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The Mackenzie Heights and Kitsilano neighbourhoods are seen underneath the downtown skyline in Vancouver, Friday, December 14, 2012.

rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

Vancouver voters are in danger of helping to defeat council candidates from their preferred parties by voting to ensure that council ends up with a mixed slate in this year's complex multi-party election, some political experts and campaigners are warning.

Unlike voters in most major Canadian cities, Vancouver residents do not choose among a handful of candidates in separate city wards, but pick 10 candidates from among dozens to represent the city at large. The 10 candidates with the most votes form the council.

Voting for people who represent a variety of parties, as some activists are urging this year, could mean voters who mainly support the ruling Vision Vancouver, for example, help defeat that party's candidates with their non-Vision votes. And those who support smaller parties might contribute to their defeat by casting some of their votes for candidates from the two major parties, Vision and the centre-right Non-Partisan Association, said Stuart Parker, a long-time advocate for proportional representation.

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"Voters go into the ballot box and think they're deciding their perfect council," said Mr. Parker, who has been leader of the B.C. Green Party and a member of the city's left-wing party, COPE. "But in the plurality system, you have to make high-risk guesses about how other people are voting. People never translate what their X means."

It is relatively easy to understand how to vote strategically in the mayoral race, Mr. Parker said.

Those who prefer COPE's Meena Wong – who has nine-per-cent support in the most recent poll – but worry voting for her would ensure victory for the NPA over Vision Vancouver – currently only five percentage points ahead – can simply switch to Vision if defeating the NPA is more important to them.

It is not so easy with council votes, Mr. Parker said, where people inadvertently help to elect candidates from their second and third choice parties.

Mr. Parker said that is particularly true for centrist voters, who feel less allegiance to one party.

When Green Party, COPE or Cedar Party supporters give a few votes to NPA candidates – which some activists advocate – they could help NPA candidates, who are getting votes from many others, push those from smaller parties out of the top 10.

On the other side, he said that, after the last election, he heard many people who voted for COPE candidate Ellen Woodsworth as their first choice say they regretted also throwing a vote to Green Party candidate Adriane Carr. Ms. Carr got 90 votes more than Ms. Woodsworth and edged her out for the 10th council seat.

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In this election, the toughest battle over strategic voting is between COPE and Vision, two parties that used to collaborate but are now competing with eight council candidates apiece. Both are trying to convey the message to their supporters about the negative impact of mixed-slate voting.

"Vision internal polling shows that no Green but Carr has any chance at council, and no COPE council candidate is even in the top 20," said Vision campaign strategist and pollster Bob Penner. "So a vote for those COPE and Green candidates by otherwise pro-Vision voters (which most COPE and Green voters are), may inadvertently be helping the NPA beat Vision candidates for council."

COPE campaign manager Tristan Markle, on the other hand, said his party is quietly urging its supporters to avoid Vision candidates if they want COPE to control council and put its progressive agenda into action.

"We're definitely telling people to not vote for any of the Vision councillors."

UBC political science professor Andrew Owen also said it is almost impossible for people to work out how to vote strategically in a 10-vote ballot. Most people can barely do it in a simple three-way race.

"All of this is an argument for a different electoral system," he said.

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But while Mr. Parker also favours a different system, he said people could do a better job of voting strategically in an at-large system if they put as much work into understanding it as they do studying the candidates and platforms.

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