June 5, 2004
Voting in federal elections will never be the same again, not once it sinks in to voters that the new voting rules let our votes count twice – once at the ballot box, in determining the immediate contest for member of parliament, and once as an investment in our favourite party, to financially strengthen it between elections and ready it for the next. The biggest potential winners under the new rules in the election campaign underway: the Conservative Party and the Green Party. The biggest potential loser: the New Democratic Party.
The new rules benefit any federal party that garners 2% of the national vote, or 5% of the votes obtained in fielding a limited slate: Each vote received is worth $1.75 a year, or as much as $10 per vote over the life of a mandate. Unlike the past, no vote cast for a mainstream party, or even an upstart such as the Green Party, will ever be “wasted” again on a candidate sure to lose. We voters will know that our trek to the ballot box, at a minimum, will do our favourite party financial good, even if our pick has no chance of winning the riding. More importantly, the vote payments will discourage the common habit of “strategic voting” – voting for someone other than our first choice.
Say you are a committed conservative living in a left-leaning riding such as Toronto’s Danforth, where the leading contenders this year are soft-left Liberal Dennis Mills and hard-left New Democrat Jack Layton, the party leader. Your conservative candidate has not the slightest chance of pulling off an upset. If past election rules applied, you would have puzzled over whether your conservative cause was best furthered by denying Layton and the NDP a seat, in which case you’d vote Liberal, or whether the Liberals must be punished at all costs for the sponsorship scandal, in which case you’d vote NDP. In past elections, people in your predicament across the political spectrum have held their nose and voted in large numbers against their true preference. In the 2000 federal election, for example, almost half the supporters of the NDP and the PCs voted strategically.
This year, many voters will shun strategic voting, and just partly to provide their party with cash. Strategic voting has become doubly heinous: Not only does it provides a disliked candidate with symbolic support, it finances the disliked candidate’s party, helping to arm it against their own party in the next election.
Such calculations will be occurring across Canada among voters of all political persuasions, whether they be Liberals in lost-cause Alberta ridings or NDPers in Quebec. Increasingly, Canadians will vote their hearts as well as their minds. Look for uncompetitive candidates in all parties to appeal to their supporters to cast their votes on June 28 with an eye to the good of their party. Look for less of a spread between top contenders and runners-up. And look for tempers to flare between the NDP, the party that most stands to lose, and the Greens, a party that stands to gain greatly.
Political parties are coalitions, often ones that have merged uncomfortable allies. This is true of the recently united Conservatives, whose members broadly agree on economic policy but are bitterly divided on social issues such as abortion and capital punishment. And it is true of the NDP, which long ago united large-S socialists, in the form of Big Labour, with small-S socialists, in the form of community-minded citizens, many of whom are driven by a concern for the environment. One big difference between the Conservative and NDP coalitions: Dissenters within the Conservative coalition have no place to go; dissenters within the NDP who have environmental leanings, in contrast, have a credible new party in the Greens that will let them vote their hearts without wasting their votes.
Once environmental voters understand their options, the outflow from the NDP could be considerable. In disputes between Big Labour and the environment – whether to maintain logging and mining jobs, whether to subsidize the building of more highways and more auto plants – the NDP invariably backs Big Labour, to the dismay of its environmental supporters. Many environmental voters have already bolted the party of hard hats, helping to explain why the Greens now poll 6% nationally and 13% in British Columbia. Little wonder that the NDP – to stave off further defections to the Greens – heavily emphasizes its environmental credentials in its platform and in television advertising, all the while happily excluding the Greens from the televised leaders’ debates.
Apart from hurting the NDP and helping the Green Party, the new voting rules stand to help the Conservatives as well, so much so that party leader Stephen Harper may rethink his long-standing wish for proportional representation, a voting system that gives parties electoral seats in proportion to their popular vote. Proportional representation would surely fragment the right-of-centre alliance into social conservative and economic conservative camps, and likely a libertarian splinter group as well. With the status quo, if the Conservative Party now wins the popular vote, it would have a chance to prove itself as a governing party and it would have a good funding base for the next election. For Conservatives, this may be as good as it gets.
The calculus is the opposite for the NDP, which also demands proportional representation. Because it has already been split by the Greens, it has much to gain from a proportional representation system likely to provide it with an entrenched share of power. Layton will not rethink his support for proportional representation, not least because he stands to personally lose from the current system: The Green Party leader, Jim Harris, is running as a candidate in the same riding that Layton and Mills are bitterly contesting. When people vote with their hearts, unexpected heartbreaks can occur.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Toronto-based Urban Renaissance Institute. www.urban.probeinternational .org