Strategic Voting in Ontario: An Ineffective Project

This post contends that current, relevant research does not support an argument that strategic voting is an effective way to counter an undesirable election outcome.

Two papers — one published in March 2018, which relates to Toronto municipal elections, and one published  in 2017 about labour-led strategic voting initiatives (typically known as “ABC” or “Anything But Conservative”) in Ontario — are discussed here.

The Toronto study is arguably relevant because it discusses strategic voting efforts to keep Doug Ford from being elected Mayor of Toronto in 2014, after his brother Rob withdrew from the race to run as a ward councillor.

It’s also relevant because as contended elsewhere[1], a form of post-democratic politics has emerged in Etobicoke in which members of the Ford clan (Rob, Doug, and now, even Michael) are judged as interchangeable representatives of a specific type of hegemony (some have described it as “Ford Nation”) in, and emanating from, that part of the city. That Doug is now leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, means that Toronto’s influence in determining the narrative of elections will cause arguably similar dynamics to play out if/when people across Ontario decide to vote against Ford(’s PCPO) rather than for a political party of their choosing.

The 2018 Toronto municipal study, authored by Caruana, et al, reveals that there was 1.3% rate of strategic voting in the 2014 Toronto mayoral election[2] based on a two-wave internet survey that generated 1,391 responses useful to the study.[3] The authors conclude, “[s]trategic voting was minimal, and did not affect the election outcome.[4]

Compare this to the existing literature noted by the authors with respect to strategic voting at the provincial level in Ontario (“‘a surprisingly low 4–6 percent’ in Ontario” and at the federal level (at least 6% in 1988, 3% in 1997, 5.6% in 2006, and 4.5% in 2008).[5]

Simultaneously, the authors find, “[t]he type of dislike toward a candidate (either on the basis of policy or personality) affects strategic behavior.”[6]

Furthermore, the authors tell us their survey showed, “[t]hose individuals who dislike a candidate personally are an estimated 39 percentage points more likely to vote strategically than are those individuals with a policy dislike.”[7]

So, while strategic voting overall did not move people in the study in great numbers from one candidate to another, those who were more likely to vote strategically (but may not have actually done so on election day) were those who held a personal dislike of specific candidates.

It is arguably interesting that Doug Ford was the top candidate for whom survey respondents said they either would not vote (58.1% — compared to 32.1% for Olivia Chow, and 9.8% for John Tory). Ford was also the only candidate that more survey respondents said they would note for, based on personal dislike than on policy (63.3% — compared to 32.8% for Tory, and 14.3% for Chow).[8]

Turning to the 2017 paper, the authors find that some unions (which arguably remain a bloc of influence — certainly with respect to organizing — despite 2016 legislation which bans labour and corporate donations) have abandoned an exclusive electoral alliance with the Ontario NDP and moved more toward strategic voting.[9]

To show this, the authors analyzed “campaign finance data coupled with secondary literature on unions and electoral politics.”[10]

The authors reiterate that contemporary labour-led strategic voting initiatives have often been described as “Anything But Conservative”, during which Liberal Party of Ontario candidates are promoted in ridings where the ONDP is seen as weak, and vice versa. This has been misunderstood as a “vote Liberal” agenda, the authors note.[11]

What’s crucial to this discussion is here: the authors tell us, “[t]he findings in the literature are mixed” but they show a “lack of evidence” that labour-led strategic voting has been effective.[12]

And here: “In separate studies of the 1999 Ontario provincial election, Scotto and LaFone and Tanguay conclude that it is difficult to gauge whether the coordination of strategic voting successfully altered individual voters’ behaviour.

Savage goes a step further in his study of unions and strategic voting, concluding that union-led campaigns between 1999 and 2011 have not only been unsuccessful on the whole but have resulted in a severe watering down of organized labour’s independent political vision.”[13]

  • So, based on the evidence in the literature?  Strategic voting cannot be proven to be effective to counteract the forces of a political party set to dominate the election.

[1] Gramsci’s Ghost, “Updated: Post-Democratic Trend Lines in Etobicoke,” September 16, 2014 (Updated, September 2016),

[2] Caruana, et al, “Voting ‘Ford’ Or Against: Understanding Strategic Voting in the 2014 Toronto Municipal Election,” Social Science Quarterly 99, no. 1 (2018): 1.

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] Ibid., 1.

[7] Ibid., 10.

[8] Ibid., 12.

[9] Larry Savage and Nick Ruhloff-Queiruga, “Organized Labour, Campaign Finance, and the Politics of Strategic Voting in Ontario,” Labour / Le Travail 80, no. 80 (2017): 247.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 251.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 252.


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