How Strategic Voting Shaped the Canadian Election


Justin Trudeau in 2013 (Joseph Morris/Flickr)

Justin Trudeau in 2013 (Joseph Morris/Flickr)

As the dust settles on the Liberal Party’s victory in Canada’s recent federal election, websites designed to facilitate and promote various forms of tactical voting are analyzing the impact they might have had on the results.

Going into the 2015 campaign, sentiment against the incumbent Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper was so high more than half of New Democratic Party (NDP) supporters were willing to vote Liberal to defeat him, and vice versa. With limited potential to gain support from the Canadian majority who subscribe to values more progressive than those he represented, Harper’s best hope of staying in office was to see the left-leaning vote split evenly between the other two major parties.

Among the web tools trying to stop this from happening were vote swapping hubs, which helped citizens to trade, for instance, a Liberal vote in one carefully chosen riding for an NDP vote in another, in the hopes of giving each swapper’s preferred party a better chance of winning a seat.

There were also websites encouraging so-called “strategic voting,” which means voting for the person who has the best chance of beating your least favourite party’s candidate, without asking anybody to vote for your favourite party elsewhere in return. Votetogether.ca, for example, made it easy for users to find and interpret the poll data they would need to cast a strategic vote, once they had entered their postal codes into a web form. In addition, the site raised awareness of strategic voting via social media—collecting over 90,000 Canadians’ formal pledges to vote for whichever candidates had the best shot at defeating the Conservatives—and even mobilized volunteer phone teams and door-to-door canvassers to promote the idea.

Since the reasoning behind people’s voting decisions isn’t recorded anywhere, it’s impossible to measure the impact of strategic voting with absolute certainty, but experts believe it did influence the election outcome. The NDP, whose share of the popular vote slid from 30.6% in 2011 to 19.7% in 2015, appear to have received the short end of the stick in a number of ridings. After starting strong but then falling behind the Liberals in the polls during the first few weeks of the campaign, the NDP’s downward spiral was probably amplified by the willingness of strategic voters to flock to whichever party was ahead.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May stated publicly that she believes strategic voting is the reason why her party won only one seat. “People would come up to me,” she said, “and tell me ‘I love what you’re doing… but this time around I can’t vote Green because we have to get rid of Harper.’”

Presumably she wouldn’t have the same complaint about vote swapping, which preserves the overall vote count for each party, albeit at a cost to certain individual candidates. The administrators of Vote Swap Canada 2015 note that a number of Green supporters, who were looking for swaps in ridings where the Greens had a fighting chance, did not manage to find a partner. Some NDP supporters had the same problem.

Between the two most prominent swapping hubs this election, Vote Swap Canada 2015 and voteswapping.ca, only around two thousand votes were formally traded: a dip from previous years. The latter site, which had planned to focus its energies and poll funds on swing ridings, found it a challenge to figure out where these ridings actually were, according to administrator Jim Harris. “The electorate was more volatile than usual, and a lot of the ridings that were close last time were looking solidly Liberal by the end of the campaign. If there had been more close races, then we would have been able to make more matches, and each match would have made a greater difference, too.”

Nevertheless, Harris doesn’t regret having invested his time and effort into the experiment. “There were a lot of different groups attacking the Harper Conservatives from all different angles. It appears as though Leadnow [the organization behind votetogether.ca] were the ones who were really effective this time. At any rate, I’m glad see Harper go.”

Voteswapping.ca will remain live for the foreseeable future as a means of raising awareness about the concept. It may or may not actively match swappers for the next election, although the team at Vote Swap Canada 2015 expects that swapping and other kinds of tactical voting will continue to exist for as long as Canada has a first-past-the-post elections system. Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau promised electoral reform on the campaign trail, but after having benefitted from FPTP during this election, he may find it tempting to renege on that pledge.