Strategic Voting – A Hot Topic This Election

Canada’s federal leaders started dominating front pages and social media feeds long before the election was announced. But these discussions were about more than just three people. They were – and continue to be – about the vast and increasingly-diverse nation these people represent. A multitude of voices are speaking out during one of the most interesting moments in our country’s history.

Debates about the major issues of our time – climate change, national security and free trade, to name a few – impact all Canadians. But communities are unique. An event that changes very little in one riding can completely disrupt another, turning the tide of public opinion.

This year, support for political parties has been tracked closely in many ridings. In some cases, the aim has been strategic voting – a practice considered by critics to be undemocratic. Proponents claim that voting strategically is the best option in a system they see as fundamentally flawed. This post will look at the concept of strategic voting in the context of the upcoming election.




What is strategic voting, and why are people talking about it? 

Put simply, strategic voting is the act of casting a vote for someone other than your favourite candidate with the goal of preventing an undesirable outcome. It’s a tactic that has been publicly debated in many countries where three or more parties garner significant support. To use a Canadian example, the Liberals were able to convince many NDP supporters to vote for them in the 2004 and 2006 elections. They claimed this would unseat the Conservatives. Suffice to say, it didn’t work

It’s no secret that some see recent policies put forth by the current administration as unrepresentative of Canadian values. The discontent associated with these policies has caused a resurgence of interest in strategic voting, which has been reflected in the media. According to a recent search carried out through Gnowit’s CoreAlerts, 50 articles containing the term “strategic voting” have been published on Canadian news sites in the past two weeks.

Tone-analysis revealed a mix of negative, positive and neutral sentiments associated with these articles. This is, perhaps, unsurprising. Many see strategic voting as a necessity and others don’t feel strongly one way or the other. But for some, it’s a contentious issue.

In an August 17th commentary in Vancouver’s Georgia Straight, Martyn Brown states that “the unspoken appeal to strategic voting is its innate denial of voter choice”. Paul Moist, president of CUPE (Canada’s largest union) has asserted that voting strategically “serves to add to the cynicism of the Canadian electorate”. And a Letter to the Editor in Saskatoon’s StarPhoenix expresses how many critics feel about Leadnow, a national strategic-voting group. Leon Bezaire accuses the group of “treat[ing] citizens as unthinking pawns”.

Leadnow spokespeople defend their tactics, which they see as the best option in a system that doesn’t revolve around the popular vote. Some in the political world agree, including former Parry Sound-Muskoka NDP riding association president, Clyde Mobbley. Mobbley was recently removed from his position for encouraging NDP supporters in his riding to go Green.

It should be noted that it isn’t always those who fall on the left side of the political spectrum who vote strategically. After the 2011 election, North Vancouver Liberal Taleeb Noormohamed asserted that some Liberals in his riding flocked to the Conservatives in order to negate the possibility of an NDP prime minister.




Strategic voting by riding

So, strategic voting has generated a good deal of interest this election season. But what does it look like in practice?

According to most proponents, voting strategically starts with a good grasp of the Canadian electoral system and an understanding of the demographics of your riding. Both conditions can be complex, but in the first election since the creation of 30 new ridings, the latter is especially tricky.

Swing ridings – ridings where the race between two contenders is close – are the areas where strategic voting generally occurs. The most common occurrences see NDP supporters voting for Liberals who have a good chance of winning, and vice versa.

As the news stories about battleground ridings started to pile up, Gnowit decided to build on our series of election-themed dashboards. Now, in addition to understanding the media coverage surrounding their individual parliamentary candidates, voters can view dashboards that provide an overview of what’s happening in their ridings.

A description of our dashboards appears at the bottom of the post, or (as a quick example), you can check out the dashboard for Stephen Harper here.

Due to political races that are expected to be tight, the ridings below are ripe for strategic voting. These regions are garnering a good deal of media coverage. Gnowit isn’t advocate any voting tactics, though we do believe in staying informed.


