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For many, the decision in Ontario this week has never been harder – but staying home is not an option. Marcus Gee looks at the messiness of democracy and the choices voters must make, for better or for worse

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Doug Ford, Andrea Horwath and Premier Kathleen Wynne arrive to a crowd of supporters for the last Ontario election leaders’ debate ahead of voting day on June 7, 2018. These photos were created through multiple exposures made in-camera by the photographer.Sarah Palmer/The Globe and Mail

A local vandal recently wrote his polling advice on my neighbour’s garage door: “Don’t vote against Ford. Don’t vote against Wynne. Don’t vote!” (Maybe he hasn’t seen Andrea Horwath’s latest numbers.)

It’s awfully tempting to go along. Like many people in Ontario, I’m having trouble deciding whom to vote for in Thursday’s provincial election. None of the options is appealing.

Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals put everything on the credit card for 15 years and passed the bill to the next generation. The Progressive Conservatives threw their leader overboard and put the blustering Doug Ford at the helm. Ms. Horwath’s NDP seems to think the world reached a state of perfection in 1976.

Read also: Will Ontarians buy what Doug Ford is selling?

The new Andrea Horwath: Who is she and why are Ontarians listening now?

Ontario election guide: What you need to know before you vote

But staying home on Thursday isn’t an option. Except for the times I was out of the country, I’ve voted in every election at every level over the past 45 years. I’ve supported all three major parties. Voting is a civic obligation. You can’t complain about how the game is played if you don’t show up. Even if the options are poor, it’s our duty to pick one.

But, for me anyway, the decision has never been harder than in this election.

To help make up my mind, and perhaps help others think it through, I took some time away from the ups and downs of the campaign and looked instead at what we know about how voters determine which box to tick.

Voting for who should govern us is one of the privileges of living in a democracy. People have been doing it since Athenians in sandals and tunics chose their governing council by lot. Yet, to be honest, most of us go about it in a slapdash sort of way.

Rare is the conscientious voter who watches all the debates, follows all the news and plows through the platforms of all the parties. People don’t have the time and, for the most part, they don’t have the interest. Nearly a century ago, the arch-pundit Walter Lippmann wrote that American voters walk into the play halfway through the third act and leave before the final curtain falls. Today’s voters are better educated and, with all the world’s knowledge in the palm of their hands, they have at least the chance to better informed. Their choice is often instinctive all the same.

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Doug Ford's daughters Kara, Kyla and Kayla at Doug Ford's campaign launch at the Toronto Congress Centre in Toronto on May 8, 2018.Sarah Palmer/The Globe and Mail

“There is this kind of hot cognition that goes on,” says pollster Darrell Bricker, chief executive of Ipsos Public Affairs. All the policy that party leaders trot out during an election campaign often goes in one ear and out the other. “It might as well be Charlie Brown’s teacher – ‘wa-wa-wa’ – nobody’s listening.”

One of the most influential students of voter decision making, American scholar Philip Converse, argued nearly 60 years ago that few voters have consistent political beliefs. In The American Voter, he and his collaborators wrote about “the general impoverishment of political thought in a large proportion of the electorate.” They found that nearly a fifth of voters made their call based on “no shred of policy significance whatever.” Experts who surveyed voters after the turn of the century to update the Converse research found that not much had changed. Ever since Mr. Converse, politicians’ handlers have been urging their charges to go easy on the wa-wa-wa and talk about a brighter tomorrow instead.

No wonder voters get treated like blank slates. The how-to-do-anything website wikiHow gives them an 11-point illustrated guide on voting. Point 2 helpfully instructs them to “Find out who is available to vote for. This way, if you know who the candidates are, you can start to list things they say they will do.” A drawing shows a young man pensively stroking his chin.

Voters’ minds are malleable. All sorts of things will shape them. In one paper titled Why Shark Attacks Are Bad For Democracy, Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels argue that a series of attacks at the New Jersey shore in 1916 hurt Woodrow Wilson in that fall’s election. Even if Washington could do little to stop them, alarmed voters took it out on the president. The same authors found that Al Gore lost seven states in the 2000 election because of bad weather.

None of this is to say that voters are stupid, exactly. Just that they are rushed and impulsive. As Richard Lau, Mona Kleinberg and Tessa Ditonto put it in a recent issue of Public Opinion Quarterly, “Humans are cognitively limited information processors.” Without the patience to weigh every word or assess every promise, they use shortcuts to make their decision.

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Premier Kathleen Wynne takes photographs with supporters at her campaign rally in Scarborough on May 24, 2018.Sarah Palmer/The Globe and Mail

Some vote along party lines. They say, for example: “I’m a Liberal and I vote Liberal.” That simplifies things. Some narrow things down to a single issue: Whichever one of these clowns will cut my hydro rates – or fight global warming, or improve the status of women – that candidate has my vote. And some simply vote for the candidate they know and trust. Doug Ford’s brother Rob reaped bushels of votes by answering voter phone calls in person and coming to their homes to get the water pipes fixed.

Are these shortcuts – the experts call them heuristics – a legitimate way for voters to make the big decision? Just as important, do they produce a result that reflects the preferences of voters? Those questions have divided scholars for decades.

