Should you vote strategically in the Ontario election? This Toronto group says yes

A group of more than 200 volunteers in Toronto is hoping to unseat the Progressive Conservatives by encouraging voters to band together and cast their ballots for the non-PC candidates most likely to win.

But experts say this form of strategic voting may be next to impossible to carry out successfully.

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“Every vote is a strategic vote of some kind. It’s just a matter of what strategy you’re using,” Tim Ellis, organizer of Not One Seat, told CTV News Toronto.

Not One Seat is a grassroots organization created specifically to oust Doug Ford from power in the 2022 election. The group of volunteers hopes to identify candidates in Toronto ridings that are well positioned to win in an effort to prevent vote splitting among the NDP, Liberals and Green parties.

“Those parties are splitting this vote, leaving room for Doug Ford’s PCs to come up and win in many seats,” Ellis said. “Toronto can do this, Toronto can make a difference. We’ve just got to unite our votes.”

The group is using a number of methods to determine who these “unity candidates” may be, including their experience in government, deep roots in the community, fundraising abilities, polling, voter turnout, and past electoral trends.

The idea of voting strategically is not unique to the 2022 election—there have been many organizations and even political parties that have made the suggestion. In 2018, the NDP made a direct pitch to Liberal voters, encouraging them to vote their way by positioning them as the only other choice.

This year is no exception.

Both the NDP and the Liberals are currently trying to make themselves appear as though they are the only political party that can defeat the Progressive Conservatives—who have a seemingly steady lead in the polls as of May 11.

The problem, experts say, is that polling is rarely able to provide accurate real-time voting data.

“It’s very unusual to have substantive local real time data on people’s voting intentions,” Tim Abray, a PhD candidate and teaching fellow at Queen’s University, told CTV News Toronto. “It’s the reason that predictions, when they’re made about the province generally or about the country generally, tend to be a bit better than when predictions are made about the local riding level.”

He said some projections that use statistical models may be able to accurately guess the overall outcome of an election, but “they are not particularly great about the granular details.” Voters who may be trying to take a certain action to avoid vote splitting may actually, unbeknown to them, contribute to the very outcome they are hoping to prevent, according to Abray.

He added that there are also very few races, particularly in Ontario, in which there is a genuine three-way race.

“It involves an incredible amount of interpersonal communication. It involves coordination of people on a real level,” Abray said. “They need to actually work together to accomplish that. And there needs to be some agreement about what the best strategic choice is.”

“So what ends up happening is that all of this talk about strategic voting tends to make a bit of a scramble of things, it tends to send people off in different directions, they may end up voting for people that they don’t actually believe in or support, thinking that it’s going to prevent a worse outcome.”

Not One Seat says it will be using a variety of communications strategies to reach voters, including the creation of memes and videos that can be distributed on social media platforms. Ellis said his “creative team” aims to push their message in a coordinated way without using paid advertising.

“Instead, we’re doing all grassroots organic stuff, every day that the application team gets their posts for the day, and they distribute it. And then people who respond to it are invited to join that network as well. So it should be constantly growing and scaling with our message out.”

People line up to vote at a west-end Toronto church on Thursday, June 7, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, a non-profit organization advocating for democratic reform, says it’s impossible to know if there is a moment in Ontario history in which strategic voting has been successful due to a lack of information.

He said that in order for a poll or survey to be conducted properly to make a determination for strategic voting, it would need to be done a day or two before election day.

“You can try to vote strategically. But you’re just not going to get the information that will really allow you to do that accurately,” he said.

HOW DOES OUR VOTING SYSTEM WORK?

Ontario uses the first-past-the-post voting system, which means that residents cast their ballot for who they want to represent their ridings—not the person they want to be premier or the political party they support.

The leader of the political party that gets the most elected representatives in the legislature is then thrust into that power position.

Abray says the system itself doesn’t lend itself well to strategic voting and depends on residents “paying attention” to who they want in office.

“The challenge with it is our system is based on the idea that what you’re doing is, you’re picking someone who is going to make rules that you’re going to have to live by. You are literally handing over a small piece of your personal autonomy to another human being, who for a set period of time—four years—is going to get to tell you what to do in various spheres of life.

“The more we pay attention to some sort of strategic effort, the less we pay attention to who it is we’re actually selecting. And that can have much more serious consequences.”

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