting for any “minor party” candidate or an independent allows you a vehicle to register your dissatisfaction with the three major national parties, more power to you.

      None of those parties you wish to visibly reject by your “wasted” vote are in any position to judge you.

      Their appeals to not split the vote not only ring hollow, they also ludicrously miss their mark.

      Their negative call to action is negated by your real reason for voting, even if your “protest vote” is too easily overlooked and ignored. Better to vote than to choose to sit at home on your hands, like the other 40 percent or so of Canadians who do just that.

      Fact is, those non-voters are effectively the most significant vote-splitters in the mix, in how they so dramatically tilt the odds of winning or losing for the main contenders in every contest.

      The Green Party tends to increase voter turnout in the ridings where their issues and candidates most resonate. It does not just split “the” overall vote; it grows it.

      The pundits, pollsters, and number crunchers often just look at the number of votes that it and other smaller parties win and compare that to the margin of votes that separates each winner from their closest competitor.

      “Ah,” they say, “the Green Party ‘cost’ so-and-so the election,” by dint of the math that “explains” each winning plurality.

      Rarely does anyone really delve into how many additional votes were cast only because of those “vote-splitting” options, let alone how those votes might have otherwise been distributed in the real world.

      Based on my firsthand experience in provincial politics, believe me, it is a tough question to fathom that often leads to surprising conclusions.

      The Greens draw a disproportionate degree of support from the NDP, and to a lesser extent, from the Liberals, and to lesser extent still, from the Conservatives. But the way that plays out in individual ridings is hugely variable and complex.

      Depending on the issues that are most important and the candidates, the Greens can do more real strategic harm to the Conservatives than most people might intuitively assume.

      The NDP sees virtually all of those Green votes as rightfully “theirs”—a fallacy that is grossly overstated, as Elizabeth May so ably explained in this recent column on the subject of vote-splitting.

      If voting positively for someone other than the Conservatives is your main motivation, however, then “strategic voting” is not so much the issue.

      The candidates are most relevant, in all that their candidacy and their parties stand to represent.

      Who knows, you might be motivated to actually vote for the person you think is best qualified to simply serve as your elected voice in Parliament. A radical concept, I know.

      Perhaps it is your highest mission to strengthen the Green Party’s showing in your riding, so that in future elections, its vote and relevance might continue to grow. So that your vote will not be so easily taken for granted by any of the other parties.

      So that you might indirectly give a greater voice to the issues, policies, and values that the Green Party represents. If only to send a message to the NDP and Liberals alike that “real change” means something different to voters like you.

      If so, I applaud you, regardless of how I ultimately decide to vote, which in my riding, strategic ABC voting suggests should really favour Elizabeth May as the anyone-but-Conservative incumbent.

      In British Columbia, many traditional Conservative voters will be looking to her diverse team of candidates as potentially worthy agents of change, who warrant fair and balanced consideration.

      I do not deny that “upstart” parties like the Greens add choices that tend to drain votes from some parties more than others. Obviously, they do.

      But that does not mean they have no place. They do.

      Without the Greens, high quality representatives like British Columbia’s Andrew Weaver, New Brunswick’s Green Party leader, David Coon, and PEI’s Green Party leader, Peter Bevan-Baker, would not be in their provincial legislatures.

      Few now doubt their contributions. Fewer still gave any of them much chance of winning when they first announced their intention to run for office.

      Without the Greens in this federal election, offering yet one more alternative that will surely draw many votes away from all of the other parties, voters would not have the choice to cast their ballots for so many new high caliber candidates.

      We are lucky to have them in the race.

      May’s new team of Green Party candidates is striking for its breadth of diversity, its wealth of proven talent, and its eclectic mix of experience and backgrounds.

