Skip to main content

Michele Cadotte, left, and Byron Weber Becker, right, representatives with LeadNow, get a written commitment from Fiona MacGregor to vote strategically to defeat the Conservative government in the riding of Kitchener Centre on Wednesday September 23, 2015.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Michele Cadotte wishes she could vote for the Green Party. A committed environmentalist, she cares about conservation and climate change more than any other issue.

But Ms. Cadotte has decided to vote strategically this election. She loathes the Conservative government and Prime Minister Stephen Harper – toppling them has become her top priority.

"I would vote for a centipede if it would get rid of Harper," she said recently.

On Election Day, there being no centipedes on the ballot, she will probably vote for the Liberal candidate in her Waterloo riding; she seems to be leading in the polls.

"Anybody But Harper" has become a kind of war whoop for disaffected voters this election, rallying the likes of union bosses and military veterans – as well as one creative farmer, who plowed the slogan across his rye field in Burford, Ont. Mr. Harper has inspired unprecedented hatred on the Canadian left through his hardline positions on crime and terrorism, his embrace of Alberta's oil sands, and his frosty and controlling persona.

But there's a nagging fear on the left that the mass of voters committed to dispatching the Tories will splinter between the NDP and the Liberals, allowing Mr. Harper to come up the middle. In what remains a three-way race in many ridings, despite sagging NDP support nationally, those fears may very well be justified.

A host of strategic voting outfits have sprung up during the campaign in an attempt to organize this anti-Conservative bloc, running the gamut from homemade websites to well-financed progressive juggernauts.

They'll be focusing on places like Kitchener Centre, one of the most closely contested races in the country, according to the activist group Leadnow, which is mounting the best-organized strategic voting project this election, with a footprint in dozens of ridings.

Ms. Cadotte went house to house on a quiet residential street here recently, dressed in desert boots and a purple Leadnow T-shirt, signing up prospective anti-Harper voters. She and her canvassing partner persuaded five people to join the group's e-mail list, which means they'll be receiving local polling updates to help guide their electoral triangulations – along with frequent appeals to donate money.

"I'm in," said Fiona MacGregor, standing in socks and sandals at the threshold of her door, before adding, a little uncertainly, "I hope it works."

The strategic voting push in this campaign is premised on the idea that left-leaning voters aren't picky about who replaces Mr. Harper as Prime Minister. It's a view that's rooted in evidence. Supporters of both parties have expressed a willingness to back the other horse in a pinch.

A Nanos survey taken in early October shows that 52 per cent of prospective Liberal voters would pick the NDP as their second choice, while 49 per cent those planning to vote NDP would take the Liberals as their second choice. (A full 43 per cent of Conservative voters, meanwhile, said they had no second pick, compared to 15 per cent and 11 per cent for the Liberals and New Democrats, respectively.)

The left's tenuous party loyalty leaves fertile ground for Leadnow.

A young woman named Amara Possian is in charge of the group's election project, dubbed Vote Together. Ms. Possian, who graduated from McGill with a degree in political science and Middle East studies just four years ago, works out of a cramped Toronto office that she describes as the size of "an elevator shaft."

But if her headquarters lack the trappings of an ambitious nationwide political campaign, Leadnow's internal numbers suggest impressive headway. About 85,000 people have signed Leadnow's pledge to vote for whichever candidate has the best chance of beating the local Conservative, according to the group's website.

Ms. Possian expects Leadnow to have a bigger impact than earlier strategic-voting efforts by focusing on races at the constituency level. In the past, tactical voters have been asked to keep an eye on national polls to determine their choice, which makes little sense in a country where there are no nationwide candidates.

Leadnow, for its part, has assembled a trove of polling data on 31 swing ridings that it thinks could succumb to vote splitting, mostly based on past election results. Stretching from Fredericton to Nanaimo, the seats would likely prevent the Conservatives from forming the government if all or most broke for the Liberals or NDP.

The last batch of polls, done by Environics Research between September 18 and 21, reveals a lot of agonizingly close races, few more so than Kitchener Centre. The Liberal candidate there stands at 33-per-cent support, the Conservative at 31 per cent and the NDP at 30 per cent. With a nearly four-point margin of error, that's a statistical tie.

That closeness is why Leadnow thinks the riding is worth focusing on. But the tiny sliver of daylight between the Liberals and the NDP also makes it hard for strategic voters to pick a bandwagon. In the parking lot of a Catholic school recently, a bearded Leadnow volunteer asked local organizer Sharon Sommerville about that conundrum.

"What happens if the poll on the day before the election is still a dead heat?" he said. "We're kind of up the creek."

The Leadnow leadership takes a more sanguine view. If the Liberals and NDP remain close in a given riding right through the campaign's final days, organizers say they will e-mail a poll to local strategic voters, asking them which party they prefer to back. Of course, that kind of poll could – and likely would – end in another tie, at which point the group's strategy becomes a little fuzzy.

"In some places, it will be tricky, and it might be too close to call," Ms. Possian conceded.

Anyway, Leadnow may well have bigger problems than a few tight races. The reliability of their local polling is unclear: The sample sizes are perilously small, at about 550 per riding; and their contractor, Environics, uses robo-polling, which tends to yield respondents with the patience or intensity of feeling to stay on the line with an automated caller.

Of course, Leadnow is far from the only outfit trying to channel the anti-Harper surge. There's the straightforwardly titled strategicvoting.ca; the Dogwood Initiative focusing on British Columbia; and a raft of unions including behemoths like Unifor telling their members to vote tactically.

But strategic voting has its pitfalls. Critics point out that Canadians are generally averse to the practice, citing research by political scientist André Blais showing that elections are overwhelmingly decided by "sincere" voters. Others raise principled objections – a vote is a sacred thing, they say, and shouldn't be cheapened by coarse, poll-driven calculations.

"I'm saddened a little bit that we have to resort to such measures," said Antonia Maioni, a professor of political science at McGill who wrote an op-ed in The Globe and Mail in September denouncing the "siren song" of strategic voting. "Maybe I'm a little old-fashioned, but I've always thought of a vote as a gift."

Ms. Possian is quick to push back against Leadnow's critics, saying technology makes it easier than ever to determine voter intentions.

But Ms. Possian also readily acknowledges the imperfection of strategic voting. She sees it as a kind of necessary evil, responding to a "broken" first-past-the-post electoral system that effectively nullifies many votes for losing parties and is capable of electing a majority government with less than 40 per cent of the popular vote.

"I'm very upset that we're running this campaign," she said. "I'm very upset that we're having to run this campaign."

Questions of principle aside, the biggest question for Leadnow and their fellow travellers is brute and simple: Will strategic voting work?

Ms. Possian says she's "pretty confident" and "excited," but ultimately strikes a philosophical note.

"I'm so curious to see what's going to happen," she said. "In some ways it's a big experiment."

Editor's note: An earlier digital version of this story referred to the Liberal candidate in Waterloo as "he," when in fact the candidate is female. This version has been corrected.