Solving the Election with Strategic Voting
Michael Oman-Reagan
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Strategic voting is great, but not in America

The past few days have been primarily filled with jubilation as the DNC got underway in Philadelphia. The conversations I’ve seen have largely centered around the fact that most Sanders supporters (myself included) have accepted Hillary’s nomination as reality, and still are working towards getting her elected. On occasion, however, I run into some well-read writers who have come up with a new way for me to vote my conscience, and I, not fully content with Hillary’s [not much better than Trump] foreign policy, give it a read.

In the past few days, I’ve thus seen a lot of posts calling for us to embrace strategic voting, an idea that was put forward as a way to push out Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party in the 2015 Canadian elections. The idea sounds great. The most common guide to voting strategically that I can find for Canada, StrategicVoting.ca, explains their reasoning.

Strategic voting solves the problem of vote splitting, by voting for one candidate in each district to allow the progressive majority to win the seat. In 2008 federal election, strategicvoting.ca identified 68 districts where the combined progressive vote was greater than that of the Conservatives, if followed, at this time, we would have a minority progressive government instead of Harper’s conservatism.

Getting around split votes is a concern this election, as third party candidates like Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson have risen in polls nearly to the 15% necessary (paywall) to get onto the debate stages with the major party nominees. While the idea of a split vote is concerning — and while I was ignorant of her bizarre vaccine sentiments — , Jill Stein, M.D. still seemed like a great candidate to me, and I started to consider voting Green. Everything was — ignoring an anti-mandatory-vaccine M.D.— perfect once I too considered strategic voting. After all, strategic voting worked in Canada.

A brief explanation of first past the post voting’s weaknesses

That was when I remembered one thing: the United States is not Canada. The United States uses an electoral system of first-past-the-post districts (states) to elect presidents through a system called the electoral college. Canada uses an electoral system of first-past-the-post ridings (these are more local) to elect prime ministers through a parliamentary system. While these two both use first-past-the-post voting, they are not the same when it comes to choosing the head of government (which is why Canada has a prime minister and the United States has a president).

Parliamentary systems elect parties. When you go out to your riding in Calgary to vote for Justin Trudeau, you won’t actually vote for Justin Trudeau. Instead, you vote for Randy Boissonnault, a Liberal Party member who is running in your district. Once elected, Boissonnault will go to Ottawa, sit in parliament, and [hopefully] help give the Labor Party a majority. If Labor gets a majority, then the game is over and whoever is in control of Labor (Trudeau) get to form a cabinet and run the country. If they don’t win a full majority because other progressive parties like the NDP came in, then a new system of trying to form a government begins.

First, the Conservatives will have a chance to try and form a government. After the 2015 elections, however, even though they had the most members out of any party, no other party would play along and form a coalition. This meant that running the government passed to the next party, Labor, and their attempt to form a coalition. By working together with members of other parties like NDP, Trudeau was able to form a government and astonish us all with his sock collection.

The United States, however, uses the unique electoral college system, which every four years we argue we should replace, and then immediately forget about until the next round of elections. Because the election is still 3 months off, however, it’s time for our quadrennial refresher to the electoral college system.

  1. You vote.
  2. Your state tallies your votes.
  3. Your state ignores any votes (maybe yours) that didn’t go to the winning candidate in the state, and votes as a single block with as many votes as your state has senators and representatives.

And in a nice two-party election where third parties remain a joke, that’s where the election ends. One candidate gets 50.000001% of the vote or more and becomes president on inauguration day. However, our quadrennial review this year is a little bit more intensive and needs to include what happens when no one gets past 50% of the electoral college votes necessary to win (and what would be provoked by hypothetical “strategic voting” that didn’t result in Trump first-past-the-post-ing everyone else).

The League of Women Voters explains:

Only the top three vote getters in the electoral college are to be considered.
Regardless of its population and number of representatives, each state delegation in the House has only one vote, for a total of 50 votes. The District of Columbia, which sends a nonvoting delegate to the House, has no vote.
The state’s choice is determine by a vote within its delegation. If that vote is a tie, the state loses its vote.
A winning candidate must receive the votes of a majority-26-of states.
There is no limit to the number of ballots in the House. If the House fails to choose a President by Inauguration Day, January 20, the Twentieth Amendment requires that the Vice-President-elect, provided that the Senate has chosen one, serves as President until the House makes it choice. The Senate follows these rules in its selection of the Vice-President:
The choice is between the top two vice-presidential vote-getters in the Electoral College.
Each senator has one vote, for a total of 100 votes (no vote for the District of Columbia).
A Vice-President must be elected by a majority-51-of the whole Senate

In short, not only does your vote no longer matter from the electoral college, but Congress gets to vote. And if Congress gets to vote, then the make-up of Congress matters. You’ll note that right now, the House, which would elect the president, is 57% Republican-controlled (and, to make things worse, they control a lot of those 3-member delegations that get equal votes to California’s more liberal 53). And those votes aren’t going to be going towards someone whose character they have been assassinating for decades or to a democratic socialist. Do you trust a GOP-controlled House to choose your protest candidate? Do you trust a GOP-controlled House not to vote for a Pence shadow presidency? I don’t.

All this holds true for the 2014 midterms as well.

The GOP currently has a bicameral congressional majority that we gave them. As we don’t have a parliamentary system that waits to vote for a prime minister after everyone has taken their new seats, there is zero guarantee of who will be electing a president in the case of a failure of the electoral college. Whoever it is that does vote, however, they will appreciate your calls to vote strategically. Not because it will increase democracy, but because it ensures congressional Republicans what will hopefully be one last chance to make America worse again — and this time, the damage can’t get to be voted out in two years.

In short, strategic voting works well when you can guarantee that the electors will work to your advantage (as they would in Canada). But breaking the electoral college system this time around almost certainly gives advantage to Trump and ensures that neither your protest candidate nor Hillary win the campaign. Strategic voting works, but only under a parliamentary system that we don’t have. If you vote your conscience, keep that in mind.