      In British Columbia, they include the likes of Victoria’s Joanne Roberts, North Vancouver’s Claire Martin, North Island-Powell River’s Brenda Sayers, Vancouver Centre’s Lisa Barrett, West Vancouver’s Ken Melamed, Burnaby North-Seymour’s Lynne Quarmby, Nanaimo-Ladysmith’s Paul Manly—to say nothing of Elizabeth May.

      Each province and territory has its own star Green candidates and many more lesser known ones besides. They all warrant due voter regard and fair media attention.

      They include candidates like former provincial Alberta Green Party leader, David Parker, who is running to represent Edmonton Centre, or former Nova Scotia provincial Green leader, Nick Wright, who is now running in Toronto’s University-Rosedale riding.

      Or Sudbury’s David Robinson, Carleton’s Deborah Coyne, Dauphin-Swan River-Neepawa’s Kate Storey, or Halifax’s Dr. Thomas Trappenberg.

      By marginalizing the relevance of all candidates, beyond their party pedigrees, the argument for strategic voting does us all a disservice.

      It reduces the thing we should care about the most to an afterthought that pales in importance to electing the party that can best defeat the other party we are presumed to most despise. It is a dumb-ass way of deciding how to vote.

      As the “major” parties wax on about vote-splitting and strategic voting, it is worth remembering how they have each factored into Canada’s electoral history as vote-splitters.

      In the 2000 federal election, the NDP won 8.5 percent of the popular vote. Interesting. The Green Party now enjoys about 10.6 percent support in B.C., according to the latest polls.

      In that election, the NDP won 13 seats—which was one more seat than the Progressive Conservatives won, with 12.1 percent of the vote and almost 500,000 more votes.

      For both parties, it was such an improvement over their showing in 1993, when the New Democrats won only nine seats with 6.8 percent of the popular vote—a hair above the 5.6 percent national support that current polls suggest the Greens now hold.

      Let us not forget 2004, when Paul Martin’s Liberals were “denied” a majority government by dint of Jack Layton’s NDP, which won 19 seats to form the “fourth party”—again—with some 15.6 percent of the popular vote.

      We never heard a peep from the NDP about its vote-splitting role in that contest.

      In 2006, Harper’s reunited Conservatives’ won a minority “thanks” to the NDP, which again came in fourth, for the fourth time in a row.

      Yet it was the Green Party, whose full slate of candidates won only 4.4 percent of the overall vote, that took the most flak for splitting the vote.

      In the 2004 federal election, 582,247 Canadians voted for Green Party candidates. Two years later, 664,068 Canadians did likewise. In 2008, that number rose to 937,613 votes.


      That was only a couple thousand votes less than the 939,575 votes that the New Democrats won in 1993. Yet they would have us believe that the Greens are a fringe party that mostly serves to split “their” vote.

      Maybe it is because the Greens only won one seat with all of their votes, as compared to the nine seats that the NDP won with basically the same number in 1993. Because the Greens’ vote is “a mile wide and an inch deep” and not as efficiently concentrated as the NDP’s vote.

      The Green Party’s support fell quite a bit in the last election, but I would not bet on that happening again this time round.

      History shows that just when you think you have got politics all figured out, along come the voters to throw us all a curve ball. Just ask Rachel Notley. Or Adrian Dix, for that matter.

      If at some point it becomes apparent that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives will likely lose, watch for the Greens’ numbers to grow as the arguments about strategic voting and vote-splitting become less salient.

      The fastest way that could possibly happen is if today’s soft Liberal or NDP supporters decided to throw their lot behind one of those two options. Fat chance.

      That, too, would likely cause the Green support to swell, as many of its target voters decide to go with who they really want, instead of feeling obilged to go with the flow to lead them safely away from those they are afraid might win.

      If it continues to look like we will be in for a minority government, the Greens could also benefit from strategic voting in any riding where their candidate looks to be the strongest contender. I expect that more than a few Green candidates will lay claim to that mantle, as the quality of their team garners more attention.

      The Greens will also drive up voter turnout, as disaffected voters look to them as reason enough to vote, instead of sitting this election out.

