The following is an article I wrote for CultureGET about strategic voting and the youth vote. Enjoy!
Unless you live under a rock, I’m sure you’re aware of the upcoming Canadian federal election (May 2nd—mark your calendars!).
When it was called almost two weeks ago, I was pessimistic. I thought it would be a waste of time and money, and that Harper and his Conservatives would simply be re-elected with a slight shuffling of federal MPs. No major changes—no point.
These 30 seconds of pessimism gave way to optimism as I realized that this election could bring about positive change. It is an opportunity for voter turnout among youth aged 18–24 to rise from its abysmal 37%, for nationwide voter turnout to increase from 58.8%, for the Green Party to gain support, and for the Conservative minority to be defeated. However, many believe that the former is incompatible with the latter.
Before I get into that argument, I want to address the low voter turnout among youth. Despite campaigns from campuses such as Guelph University encouraging young people to cast their ballots, the increased amount of candidates under 30 running for major parties, and Rick Mercer encouraging young people to show up at the polls en masse, daring politicians to ignore youth voters in the future, I haven’t seen a lot of evidence that this preaching has reached anyone outside the choir. Hopefully the university and college campaigns for youth voting will impact many freshly of-age students, but it’s the already apathetic/disillusioned/lazy 63% that I’m worried about. Perhaps there should be some kind of incentive such as bars (and maybe movie theatres for those caught between the legal voting and legal drinking ages) offering discounts on election night for those who can prove they voted; a friend of mine even suggested making voting into a video game. But simply getting young people to show up and play eeny meeny miny mo with the ballot for cheap beer is hardly beneficial to democracy.
And speaking of democracy, I would be saddened if my generation (yes, I’m at the end of the 18–24 age bracket, but I’m still in it for another 7 months, dagnabbit!) takes nothing away from the Jasmine revolutions taking place in the name of democracy in Arab nations. There are noticeable cracks in Canadian democracy, but we still get to go to the polls and put an X beside who we feel will best represent us in the House of Commons. People around the world are putting their lives on the line for the right to democratic elections—a right we take for granted. One excellent way to show solidarity with this movement is for Canadians to take our democracy seriously by voting.
But here’s the rub: The Canadian electoral system uses the “first past the post” process. Our Prime Minister is elected by receiving the most seats in the House of Commons by Canadians voting regional leaders into these seats. The alternative to this is “proportional representation,” which would ensure that every vote counts, and party representation in Parliament would be directly proportional to the percent of the national vote they receive. (Check out Fair Vote Canada for more information about our current system, better alternatives, and how you can support them). Because of FPTP, the almost 1 million votes cast for the Green Party in the last federal election did not elect any seats in the House because they were not concentrated enough in any one riding. This is the root of the belief that “a vote for the Green Party is a vote for the Conservatives,” an idea I believe to be very short sighted.
Many people who fear for the future of Canada with Harper at the helm would rather strategically back a party they don’t believe in instead of voting for the party that best represents their values. For many, it is enough to simply opt for the lesser of two evils. Here are my problems with this line of thinking:
1. You may not know this (I didn’t until last week), but parties that get over 2% of the national vote get $1.75 per vote cast from taxpayers. Therefore, strategic voting may take money away from the party you like least, but it also takes money away from the party you like most but didn’t vote for. If your beliefs lie with the Green Party, voting for them helps fund their efforts beyond the election. So even if your Green Party candidate does not win in your riding, your vote will help the party’s ability to represent your values by lobbying the government in power to support Green Party policies. Therefore, it is not a wasted vote.
2. When you cast a ballot for a party, you send the message that you approve of their policies and tactics. If you vote for a party you don’t believe in and they get elected, they will proceed as if you do support them, as that is what your vote implied. Your vote will be used as a reason to implement policies you may not agree with—since those are the policies you voted for. Conversely, supporting the party you believe in will give your shared values strength in the House of Commons. Voting Green tells the rest of the parties what your priorities are and that, if they want your vote in the future, they should pay attention to Green policies.
3. What if the Liberals screw things up (again)? Where will strategic voters turn? Back to the Conservatives, since they’d be the party most likely to beat the Liberals? Isn’t that what happened with Paul Martin and the sponsorship scandal? It’s a vicious cycle that keeps the two big parties in power, and it leads us nowhere as a nation. Back and forth between the worst and second-worst options.
4. I believe that increasing voter turnout is more important than encouraging strategic voting. As I mentioned earlier, only 37% of youth eligible to vote did so in 2008. An analysis of EKOS polling shows that youth voters would lend 23.9% of their support to the Liberal Party, 22% to the Green Party, 18.8% to the Conservatives, 18.4% to the NDP, 13.5% for the BQ, and 3.4% to others. Instead of decreasing support for the more progressive parties as a method of ousting the Harper Government, let’s increase efforts to inform and ignite young people to vote with their hearts which, according to the Globe and Mail, would lend less support to the Conservatives.
5. Strategic voting has been referred to as “voting with your head instead of your heart.” But I think appealing to the heart is much more likely to increase voter turnout, which is what I think should be the focus of this election. In 2008, the PM only won with 37.6% of the vote. Since only 58.8% of Canadians voted, Harper only got the support of 22.1% of the entire Canadian population (estimated as 33,143,600 in 2008). The amount of eligible voters that chose not to vote at all almost doubled the amount that voted for the Conservatives. What has caused such low voter turnout? Well, the nasty tone in the House of Commons and attack ads are part of it. Voter turnout was at 72% in 1993, the year attack ads appeared in Canadian politics.
Another factor is that the major parties don’t really differ much from one another, and so a lot of Canadians don’t think there’s any point in choosing. Enter the Green Party. They offer a different kind of politics, one that strives for common ground between parties so that there can be cooperation in the House of Commons instead of unproductive squabbling. They are a party that wants to engage voters instead of scaring them off, and that wants to change the tone of Canadian politics. For many Canadians, including myself, the Green Party is a breath of fresh air. Discouraging voters from supporting the Green Party and telling them that their options are red or blue (and, in a few ridings, orange or light blue) is a lousy way to combat low voter turnout caused by lack of faith in the major parties—and boredom with more of the same.
If you still think strategic voting is the right path for you in this election, please pair your vote with support for electoral reform, which would eliminate the need for strategic voting in Canada by replacing our outdated electoral system with one that fairly, accurately, and democratically represents the votes of Canadians. And if you’re voting with your heart in this election, also consider supporting fair voting, which would allow your vote to have the most impact. Find out more here: http://www.fairvote.ca/