The problem with strategic voting

Two weeks from today, Toronto will elect a new mayor. The leading candidates appear to be, in alphabetical order, Olivia Chow, Doug Ford, and John Tory. Ari Goldkind appears to be coming in at a distant fourth.

I’m using the word “appear” intentionally here. We’re inundated with polls daily; sometimes polls proclaiming quite different results are published within 24 hours of each other; sometimes two contradictory polls sit side-by-each on one news media outlet sans commentary (e.g., The Globe and Mail one day last week reported, simultaneously, both a dead heat in the race and that Ford was quickly losing ground.).

Yet, I don’t know even one person who’s been contacted to participate in a poll about this election. Not. One. Person. Of all the people I’ve discussed the election with, every single one of us would be more than happy to participate. Not because we’re civic-minded per se, I think, but because we all suspect these polls are skewed in hard, lurching favour towards certain results and we’d like to try to tip the balance just a little bit. This is the wrong reason to want to participate in a poll.

You know what would be infinitely better than finally receiving a call asking me who I’m going to vote for? The complete banishment of all such polls. I would like to see them banned because I am desperately curious to know what would happen if people had no choice but to vote according to their own consciences—specifically on what their own consciences told them would be the best candidate/platform to support. Getting rid of polls might really help dismantle the false promise of strategic voting.

Sorry, I meant “strategic” voting. How can one effectively vote strategically when the polls give us different and often contradictory trending information every day? But even if it were a consistently effective means of keeping out the worst candidates, it points to a much bigger problem. If we vote strategically when we each have a clear personal preference—and I believe this to be true no matter at what level of government voting takes place—we’re saying, individually and collectively, that we don’t believe democracy works.

When a candidate wins, not because they have vision, good policies, or are qualified in any way, but merely because some polls suggested that person had the best chance of defeating the scary monster everyone’s afraid of, then we’ve decided not to participate in democracy. Voting isn’t in itself enough, although obviously it’s a good and necessary start; voting as though we believe democracy can, in its best, most effective sense work is how to make democracy work. Deferring voting the way we want until no crazy or bad people run means we’re never going to vote according to our consciences.

I truly believe this: Democracy only works when we behave as though we think it can work.

We’ve witnessed brief moments when people behaved in just this way. I think it’s a large part of how Barack Obama got elected the first time ‘round; he appealed to the best part of America, and that part of America responded. On a much smaller scale, the same thing appears to have happened in Calgary when Naheed Nenshi was elected mayor in this country’s most Conservative province.

Well, does it work, this voting with our better selves? No one, pro- or anti- or neutral on-Obama is going to say his presidency has been an unqualified success. From my point of view, he’s done good and wise and hopeful things, as well as gross and cynical and immoral things. That’s not the point, really. The point is not to assume that voting for someone out of hope instead of fear means they will be perfect—and then condemning them as a total failure when they reveal themselves to be human beings who don’t always get it right.

The sad counterpart and contradiction to total condemnation of our fallen idols is that with strategic voting, we expect almost nothing good to come from those we vote for from fear; we accept that such candidates might be terrible but reconcile ourselves to it as long as they’re less terrible than the scary monster.

Not that I think we shouldn’t hold “good” people who fail us, as Obama has failed some or many, to account; of course we should. But being let down by elected officials should not be more acceptable if we didn’t like or trust them that much in the first place—yet, this is precisely what appears to happen.

Every election, no matter how local, “minor”(no chance to exercise our democratic privileges is ever minor), or unlikely to turn out the way we want is an opportunity to act as though we believe the political system governing us can not only work better than it does right now—but also that it can really work well.

Of course there are risks in voting non-“strategically”; but to imagine that strategic voting isn’t even riskier is to sign up for at least one more term of mediocre to dangerous governance—and to an ever-growing mindset that not good enough is good enough for us.

I found this in an alleyway near Sherbourne and Carlton.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Thomas says:

    Split infinitive somewhere in the post, no?

    1. Colleen says:

      Could be, but thank goodness Star Trek paved the way for making split infinitives okay! Or were you speaking metaphorically? 🙂

  2. Sylvia says:

    I agree with you – no one should vote strategically. As for banning polls altogether, that’s a good idea. I’ve been involved in politics for many years, and several politicians have told me they pay no attention to the polls. I don’t live in Toronto, but I am following the campaign closely.

    1. Colleen says:

      Well, sadly, at least some politicians pay attention to them–one of the better candidates in this election dropped out because he didn’t think he was getting the numbers to justify continuing…

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