      Young voters, especially, will hopefully turn out in greater numbers this election.

      If they do, it will be largely because of the alternative that May’s party provides in its driving appeal to idealism and to new ways of addressing age-old problems that really do need new solutions. Especially climate change.

      All of which argues yet again for Elizabeth May to be included in the leaders’ debates, as I argued here last week.

      As things stand, she and her party may well hold the ultimate balance of power. It is not inconceivable that we will have a minority government that is decided by a single seat.

      Subtract the Speaker, who remains neutral in Parliament, and any Green MPs elected to serve will have tremendous clout that far exceeds their numbers.

      That growing realization is yet another factor that should give all Canadians new pause to reflect on the nuances of strategic voting.

      Elect a Green MP and you may win power beyond your wildest expectations.

      Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is for you alone to decide. For the one immutable fact that none of the pretenders to power can alter is this: your vote cannot be “split.”

      It is yours alone to cast in good conscience, for the sole candidate who you decide can best represent you, and for the party that you determine can best give expression to your values and views.

      And in any case, unless you live in one of the leader’s ridings, you don’t get to vote for any of them. You just get to vote for their candidates and their parties.

      Today, you may be split on how to cast your vote, as I am.

      But on October 19, just remember that your ballot is all about opening up choices.

      It is not about foreclosing any of them, with a fear-based ballot question that the “major” parties try to frame in their own interests, using spurious appeals to strategic voting.

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic advisor to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment in British Columbia. He is the author of the ebook Towards a New Government in British Columbia. Contact Brown at



      Brian Fischer

      Aug 17, 2015 at 1:28pm

      I like the Greens, but I won't vote for them until Harper is out. Believe it or not, a strategic voter, and even committed Liberal or NDP voters, do not all see Green voters as 'stupid', etc as this article so desperately wants us to believe. In fact, I think the Greens are smart and the future. But, they have no hope of forming government this time around, and because the danger of another Harper term is so severe, so unthinkable, so unforgivable, so simply horrifying, I cannot vote Green. I will vote for whichever Liberal or NDP candidate has the best shot in my riding. Strategic voting is an expression of a very real and legitimate concern for getting the country out of this nightmare; deriding us is a great way to lose the argument as soon as you start.

      Wayne Taylor

      Aug 17, 2015 at 3:59pm

      Whether a Green voter may or may not vote strategically is irrelevant. A vote for the Green Party in this election is actually against the best interests of the Green Party. Why? Because the Green Party is nothing and will remain nothing without Proportional Representation. Elizabeth May will likely hold her seat and that's about it. One, with a bit of real luck, maybe two seats under First Past the Post. The same result again in 2019 if Harper is returned and probably much the same if the Liberals get in because they favour Preferential Voting, which, if you look at Australia, will not benefit the Greens to any extent. The only party of the three parties with a chance of winning this election which is committed to PR is the NDP. So, if the Greens wish to be relevant in the future, vote NDP in 2015 and then you will get more seats than you could ever dream of under any other electoral system.

      ursa minor

      Aug 17, 2015 at 4:11pm

      Wow. More white-knighting of Elizabeth May and the Greens from Martyn Brown. The Greens may not be "taking" votes from the NDP, but in the first-past-the-post system, they can certainly make sure more Conservatives get elected, just the way Martyn Brown and his Harperite/Clarkist friends want it.

      meredith jains

      Aug 17, 2015 at 4:55pm

      you just convinced me to vote for the NDP candidate in E May's riding

      Mike Baddee

      Aug 17, 2015 at 5:21pm

      Martyn Brown, former chief of staff to Gordon Campbell, doing his part to split the vote and return Harper to power. He makes no mention of our unfair first past the post system, or the fact the NDP platform is to change the voting system to proportional representation. This would increase Green seats to 30, possibly 40. It would also guarantee the Conservatives will never again gain a majority. That's what Brown is afraid of, and why he penned this tripe.

