In the final days of a hotly contested three-way race in the Calgary Centre by-election, the talk in some circles turned to the possibility of co-operation between progressive parties. Liberal candidate Harvey Locke’s campaign, in particular, used every tool at its disposal to urge Calgarians not to “split the vote.” Liberals and some other commentators directly pressured my campaign for the Greens – which some polls indicated was in the third-place spot but gaining fast – to throw our support behind Mr. Locke.
Knowing we still had a serious chance to win and that the time for co-operation was long past, we stuck to our game plan. In the end, the Conservative candidate won with just 37 per cent of the vote in this riding; Mr. Locke finished second with 32 per cent, and I came third with 26 per cent.
A clear majority of Calgary Centre voters wanted a non-Conservative Member of Parliament this time around, but instead wound up with another loyal Conservative backbencher. From some angles, this by-election might appear a textbook argument for electoral co-operation, a portrait in microcosm of the circular firing squad that has hobbled Canadian progressives at polls across Canada for years.
I’d like to offer my qualified dissent from this cynical view of the contemporary Canadian electoral process. The Calgary Centre by-election offers three key lessons for Canadians concerned about vote-splitting: 1) co-operation among the Liberals, Greens and NDP presents the potential for electoral breakthroughs in many ridings; 2) the time to negotiate such cooperation is well before the election campaign itself; and 3) the heated talk about vote-splitting fails to acknowledge that the single largest constituency in this by-election and many other federal campaigns was actually non-voters.
Let’s consider each of these in turn.
The potential : This is the simplest electoral math. Even in Stephen Harper’s backyard, 63 per cent of voters cast ballots for non-Conservative candidates. If the parties could work together to identify key ridings and respective strongholds, and then agree ahead of time on a single candidate under a single banner – perhaps through some sort of joint nomination process – the opportunity for victory is obvious.
The timing: Once party nominations have occurred and staff has been assigned, strategies and platforms established, signs and literature produced, it’s not just logistically difficult but fundamentally undemocratic to insist on co-operation. This is for the simple reason that every vote counts and every voter remains entitled to a free choice on the ballot. Once the race is on, there’s no putting the horses back into the barn.
What’s more, the presumption that a strong third horse in the race splits the vote is often ignorant of the facts at street level on the campaign trail. This was certainly the case in Calgary Centre, where my campaign saw a huge gain in momentum throughout the latter half of the campaign – not by eroding Liberal backing (which remained steady at around 30 per cent throughout the campaign), but by capturing substantial wedges of support from disaffected Conservatives, NDP voters looking for a better chance at backing a winner, and unaligned voters. My campaign did not split the vote in Calgary; we built our own coalition on the Green Party’s broad, moderate platform.
Non voters: This is, to my mind, the real untapped opportunity for a breakthrough in Canadian politics. In Calgary Centre and beyond, the most common affiliation among eligible voters is “nonvoter.” My campaign resonated most powerfully among Calgarians who saw real value in backing a candidate and a party unconnected to the entrenched political divisions in parliament today. In Calgary Centre, 10,201 voters out of an electorate of 94,000 chose the new member of Parliament. If any campaign had been able to fully engage the majority who didn’t vote at all, it could have won in a landslide.
That’s the true lesson of the Calgary Centre by-election: The majority don’t have any horse in the race at all.
Chris Turner was the Green Party candidate in the Calgary Centre by-election this week.