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Strategic Voting 2.0

How the web has changed our ability to target, and swap, votes.

By David Thompson, 9 Oct 2008, TheTyee.ca

Illustration of computer and ballot box

Easier now to make informed decision.

Times have changed for voters, especially those on the fragmented progressive side of the Canadian political spectrum.

The electoral experts like to point out that "strategic voting" never worked. Historically, it meant depriving your favourite party of a vote, and instead simply voting for the non-Conservative party that was highest ranked nationally.

For decades, at the federal level, that meant voting Liberal. The federal Liberals knew this, and it allowed them to steer further to the right than they otherwise could have.

This version of "strategic voting" wasn't very strategic at all -- hence the quotation marks. It was a mug's game, and most progressives rightly rejected it.

Enter the Internet

Two key developments have changed this, and now truly strategic voting (no quotation marks) is possible. And a large number of Canadians have begun to do it.

One of those key developments is a vastly increased ability to find and communicate with people of shared interests -- via the Internet.

I won't go into the various means -- chat rooms, social networking sites, etc. Suffice it to say, these means are also available to voters. And voters who share an interest in defeating Stephen Harper can now find and communicate with one another.

The other key development is the capacity to broadcast information cheaply and instantaneously, again via the Internet. Formerly the preserve of the media establishment, broadcast communication is now available to anyone, even those who oppose the establishment.

This capacity is now being combined with widely available public opinion polls, which are being carried out with increasing frequency. This is allowing voters in every riding to access the best possible information about which local candidate is most likely to defeat the local Conservative.

Social networking and cheap information broadcasting have changed strategic voting forever. It is no longer a mug's game.

Picking a winner

In the current election, the information broadcasting website voteforenvironment received over a million hits in just two weeks of existence. This website provides a crucial piece of information for strategic voters -- voter intention analysis on a riding-by-riding basis.

In other words, voters can see which candidate in their riding is most likely to beat the Conservative candidate. So, instead of automatically voting Liberal just because they are the second best party nationally, they can actually pick a progressive winner in their riding.

This doesn't automatically result in Liberals taking seats away from other progressive parties, as was the case in the bad old days. As the website shows, this strategy would actually result in increases in seat counts for all of the opposition parties.

The site is updated often with new polling information, and shows that the Conservatives could lose a number of key seats in this election through strategic voting. In theory, if enough people did it, the Conservatives could actually lose the election altogether.

Supporting your favourite

A concern remains, however. People with strong party loyalty don't want their party to lose a vote.

Now, those people can find like-minded partisans of other parties across Canada and swap votes with them. This is where the social networking sites come into play. Here's how it works.

Suppose you're an NDP supporter in a riding where the Liberal candidate is a close second to the Conservative. And a Liberal supporter lives in a riding where the NDP candidate is most likely to unseat a Tory.

You meet on a vote-swap website, and agree to hold your respective noses. You each vote for the local candidate that could beat the Conservative.

You have voted strategically in your riding, and your favourite party hasn't lost a vote. In fact, it gets a vote where it actually counts -- where it could result in a victory. Ditto for your counterpart.

The huge social networking site, Facebook, has an Anti-Harper Vote Swap Canada group. It's accessible here, here, and here (links available only if you're registered with Facebook). You can also vote strategically without having to join Facebook, at http//www.votepair.ca. This site is not specifically anti-Harper, but it does the trick.

Intelligent vote-swapping

Despite the evolution of the Internet, there are still some old-school "experts" who haven't yet adjusted to the new reality. They argue that strategic voting hurts your favourite party, and won't work against the Conservatives.

They are wrong on both points. Intelligent vote-swapping gives votes to your favourite party where those votes count, and would reduce the Conservatives seat count.

In fact, it could swing the next election if Stephen Harper is still the Conservative leader. With more than just a few weeks to organize, vote-swapping could well result in a Conservative rout.

Of course, strategic voting is only necessary because Canada still suffers under the first-past-the-post system. Few countries still have this system; the vast majority have opted for the more democratic system of proportional representation. And no doubt this will be the next evolution in strategic voting.

But in the meantime, Canadian progressives are adopting a do-it-yourself form of proportional representation. They are already moving toward strategic voting.

As with many social innovations, they're doing it because they can. And despite what the "experts" say.

Tomorrow: Tyee political reporter Andrew MacLeod analyzes the strategic voting landscape in British Columbia for this federal election.

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