This one’s for my fellow Canadian guys, gals and non-binary pals, or my international friends who may be interested in learning a bit about how Canadian politics work. Either way, I’m happy you’re here!
If you ARE Canadian and you don’t live under a rock, you’re probably aware that we have an election coming up in a few days, on September 20. There has been a ton of discourse lately about “strategic voting.” Namely whether voting for a party other than the Liberals or Conservatives (Canada’s two most popular parties for those not in the know, basically our version of Democrats and Republicans) would be a wasted vote.
Historically, most of Canada’s Prime Ministers have hailed from either the Liberal or Conservative parties (or some variation of the Conservative party, which has evolved several times over the years). But contrary to popular belief, Canada actually does not use a two-party system. That’s right, there are (gasp) other options.
Despite this, Canadian federal elections tend to revolve around the Libs and Cons as if the other parties don’t exist. This is because we’re constantly pushed to vote strategically, which operates on the belief that voting for any other party would split the right or left-leaning vote in the other side’s favour.
But today I’m here to make a case against strategic voting in the upcoming Canadian federal election, because as usual I just can’t seem to keep my mouth shut when it comes to politics! Let’s dive in, shall we?
Explaining Canadian Elections and First Past the Post:
The Canadian electoral process is a little different from that of our American neighbours. I’ll break it down to the absolute basics just in case anyone reading doesn’t know and is just too embarrassed to ask at this point. I know I was for many years. If you’re politically savvy, feel free to skip this part.
Instead of holding Primaries each time there’s an election, our party leaders remain the de facto candidates of their party until they resign, pass away or are essentially fired. When a new party leader needs to be elected, they are voted in by the members of their party. Much like the UK, most of Canada’s parties use a “One Member, One Vote” (OMOV) direct vote for this process, where each vote has equal weight. The few parties who don’t use the OMOV method, like the Liberals, instead hold leadership conventions where riding associations send delegates to vote on their behalf. Because we don’t choose our candidates directly before the election begins, voting in a new party leader can happen independently of an election.
That said, when an election is called we use a system called First Past the Post (FPTP) to determine which party will be elected. FPTP is used in the U.S. as well, with a different structure.
During a federal election, Canadians vote in a Prime Minister as well as 338 Members of Parliament (MPs) who will each have a seat in the House of Commons. Each MP represents an electoral district, known as a riding. When we actually cast our votes, the names on the ballots will be the names of the MP candidates in our ridings. Municipal and Provincial elections are held independently of federal elections.
Here’s where it gets tricky.
To put it as simply as possible, not every party gets the same number of seats in the House of Commons. Technically, that’s what we’re voting for. Since there are 338 seats, a party needs at least 170 to win a majority government. This rarely happens. The Liberal Party currently has 155 seats, which puts them in power even though they don’t have the absolute majority. All they need is more seats than the other parties, respectively. This is called a minority government, and minority governments have to answer to the opposing parties before making legislative decisions.
This is why Trudeau called the upcoming election ahead of schedule–he’s hoping to swing the vote in his favour in order to win a majority government, so he can implement his COVID-19 recovery plan without opposition from the other parties. Whether it will go the way he hopes remains to be seen.
A party needs at least 12 members in the House of Commons to be considered a recognized party. As of the last dissolution of Parliament, the Conservatives are directly behind the Liberals with 119 seats, the Bloc Quebecois are behind them with 32 seats, followed by the New Democratic Party (NDP) with 24 seats. The Green Party of Canada was only awarded three seats. This isn’t good news for the Greens, the NDP, the Bloc and other smaller parties and independents. Larger parties and parties with more geographically concentrated support gain a disproportionate number of seats, while minor parties are left in the dust.
The First Past the Post system is widely criticized for misrepresenting the vote. For example, after the 2015 federal election the NDP won 44 seats in the House with almost 20 per cent of the total vote. Under a proportionate representative system, they would have won 67 seats. That’s a difference of 23 seats. In 2019, the Conservatives won 34.4 per cent of the popular vote, which was actually the majority. But because the Liberals won more seats in the House, they got to hold onto their spot on the Iron Throne.
