I’ve written here a couple of times about the upcoming Canadian general election, and now it’s finally here. Canadians are voting today for the 338 members of their new Parliament after a rather long election campaign, though unlike ours there’s been plenty of variation in the polls during the campaign (with the same level of doubt as to whether that will reflect the result). The Liberals have kept, and possibly extended, their lead over the last week of the campaign, while the Conservatives have wavered up and down and the NDP continued to slip.
(My finger in the air prediction? Liberals just over 150 seats, Conservatives just above 100 and NDP about 75. I reserve the right to proclaim my genius tomorrow if this is right, or completely ignore it if not.)
Beyond the result itself, what I’ll be most interested to see is if strategic voting (what we in the UK call tactical voting) has played much of a part in the results. From looking at the projected results for each riding from ThreeHundredEight, it’s clear that there are a lot of seats that are currently projected to be won by the Conservatives that could switch if enough voters switch to whichever of the Liberals and the NDP are best placed to defeat them, though the question is whether voters mutual antipathy to continued Conservative government is enough to make them switch, especially when the NDP and Liberals have been attacking each other quite heavily during the campaign. It’ll be an interesting test of what effect party signalling can have on the potential for voters switching, especially when there has been an organised movement to try and encourage it.
Having just written a dissertation in which it factors quite heavily, I’m obviously quite interested in the theory and practice of strategic/tactical voting, but I’m also interested in the names we use to describe it. On this side of the Atlantic, we use tactical voting, but in Canada (and the American literature on the subject), strategic voting is the term of choice. While the two terms are used interchangeably, I’m wondering two things: first, if there are potentially different phenomena at work that can be described using the two different terms, and secondly, if people react differently if asked to vote ‘strategically’ rather than ‘tactically’.
To take the second point first, as it could be just a personal foible, do people see the contrast between ‘strategic’ and ‘tactical’ as noteworthy? If you’re the sort of person who might use your vote for different parties in order to achieve an end would you react better to exhortations to vote strategically, or vote tactically? It doesn’t necessarily affect the votes themselves, but I think it’s interesting to consider the way in which the arguments are framed.
On the first point, however, I think there is possibly a case for seeing two different processes at work. These are still rough definitions, but perhaps we can best see tactical voting as the voting patterns in a single contest, while strategic voting (or perhaps strategic coordination) is the process that provides the framework for tactical voting. For instance, if a large number of voters in a particular constituency decide that they don’t like their MP and vote for whoever can defeat him, without the competing opposition parties or any formal structures encouraging it, there’s a high level of tactical voting going on, but little strategic voting/coordination taking place. Alternatively in a situation where parties were working together and encouraging vote switching, but little actually took place in the ground, there’d be a high level of strategic voting/coordination taking place, but little or no tactical voting. The question is whether that has to be a wider strategy in place for tactical voting to have any more than a limited local effect, or how much are voters capable of voting to achieve instrumental ends without coordinated strategic input?
Canada might provide some interesting data for that question in this election – is voter antipathy to Harper and the Conservatives sufficient on its own to motivate local tactical switching on a large scale, or will the ongoing Liberal-NDP rivalry (and lack of coordination) mute the effects of it? Hopefully, there’ll be some sort of answer amidst tomorrow’s results.