Voting virtually redefined

Online vote-swapping ‘sends false signals to everybody,’ prof says

Queen’s political studies professor Jonathan Rose says the emergence of online vote-swapping is a reflection of perceived problems with Canada’s electoral system.
Queen’s political studies professor Jonathan Rose says the emergence of online vote-swapping is a reflection of perceived problems with Canada’s electoral system.
Photo by Rob Campbell
Some voters may choose to cast their ballot this election for their second-choice candidate.
Some voters may choose to cast their ballot this election for their second-choice candidate.

On Oct. 14, millions of Canadians will cast their ballots to elect the members of Canada’s 40th Parliament. Although some voters have a clear choice in mind, many others will choose to vote strategically—not for their favourite party or candidate, but for someone else they believe is more likely to win.

One strategy is vote-swapping, when, for example, an NDP supporter in a Liberal riding trades his or her vote with a Liberal supporter in an NDP riding.

One vote-swapping website,, asks visitors to sign up to be paired with a voter in a different riding. The non-partisan website—which claims to have almost 700 participants—says six million votes are wasted in every federal election and, on average, half the votes cast don’t elect an MP.

“That’s not democracy,” the website says. “Unless you vote for the most popular party in your riding, your voice will not be represented in Parliament. You and millions more are often denied political representation—and an accountable Paliament—because of Canada’s voting system.

Online vote-swapping is a new phenomenon in this election. In September, Elections Canada ruled it doesn’t violate the Elections Act.

Anti-Harper Vote Swap Canada, another vote-swapping initiative, is using Facebook to reach Canadian voters. As of yesterday, the group had grown to include more than 12,000 members.

According to its description, Anti-Harper Vote Swap Canada has three main goals: to maintain a multi-party system, prevent a Harper majority and raise awareness about electoral reform.

Mat Savelli, an Oxford University student from Hamilton and the creator of the Facebook group, told the Journal via e-mail that strategic voting gives Canadians a chance to make their vote count.

“I wanted people to have the opportunity to both vote strategically against the Tories and support the party they truly believe in since too often people just get behind the Liberals and hope it all works out,” he said.

Savelli said vote-swapping would maintain popularity until there are changes to the electoral system itself.

“I think we’ll continue to see vote-swapping until Canadians get electoral reform of some variety,” he said. “The concept is something that more and more people are getting behind.”

Jonathan Rose, a political studies professor at Queen’s, said the ballot often forces voters to make a strategic choice.

“We don’t have an option to vote for a party. In different systems where you have different ballots, people approach their ballots differently than we do,” he said. One example of a different system is proportional representation, the electoral formula proposed in the 2007 Ontario referendum on electoral reform.

Rose said strategic voting isn’t restricted to Canadian politics. “The kind of strategic voting you have is dependent on the electoral system. It’s really about gaming or strategizing your vote to suit the conditions you are in,” he said. “What we are seeing here is the first-past-the-post variant of it.”

Rose said although vote-swapping may be legal, it circumvents the principles of Canada’s first-past-the-post system.

“It seems to run counter to the spirit of democracy,” he said. “It is a reflection of a perceived weakness in the electoral system. “

Rose added that he doesn’t think vote-swapping websites will ever have a real effect.

“They’re also kind of dopey because there’s no method of verifying compliance. It will always be a fringe group, but it reminds us of the inequities in our present system; people who swap are doing so in a riding where they know their vote won’t matter.

“The solution is to change the system so their vote matters,” he said.

While some voters turn to strategic voting in order to make their ballot count, millions of Canadians simply choose not to vote. In particular, youth turnout is often less than that of the rest of the population.

Rose said the electoral process itself affects voter turnout rates among Canadian youth.

“The cynicism young people have may be the result of cynicism around the electoral process. It may be a rejection of the method of voting—that you only have one vote and have to vote for the same thing,” he said. “It may also be because smaller parties don’t have the same kind of voice in our system.”

Rose said although the Canadian system is stacked against small parties, voting for one isn’t a waste of your vote—it also comes with monetary benefits: each party receives $1.75 per vote.

“People voting for small parties and knowing they’re not going to win is a consequence of the system,” he said. “They’re not wasting their vote; they are making a decision to support a party rather than elect a candidate.”

Rose said one way to increase voter turnout would be to adopt a system of mandatory voting, such as the one used in Australia. But Rose said he doesn’t think such a system is feasible in Canada.

“It would go against your Charter rights. It increases turnout but it doesn’t necessarily increase voter knowledge or engagement.”

Grant Amyot, also a political studies professor at Queen’s, said a different electoral system would reduce strategic voting.

“You can allow more people the chance to vote for their real first preference in a different system,” he said. “First-past-the-post forces a lot of voters to vote for their second choice.”

But, Amyot said there are drawbacks to strategic voting.

“You might be voting wrongly for your second choice when your first choice really did have a chance.

“If everyone votes strategically, for the next election nobody knows what the real preferences are,” he said. “The Liberal candidate could be voted in but three quarters of those who voted for him would have voted NDP. It sends false signals to everybody. … Frankly, strategic voting needs to be organized by somebody.”

Although there are other means of showing dissatisfaction with the voting system—such as spoiling a ballot or submitting a blank ballot—Amyot said deciding not to vote can be a legitimate means of protesting the system.

“Refusing your ballot may make you happy at the time but the effect is going to be very low. Not voting can be a valid way of protesting if that’s how you feel,” he said.

But Amyot said he still encourages Canadians—especially young Canadians—to vote.

“Even if you think they’re all scumbags, it will affect your life,” he said. “It’s in your own interest to weigh in there no matter what.”

Ballots cast by young voters can send a message to politicians, he said.

“Since parties know that the older age group is much more likely to vote, they are especially careful to cater to their interests. The converse is that since they know youth are less likely to vote, they often pay a bit less attention to their interests.”

Swap talk

Some websites advocating vote-swapping this election:
Offers voting strategies for those opposed to Conservative
environmental policies.

Anti-Harper Vote Swap Canada group at

A Facebook group advocating vote-swapping as a means to deny the Conservative Party a majority government.

A non-partisan site with voting strategies for supporters of each major political party in every riding nationwide.
A site asking visitors to sign up to be paired with a voter in a
different riding.

A Montreal-based site that uses art and technology to educate youth about democracy.

From the website’s home page: “A refuge, a learning centre and, most importantly, a staging area to launch a long overdue democratic revolution.”

- Mike Woods

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