How strategic voting creates a self-fulfilling prophecy:
Under the First Past the Post system, strategic voting creates a self-perpetuating cycle that reinforces the two-party myth. This myth keeps minor parties from being seen as viable by the voters, resulting in the Liberal-Conservative tug of war we seem to be trapped in today.
Only we don’t have to be trapped in it. All we have to do is resist.
Opposition parties can have a lot of power in the House with enough seats. Although FPTP basically ensures that either the Liberals or the Conservatives will win the election, at least for now, historically Canada has elected more progressive governments during years when most voters reportedly chose not to vote strategically and instead voted in true alignment with their values.
Many of our most socially significant pieces of legislation were passed with minority governments in place. For example, same-sex marriage was legalized in 2005 under Paul Martin’s minority government. On a provincial level, many landmark socially progressive decisions were made with a minority government in place for David Peterson’s administration in Ontario from 1984 to 1987.
Not to mention, voting strategically doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the opposing party won’t be elected. For example, during the Ontario provincial election in 1999, strategic voting was being pushed hard by left-wingers much like it is today. Reportedly, many voted Liberal instead of NDP or Green. Despite this, the Conservatives were re-elected, partially because Mike Harris himself was so well-liked and also because Dalton McGuilty (the liberal leader) was simply unpopular. Long story short: even if the NDP was nonexistent, the Liberals would still have lost.
Don’t get me wrong–voting strategically has its place and can sometimes be necessary. The 2020 United States presidential election is a great example of this: in 2020, many Americans who would have normally voted Republican switched their vote in favour of Biden’s Democrats for the sake of ousting Trump.
But in the case of this election, we have to think about the long game. As smaller parties gain more concentrated support across the country, they slowly but steadily gain more seats in the House of Commons. It’s a slow burn, but voting true to your values makes it possible for minor parties to have a better long-term chance at eventually becoming the Official Opposition Party, and maybe even being voted into power. But this process can’t be initiated without having the votes in the first place.
An amendment to the Canada Elections Act that also works in smaller parties’ favour prohibits them from raising money from corporations and unions. To make up the revenue, each party is given $1.75 for every vote they receive. Wealthier parties historically win more seats in the House, which means our votes count in a serious way, even if they don’t win our preferred parties the seats they need just yet. If enough members of a minor party are elected to the House, they can have the power to push through the policy changes they want to see from behind the scenes.
Refusing to vote isn’t the statement you think it is:
Before I wrap this up, this needs to be said.
When I was growing up, my grandpa always used to say “no voting, no bitching.” While that may not be true for refugees and Permanent Residents in Canada who aren’t legally able to vote (they still live here and absolutely have every right to complain if the party in power is acting against their interests), if you’re a Canadian citizen and are physically/mentally able, there is no ethical reason to discard your vote.
We are incredibly privileged to live in a democracy that allows its citizens to have a say in how things are run. While it’s obviously within your rights as a Canadian to choose not to participate in the electoral process, why wouldn’t you?
Some choose not to vote because they feel they don’t have enough information to make an informed decision. Luckily, it’s easier than ever to inform yourself. Each party’s platform can be found on their respective websites. Alternatively, Maclean’s has a comprehensive guide that breaks down each major party’s platform by issue, so you can see their stances on the things that matter to you. You can also take the Vote Compass quiz, which shows you how your views align with those of each participating party.
Many others choose not to vote because they don’t like their options, or they think that their vote won’t make a difference. This is not a sufficient reason to throw away your vote, in my opinion. Sometimes in life we need to make difficult decisions and choose the lesser of multiple evils.
Studies have shown that a low voter turnout usually results in a socioeconomically biased election, failing to reflect the true interests of the public at large. Often this has consequences for marginalized and vulnerable communities. It also serves the interests of special interest groups, who depend on voter apathy.
If you can’t find even one thing you can support in any of the parties’ platforms from a federal perspective, try thinking smaller. Scale down to the municipal level and look at your local candidates. What does your community need, and which party do you think would best represent those needs on a local level?
