Getting the government you want

Stop me if you've heard this one.

I'm a member of the Liberal Party of Canada, but I'm not voting for Justin Trudeau. Nor Thomas Mulcair, nor Elizabeth May. And not for Gilles Duceppe, and certainly not for the other non-francophone guy, the one with his own hair stylist to keep his helmet in place. That's not how things work here. Nor does it matter what national poll numbers say, or even provincial poll numbers. The only thing that counts for any individual voter is the riding (electoral district) in which they live and vote.

Each of us has one vote to cast for a Member of Parliament to represent our riding. The candidate who garners the most votes, even if less than a majority, becomes the MP for that riding. If that winning candidate is a member of one of the major political parties (as is most likely), the seat is added to the total count for that party. The leader of the party with the most seats in the (now) 338-member House of Commons will almost certainly ask the Governor General to form the next government, and that leader will then become Prime Minister.

We don't vote for Prime Minister. We don't even truly vote for a government. We only vote for one MP from one party and hope the result is what we want.

I wrote once that in a race with more than two candidates, which is true in pretty much every riding in Canada (unlike in the United States), it's possible and even probable for a candidate to win with less than a majority. In a three-way race, a candidate needs only 33 1/3 per cent plus one of the vote. In a four-way race, the minimum would be 25 per cent plus one

Ah, first past the post. Officially called single-member plurality, because you elect one candidate from each riding, and all a candidate needs is a plurality of votes to win. In so many ridings, Not-the-Winner actually gets the most votes. The trouble is that Not-the-Winner is more than one person. And that's how a party can win a majority of seats with only a plurality of total votes. Riding by riding.

There have been calls for electoral reform before, and this time around they are part of the platforms of three of the major parties. The New Democratic Party favours a system called mixed-member proportional, in which MPs are still elected by riding but there would also be a party list of candidates, with seats awarded based on total percentage of the vote. The Green Party also supports a proportional system. The Liberal Party favours a preferential ballot (there are several forms) in which voters rank candidates in order of preference, and then a mathematical formula (which can get complicated) is used to determine which candidate has the most support if no candidate gets a majority. Either system would be preferable to the current one, which unsurprisingly is favoured by the ruling Conservative Party.

My riding is a new one, the result of the redrawing of electoral boundaries earlier this year, but it mostly overlaps with the old one. So the NDP candidate is virtually an incumbent. He is a prominent, high-visibility MP, and he's quite popular in a city which has tended historically to vote labour-left. The chances of any other candidate prevailing on election day are slim to none (and, as the saying goes, Slim just left town). Under MMP, my vote would at least count toward some number of seats from the Liberal list. Under a preferential ballot system, I could mark the Liberal candidate as my number-one choice, rank the rest of the candidates (probably Green then NDP, or vice versa, with the Conservative candidate ranked dead last). The result would almost certainly be the same, but at least my vote wouldn't feel so wasted. And with preferential voting, if the first place vote is scattered but one candidate is the second or even third choice of a lot of voters, that might make a difference in the outcome.

Since we're stuck with first past the post for this election, what are voters to do? They can vote their conscience, mark an X next to the candidate they want to win (either for personal or party reasons), and hope the national outcome is what they want. But if they've had it with the Conservative government and want to make sure the Conservatives are is held to no more than a minority if not turfed outright, they can vote strategically. That means to vote for the candidate in their riding who is most likely to defeat the Conservative candidate. In a riding like mine, the choice is easy. I could probably even vote for the Liberal candidate without hurting the chances of the NDP candidate. In some ridings, the decision is more difficult, because two or more non-Conservative candidates might have a good chance of winning. That's where things get sticky, and where vote-splitting among the non-Conservative candidates can allow the Conservative candidate to come up the middle.

I realize that a lot of people disdain strategic voting. It feels dishonest. We might have to hold our noses and vote for a candidate we might not prefer just because they're not the Conservative candidate. We have to let go of any illusion that our preferred party is competitive in every riding, because that's just not so. In your heart of hearts, you know it's not so.

I hate strategic voting too. But under the current electoral system, since I want to ensure that a moving van pulls up at 24 Sussex after the election, I see no other choice. I have to play according to the rules of an unfair system, and that means I have to game those rules as much as possible, and encourage other like-minded souls to do the same. Within the unfair framework, that's both fair and legal. And, I daresay for any who also want that moving van to pull up, necessary. If we can gang up on the Conservatives and give one or the other major party enough seats to form government, separately or in cooperation, then we can have electoral reform, among other good things. And from then on we will be able to vote as we really feel without the distorted outcome we get now.

I assume that Conservative supporters, if I have any among my readers, stopped reading at the beginning. For the rest, I hope you consider carefully before you vote, think of the desired outcome, and put partisanship aside if necessary.

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