Opinion-Policy Nexus

A short while ago McGill's Antonia Maioni appeared in the Globe and Mail, saying some curious things about strategic voting.

Apparently its allure has something to do with hip vibes and predictive analytics.

Not that she's wrong about the informational demands of successful strategic voting, but why she dismisses popular efforts to overcome those hurdles is beyond me.

And to recommend that we simply vote our conscience while facing candidates from multiple parties, under first past the post rules, in single member districts? It's a strangely concessive view that's not supported by research in the field.

But strategic voting isn't often easy. In our system, the trick is to select the candidate closest to your views but with the best chance of winning, and it's the last bit of information that often poses the challenge. What's more, it isn't just lack of reliable data on chances of victory that can complicate matters.

Consider the case of one Hamilton riding, where the current school board vice-chair, Alex Johnstone, is running for the NDP.

Johnstone is well-known to some parents in Hamilton, who were decidedly unimpressed by her actions as a trustee during a rash of controversial school closures. During one episode in particular, Johnstone seemed most comfortable ignoring evidence and simply voting with more senior members of the board. No doubt she'd do well on the back benches, smiling and following orders.

Still, one wonders about a candidate for federal office who, upon launching her campaign, didn't bother to scour her social media history for embarrassing posts---like, maybe, an off-hand quip from seven years earlier making phallic jokes about a photo that turned out to be Auschwitz?

And if such a post managed to evade said candidate's scrutiny, you'd think, with her background on the school board, that she'd have a better answer than: "Well, I didn't know what Auschwitz was, or I didn't up until today" ...

That's either distressing ignorance or questionable political instincts.

So, what are progressives to do?

Indeed, perhaps a few conservatives are asking themselves a similar question, given the dearth of the moderate conservative candidates under Harper's firm hand. The conservative candidate for the Hamilton West riding, Vincent Samuel, seems true to Harper's talking points, at least if one of his recent campaign flyers is any indication. If the conservatives were to provide more latitude to their candidates, Samuel looks to be an interesting sort of conservative. In this political climate, however, he's essentially following marching orders: it's terrorism and the economy, stupid, and Justin's just not ready (nice hair, though).

NDP supporters certainly don't want another Harper government, but on the other hand, the Liberal candidate in the riding, Filomena Tassi, opposes abortion, so many local NDP supporters may end up holding their noses as they vote for a lightweight like Johnstone, even as her weaknesses become increasingly evident.

What about liberal voters in the riding? True, Tassi has promised to vote with the party, not her conscience, if the issue of abortion ever arises. Still, some liberal voters might nonetheless take her moral conviction as sufficient warrant to vote strategically, turning to the NDP ...

... until, that is, they talk to anyone remotely familiar with Johnstone's school board record on closures that affected her riding. And, of course, before they witness her bizarre response to this recent social media brouhaha. Then, they might well conclude that a principled Liberal candidate who has promised to do her elected duty might be preferable, in spite of deep moral disagreement, to a representative who either didn't know about Auschwitz, or who thought the correct political play was to claim ignorance of such a gravely important historical atrocity, when confronted with questionable social media posts from her past.

Strategic voting can be complicated, then, not simply because we often lack reliable information about likely outcomes in our riding. Another layer of complexity is how voters feel about candidates making the jump from local or provincial to federal politics, the baggage these candidates bring with them, and how they deal with that baggage.

This is, of course, just one way that local candidates still matter, even in a world of strong party discipline and well-scripted talking points.

Voters may simply throw up their hands and vote their true preferences, or they may be able to find credible signals to focus their strategic voting, searching for what Thomas Schelling called focal points to coordinate actors with similar aims, but uncertain information. But the task is rarely easy.

Maioni has little patience for grassroots efforts to overcome these complex coordination problems. I am far more sanguine. Then again, I love AirBnB and other innovations that shake up a complacent status quo.

No surprise, then, that I think the best lesson to take away from these complexities may well be the desirability of electoral reform, which both the Liberals and the NDP have promised to put high on their respective agendas should they form the next government.