Burnaby North-Seymour

Of the country’s new ridings, Burnaby North-Seymour is one of the most interesting. The riding combines portions of two regions that have little in common politically – Burnaby Douglas (currently NDP) and North Vancouver (Conservative).

We’ve found that 42% of news coverage surrounding the riding is negative, and only 29% is positive. This is likely a reflection of the friction occurring between supporters of different parties (the Kinder-Morgan pipeline has been a major issue). Most interestingly, the NDP, Conservative, and Liberal candidates are in what looks to be a tight, three-way race, mirroring what’s happening at the national level. In such situations, strategic voting becomes a complex process, and miscalculations can easily occur.

To see the Burnaby North-Seymour dashboard, click here.



The northeastern Ontario riding of Nipissing-Timiskaming has gained a great deal of national attention in recent weeks. According to Gnowit’s CoreAlerts, a total of 70 articles discussing the riding were published on September 1.

Why all the media buzz? During the 2011 election, the race in this riding was exceptionally close. Conservative candidate Jay Aspen beat Liberal Anthony Rota by a mere 18 votes. To make things more interesting, the NDP also saw an uptick in support that year.

An article about the political climate in Nipissing-Timiskaming suggests that the riding may help us determine, once and for all, whether strategic voting is “really a thing” (as opposed to a theoretical tactic).

To see the Nipissing-Timiskaming dashboard, click here.



Another new B.C. riding, Cowichan – Malahat – Langford promises to offer a tight race. Had the current boundaries existed in 2011, the NDP would have beat the Conservatives by just a small margin (253 votes).

The riding is probably one of several the Harper administration has concerns about. At a recent rally in Richmond, the Conservative leader alluded to the fact that legally, the results from eastern ridings can now be broadcast before west coast polls close. “British Columbia may well now choose who will form the national government in Canada,” noted Harper. Real-time broadcasts could have an impact on the number of strategic voters.

To see the Cowichan-Malahat-Langford dashboard, click here.



In Orleans – part of the National Capital Region – a strategic-voting group is hoping to oust Conservative incumbent Royal Galipeau in favour of Liberal candidate Andrew Leslie. Orleans has a history of voting Liberal.

In addition to carrying out a social media campaign, members of Vote Smart Orleans are going door to door in an attempt to sway voters. The group’s spokesperson claims “respect for democracy and free speech” are some of the core issues voters are currently concerned about.

View the dashboard for Orleans here.




A polarizing issue

The ridings above – along with 66 others – have been targeted by strategic-voting groups that want to see a change on October 19.

Tracking stories that develop around the federal election serves many purposes, the noblest of which is staying informed about where your candidates stand on the issues (and whether these stands are being consistently upheld). So why is it that strategic voting – or tactical voting, as it’s sometimes called – is so often the election-tracking story that garners attention?

Part of it has to do with the way the issue polarizes Canadians. Some pundits accuse partakers of stacking the cards against a particular party; others praise them for trying to balance a supposedly uneven deck. Many claim that parties with small support bases (like the Greens) are cheated when citizens vote strategically; others assert that members of these parties benefit when a leader who is ideologically closer to them than the Conservatives is in control.

It all comes down to perspective: citizens in both camps feel that members of the other are throwing their votes away.




What’s really important

There’s plenty of disagreement about what constitutes the right goals and motivations for voting. But those on both sides of the divide should think of the positives that have come out of this year’s campaign. There’s no way of knowing exactly how many people will vote during the election, but if the media coverage is any indication, political conversations are spreading beyond the usual circles. Exciting campaigns have their benefits.

Whatever the outcome on October 19, we just might be at the beginning of a new chapter in Canada’s history – a chapter marked by increased civic engagement.




A Gnowit dashboard is a one-page, interactive overview of the news coverage related to a topic. Our dashboards contain clickable graphs and charts representing elements such as article sentiment and key topics. Using Gnowit’s free election-tracking tool, you can view a dashboard related to any parliamentary candidate in Canada, or a dashboard for your riding as a whole. Click here. 

Feature image courtesy of (left to right) Joseph Morris, Alex Guibord, Ted Buracas

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