      Adam P. Olsen

      Aug 17, 2015 at 5:37pm

      In Saanich-Gulf Islands we unelected the Conservative cabinet Minister in 2011 and elected an incredible Member of Parliament in Elizabeth May. The Hpuse of Commons needs Elizabeth and a bunch of her colleagues no matter who is elected to form government, minority or majority!

      These threats of "vote splitting" and "strategic voting" is a form of voter suppression and so unfortunate. Time to move on from this tired messaging. Time to focus on increasing the voter turnout not diminishing it!

      Greens are good for democracy, our MP's and MLA's add value to the political discussion and we will benefit from more elected Greens.

      Jason Peil

      Aug 17, 2015 at 5:47pm

      I am unapologetic about the ABC Anything But Conservative campaign. I believe that the best thing for Canada in 2015 is to oust the Harper brigade. This drivel (and it is drivel) about not siphoning votes off from the leading contenders is fetid BS. The best bet to get rid of the Con in your riding deserves your vote.

      Neither the Liberals nor NDP are perfect in all counts. Yes the Green Party has great ideas. Great ideas going NOWHERE without Proportional Representation - something the NDP has made a solemn promise to institute as soon as elected. PR would bring 35 or more Green MP's up to Ottawa if we had it at this moment. It would end Conservative majorities for the foreseeable future and it would ensure the "liberal left" cooperates to govern. Green voices could become the king maker of the future if they vote with strategy today!

      This isn't some game of appealing to Greens for the NDP today. It's about appealing to all progressives who want to inoculate the electoral system against false majorities and it's about the way forward away from "populism" and toward real social changes. Canada has benefited most when minority governments were in power. Namely the Liberals with NDP support brought us medicare, EI, and CPP. Voting for your individual candidate IS respected in this scenario. The BEST person to beat your Con job candidate is the one who has the best chance without vote splitting. If that's a Green, then go ahead. I doubt it will be, but that doesn't mean Green values are wrong - it just means a little more patience is required. Don't fall for this Trojan horse logic. The Cons come out of the belly of that one.

      Dethrone one dictator and prevent another - how Greens help

      Aug 17, 2015 at 6:12pm

      Everything Martyn Brown writes is true, as much as some people don't want to hear it. Turning a riding Green is just as effective at dethroning Harper as turning it orange or red. And it's a step better: the last thing we want is another majority government. Far better to have a minority with Green MPs helping to preserve good honest governance. A handful of Green MPs is exactly what Canada needs. If you have a strong Green contender in your riding, vote Green - even the "strategic voting" crowd can't call that a mistake.

      David Wong

      Aug 17, 2015 at 6:24pm

      So many negative fear mongers in these comments.

      I heard the same belly aching from folks about "green labelled" food ... and that "organic" (a word that has lost its true meaning) would never go mainstream. Well folks, the last time I visited a local supermarket, I see more and more space dedicated to pesticide free/ clean grown produce. So if the bean counters are realizing the value of a healthier world, I'd like to think that we should not discount political leaders who advocate a more responsible approach to governance and to our world.

      Yup, I know there's a lot of greenwash out there, but Elizabeth May and her Greenies put their money where there mouths are. And for that, they deserve our respect... and vote. Otherwise, if we all didn't vote for the perceived underdog, it's no longer a real democracy, but an exercise of divide by fear ...

      Innocent Moose

      Aug 17, 2015 at 8:33pm

      Green voters are often those who would be too disgusted to vote for the mainline parties, and so wouldn't vote at all. Also a vote for green is not a wasted vote even if the candidate doesn't win because if enough people do this it will make clear the deep dissatisfaction felt about the current parties and system.

      You can't send this message by voting for one of them.

      Thirdly, when you vote for the lesser among evils, you get to ask yourself : "How is this voting for evils working out for me ?"