One camp argues that voters tend to make the choice that aligns with their views despite their ignorance about policy and events. A study found that, by this measure, voters make the right choice about seven times out of 10. In The Reasoning Voter, Samuel Popkin called this “low-information rationality.” Using scraps of information from the news, chit-chat among friends and neighbours and personal impressions of the candidates, they come to a decision.

A second camp says the idea of the rational voter is just wishful thinking. The shortcuts that voters use can lead them astray. One U.S. researcher asked people to rate the competence of a number of men and women based solely on photographs. Unknown to them, the photos were of political candidates. The ones they judged most competent tended to be the ones who got elected. Larry Bartels, one of the shark-attack guys, notes that this rather undermines the comforting notion that voting shortcuts can make up for voters’ lack of knowledge.

He gives another example. Voters tend to focus on the here and now. So when they judge a government on how the economy is doing, they are looking at a snapshot of the present, not a video of the government’s performance over the life of its term – a far better basis for assessment.

Even when voters look back, Prof. Bartels writes, they get things wrong. Often, their views are coloured by partisanship. Surveyed in 1996, most American Republicans believed that the federal budget deficit had worsened under President Bill Clinton. In fact, it had fallen dramatically, to US$22-billion from US$255-billion. So even so-called “retrospective” voting is flawed.

I lean toward the first camp in this ivory-tower battle. We all have to find some way to make a decision. It may not be a perfect decision or a terribly sophisticated decision – but, then, what decision is? Faced with buying a new fridge, most people don’t search endlessly through Consumer Reports and compare each model for price, reliability, energy use and design. They see their neighbour’s new fridge and ask: How do you like it? Or they watch a persuasive ad and decide: That one will do.

Voters are no different. They must choose between a limited number of options, none of them ideal. Sometimes they choose a Barack Obama. Sometimes they choose a Rob Ford. Those are the breaks.

It isn’t that voters are lazy or indifferent, says Anna Esselment, a political scientist at the University of Waterloo. “It is how the brain can process lots of information. Sometimes we need help.”

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Andrea Horwath and Jagmeet Singh are welcomed by supporters at a campaign rally in Brampton on May 21, 2018.Sarah Palmer/The Globe and Mail

Some voters just wait to see who is winning and then jump on the bandwagon. It may be happening now, as Liberals who see that Ms. Wynne is sunk switch to the NDP. Peter Loewen of the University of Toronto, another political scientist, says this amounts to more than just following the herd. “It’s actually a pretty reasonable way of making decisions – to look at what fellow citizens are thinking, on the grounds that those fellow citizens might be pretty smart.”

In his new book, Enlightenment Now, the Harvard professor Steven Pinker says we suffer from a “civics-class idealization of democracy in which an informed populace deliberates about the common good and carefully selects leaders who carry out their preferences.” By that standard, he says, the number of democracies in the world is zero. He quotes political scientist John Mueller, who says that “inequality, disagreement, apathy and ignorance seem to be normal, not abnormal, in a democracy, and to a considerable degree the beauty of the form is that it works despite these qualities – or, in some important respects, because of them.”

Whichever gang comes out on top this Thursday, we will get a chance to chuck them out in a few years. That’s our system.

And yet I’m not sure how all this helps me make my own choice. When I started thinking about which shortcut I might use, none seemed to do the trick. Single-issue voting? I have to admit that Doug Ford caught my eye with his promise to put beer and wine in corner stores at last. But choosing a party just because it offers improved booze access seems just a tiny bit shallow.

Pocketbook voting? All the parties are swearing they will save us money, whether it’s on our gasoline bill, our hydro bill or our tax bill. I could just calculate which one will save me most and vote for that party. That seems pretty irresponsible, too. We all know these ingratiating promises are going to cost us in the end. Who will pay the piper?

If I make my choice based on how things are going in Ontario, the Liberals would get my vote. The economy is humming along and they are presiding over a nice little boom. But that’s just luck. The good times are the result of a revived Canadian, American and global economy, not anything Ms. Wynne has done. Her claim to have created a million jobs is as absurd as Mr. Ford’s claim that the NDP is to blame for all the job losses during the recession of the early 1990s, when it held power.

How about strategic voting, then – choosing a party I don’t actually like in order to help elect the one I do (or beat the one I don’t)? Ms. Wynne asked voters to employ a version of that method when she threw herself overboard on Saturday. She urged them to vote for Liberal candidates not to re-elect her as premier – because she wasn’t going to win anyway – but to block either the Tories or the NDP from getting a majority and wreaking havoc on the province.

Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne emotionally said she believes her party will lose the June 7 election. Wynne urged voters to elect as many Liberals as possible to ensure the other parties can only win a minority.

The Canadian Press

That could easily backfire on her. Even committed Liberal voters might decide that, if Ms. Wynne is throwing in the towel, they might as well vote NDP. Strategic voting has always struck me as too clever by half. Voters risk outfoxing themselves. And doesn’t the whole system sort of break down when people don’t vote their preference?

When you think about it, there are problems with just about every method for making a voting decision. Democracy is a messy business. Our reasons for choosing are not always noble or even logical.

In the end, none of the usual shortcuts is for me, but I can hardly condemn those who use them. I am toying with using a shortcut all my own and it’s as shallow as any other. I happen to know one of my local candidates. Her daughter and mine went to the same school when they were kids. Her politics are different than mine, but she is a good person. It’s not an ideal choice, but, for me anyway, it may do the job.

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