Long story short, if you don’t vote, you’re giving up your opportunity to be an agent of change. In a democracy like ours, voter absenteeism equals voter apathy–there are no practical benefits to not voting. It doesn’t make a statement. All it does is reinforce the status quo and show our leaders that we don’t care about what happens to our country. Voting shows that our citizens are politically engaged and helps to hold those with the most power and influence accountable for their actions.
Long story short, if you weren’t planning on voting on Monday, get off your butts and hit those polls, people!
NOTE: If you have a disability and are in need of assistance, Elections Canada has resources available for Accessible Voting.
The dangers of party loyalty:
Okay, I lied. There’s one more thing I want to quickly touch on before wrapping up–something completely insidious that’s pervasive among Canadian voters, especially those within the political parties themselves. Of course, I’m talking about party loyalty. If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard things like “in this house we vote _______” or “I vote _________ because my parents do” I could probably buy at least a 10-pack of Timbits.
Party loyalty is a big deal among Canadian politicians especially. Although party members are permitted to vote for other parties, they rarely do. Justin Trudeau notoriously removed two popular members of his government (Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott) from the Liberal caucus in 2020 for not adhering to the unspoken party loyalty rule. This kind of thing is dangerous for a whole host of reasons, namely because it impedes the ability for party members to help hold their colleagues accountable from the inside.
For civilian voters, blindly voting for a party simply because you’ve always voted for them can lead to inadvertently embracing a candidate who works against your interests. With a world of knowledge in your pocket, it may benefit you (and the rest of us) to do a quick Google search for the platform of the party you plan to vote for before casting your ballot. You may learn something that surprises you.
Although I’m obviously not going to tell you who to vote for, I do have some advice that I sincerely hope you’ll consider before voting. While thinking fiscally is important (especially in the midst of a global pandemic that has essentially crippled the economy) we must remember that there can be no economy without people.
While you’re browsing each party’s platform, put yourself in the shoes of the vulnerable and marginalized people who call Canada home:
Think about the empty promises made to our Indigenous communities, who have been begging for clean water for decades. Think about survivors of Residential Schools and their families, who are currently in court fighting a government that refuses to take accountability for the atrocities that are still committed against Indigenous children to this day. Think about the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls who are still begging for someone to pay attention.
Think about your loved ones who are members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Was your candidate one of the 63 who voted not to ban conversion therapy, a practice that has been proven to have profound and long-lasting negative effects on a person’s psyche?
Think about the students and recent graduates in your life who have been pushed all their lives to get an education, and are now emerging with mountains of debt, few job prospects, unprecedented levels of inflation and a brutal housing market.
Think about the police brutality and systemic racism that continues to run rampant in our country. Is your party willing to put in the work to tear down and rebuild the oppressive systems and institutions that Canada was built on? Or will they continue to deny that they even exist?
Think about your daughters, mothers, sisters, aunts and friends with uteruses. Will you vote for a party that will ensure that the women in your life will continue to have agency over their own bodies and reproductive systems?
Think of your family members and friends who desperately need psychiatric help but can’t afford therapy because they don’t have the privilege of workplace benefits. Or people who live with agonizing tooth pain because they can’t afford a simple trip to the dentist. Would paying a little more taxes so these people can enjoy a better quality of life really be so bad?
We need a leader who will do their best to keep as many Canadians as possible safe and healthy while we ride out the rest of this pandemic. Someone who will listen to medical experts, scientists and researchers and not subscribe to conspiracy theories with no basis in fact. We need a leader who will protect our seniors, our children and other vulnerable communities.
All I’m saying is to vote with empathy and compassion. Instead of thinking about your own wallet, think of other people. Think outside your own bubble of perception. Think of your loved ones, but also the people who you may never even encounter.
We need a leader who will fight for the rights of all of their constituents. Not only the wealthy, who continue to enjoy a disproportionate amount of privilege while the rest of us have no breathing room to move up the ladder.
Think about what you’re putting out into the universe. If you are a force of good, it’s sure to come back to you.
© Victoria St. Michael 2021
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