Strategic voting is hindered by the new election law

The 2004 election definitely calls for strategic voting. Not because it's this election but because it's an election. All voting is strategic. The question is whether your strategy is good, bad or ugly. For instance, what could be more strategic than trying to vote someone into office? Admittedly, there are many ways such a strategy could fail. But it is important to distinguish between a strategy that is unlikely to succeed because your situation is difficult (pulling your goalie in the last minute of a Stanley Cup Game 7 when you are down a goal) and one that is unlikely to succeed because it is stupid (voting for Bob Rae).

Even not voting is a strategy. It relies on the calculation that you are unlikely to receive sufficient benefits from it to justify the energy required. I think it's a mistake. For one thing, it's hard enough to control politicians when they know we do care enough to vote. For another, anyone in the habit of making such a calculation is likely to benefit simply from the exercise involved in transferring his or her bulk from the couch to the voting booth and back again. But a bad plan is still a plan. (Even the calculation, as an economist might phrase it, that habitual heavy consumption of adult beverages will yield sufficient utility to offset any costs incurred by not realizing an election is even going on.)

What people normally mean by "strategic voting'' is the behaviour of citizens sufficiently engaged to vote who think the candidate they prefer in their own riding, or the party they prefer overall, can't win. They exist in large numbers in any election, and they face a complex calculation, especially with Canada's new election-finance law.

Their first consideration always was, and still is, whether their riding faces a close race at all. If so, are they determined, if they can't elect their guy or gal, to at least throw the bums out or to keep them out? Such people incensed by the Liberals may vote NDP even if their first choice would be Tory or vice versa (or, in Quebec, Bloc). Others might hold their noses and vote Liberal to keep the Tories or Bloc out.

Alternatively, if the race is not close or they're not strongly motivated to throw bums in any direction, they can cast a ballot to "show the flag.'' They could vote to signal to some mainstream party, and their fellow citizens, that it enjoys some support even in a comparative political desert. Or they could vote Rhinoceros to tell their fellows they care but are dismayed by the allegedly serious choices.

All these calculations have been rendered more complex by our new election law that limits private donations to parties while giving them lavish public funding. I do not like this law: for one thing, I say free people can spend or give away their money as they see fit (and anyone concerned about a party's financial backing is free not to vote for it). For another, restrictive election laws passed by incumbent politicians generally favour incumbents. Self-interest is not only found in markets, folks.

The new campaign law gives each party a subsidy of $1.75 per year for every vote it got in the last election, provided it gets at least two per cent support nationally or five per cent in those ridings where it runs candidates. It works strongly against new parties and fringe ones. If you vote for the Marijuana Party, or spoil or refuse your ballot, it now costs your favoured mainstream party, if any, $1.75 a year or about $7 by the next election. Of course you can then give them the seven bucks but, in effect, a non-mainstream vote now costs $7. And among fringe parties, the law strongly favours the Greens. If you want to cast a gadfly ballot, they are the only smaller party likely to clear the two-per-cent hurdle and hence benefit financially from your vote, and since they are not certain to clear that hurdle, they and only they might desperately need it.

Regrettably, riding-by-riding polls do not seem to be available to tell you if you are, in fact, voting in a close race. And Quebec is pretty volatile. But in Ontario in the last decade, the Liberals have done about 11 per cent better than nationally, and despite their 98, 101 and 100 seats here in the last three elections, it's a safe bet the older history of your riding, and its provincial record, will now reassert themselves. These factors should tell you what the national and provincial polls probably mean locally.

Looking it all up could take an hour or so. If it doesn't seem worth it, see adult beverages above.

But remember: Even apathy is a strategy. Just not a good one.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson