Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2011/ Wasted Green Votes

Wasted Green Votes

First, an admission: I like Cathy MacLellan a lot. I am continually surprised by her deep and nuanced knowledge on many issues -- for example, she recently shone at an all-candidates debate about refugees and immigration. When she is not familiar with certain issues she has demonstrated that she is willing to listen and learn. In meetings and debates she has demonstrated an ability to think for herself and go beyond Green Party talking points. Not only is she one of the strongest Green Party candidates that has run locally (which is saying something, given that the Green Party has attracted some pretty good candidates), but she is one of the strongest candidates running locally for any party. Although I strongly dislike the solar photovoltaic industry, I admire that she and her husband founded ARISE technologies. I appreciate her alignment to the science-based side of environmentalism as opposed to the flaky religious-revivalist side. I don't know this for sure, but I suspect she would make a fine member of parliament for Kitchener-Waterloo. But I doubt I am voting for her this election.

Why? The quick answer is "I made that mistake during the last federal election, and boy howdy did I pay for it." As you might know, Kitchener-Waterloo was the infamous riding where Conservative candidate Peter Braid won by 17 votes over Liberal incumbent Andrew Telegdi. Like many others, I ranked MacLellan higher than Telegdi, and Telegdi higher than Braid overall. Telegdi is popular around here; among other things he has a backbone and is not afraid to use it. I was thinking of voting for Telegdi, but the horrible vote prediction website Vote for Environment (reborn as for this election) predicted that the riding was "safe" for Telegdi, and it would be safe voting with our hearts. Lots of us did -- we supported the strong NDP candidate Cindy Jacobson (with 14.7% of the vote) and the strong Green candidate MacLellan (with 12.1% of the vote) and we got burned.

That is one explanation for my decision, but it goes deeper than that. An article called Why a Green Vote is Not a Wasted Vote that MacLellan published in her blog reveals some of the deeper arguments for and against my decision. Here is what she argues:

Some of these claims are thoughtful and clear-headed. Others have torpedoed any chance she had to earn my vote this round. I think it is worth picking them apart, because they illustrate some deep lessons about our democracy.

Strong and clear environmental messages

This is wrong for many reasons. First of all, the Greens have diluted their environmental platform considerably. They are anxious to show that they are not a ``one-issue'' party, so their literature emphasises "Smart economy, strong communities, true democracy". But this argument implicitly states that there is only one reason a voter would choose the Green Party -- to make that strong statement about the environment.

I agree that the Greens are bigger than a one-issue party. They supposedly represent a new way of doing politics -- one based on trust, fair play (no attack ads!) and proportional represenation. One could easily vote for these values without caring about the environment much at all.

But more importantly, nobody cares how many thousands of people vote Green, so long as the Greens continue to not win seats. The number of Green votes does not influence political policy unless the other parties think that (a) the environmentalist vote is worth courting and (b) that environmentalist vote can be dissuaded from voting Green. Neither of these is the case, as the 2008 election demonstrated. The Liberals took a big risk and proposed a "Green Shift", which would have implemented a carbon tax and a tax shift -- core principles of Green policy. That gamble failed for the Liberals: instead of Green voters shifting their votes to the Liberals who could have implemented some of their ideals, more voters threw themselves at the Green Party than ever! So why would a political party continue to court the Green vote? They wouldn't, which is one reason the environment is off the political radar this election.

More evidence of the Green vote's ineffectiveness has to do with the infamous leaders debates. In 2008 there was a big outcry over Elizabeth May being locked out the of the leaders' debates, so she was included. Then more people voted Green than ever before, and what happened? The Consortium ignored the outcry this time around, and May was locked out. More people voting Green in 2008 than ever before did not change that decision.

Then of course there are climate negotiations, where Canada is proving to be an embarrassment to the world. How much good has the Green vote done to shift that thinking? It may have had a negative impact.

Green votes don't steal Liberal votes

This claim is trying to argue that I don't exist. As I mentioned in the simple story above, I was hemming and hawing between Liberal Andrew Telegdi and Cathy MacLellan, and I chose MacLellan. Furthermore, I can think of at least three other people off the top of my head who made the same decision I did, for mostly the same reasons. That alone would have reduced the winning margin from 17 votes to 13 votes.

It may also be true that reduced Liberal turnout helped Telegdi (and Karen Redman in Kitchener Centre) lose their seats. But I am willing to bet that a good fraction of Green (and NDP) voters would have voted Liberal if they had suspected the vote would be so close. Many of us secretly hoped that we could support Cathy MacLellan while Andrew Telegdi won his seat. We lost that gamble, and many of us ended up with our least favourite option.

Financial reimbursement

The arguments around finances -- the $2.00 per voter, the 60% reimbursement -- are important. In the past I used the $2.00 number to justify voting with my conscience. But $2.00 a year translates to $10.00 a five-year term, and I have decided that I would happy give the local Green association $10 to avoid a bad election outcome.

I did not know about the 60% expense reimbursement for 10% of the vote before. Although that 60% would be coming out of taxpayer money, I can see how this number is important. If MacLellan (and other candidates) were arguing that they needed 10% of the vote to get their 60% reimbursement, I would be more open to voting for them. But that is not the argument they have been using.

Running to win the riding

This is the argument that lost my vote. In this blog entry, MacLellan never comes out and says that she expects to win the riding, but she has implied as much during all-candidates meetings. Every candidate from every small party makes this argument: if only enough people get together and vote their conscience, then that small party will win the riding! This is a nonsense argument. It has come true once in my memory -- with the Bob Rae government of 1990 -- but it won't happen this election (and there are all kinds of bad things you can say about the way Bob Rae won, and the negative consequences of his win).

Think about it. In order for Cathy MacLellan to win this riding, there would need to be more Green Party voters than voters for any other party in the riding. That's how first-past-the-post works. Meanwhile you have NDP candidate Bill Brown (who is a pretty decent candidate himself, in my opinion) making the same arguments, the enviro-zealot candidate Richard Walsh-Bowers stealing votes from the "deep green" contigent of the Green Party, Liberal voters stinging from Andrew Telegdi's defeat in 2008, and Conservative voters galvanized for Prime Minister Harper's vision. Despite strong local candidates, most voters pay attention to the leaders, and the Green Party has largely been shut out of that conversation.

To state that Cathy MacLellan will win this riding is either delusional or an outright lie. And yet she repeats this lie. This infuriates me -- especially coming from the Green Party, which I mistook for a party of principles and transparency. I want my leaders to be transparent and honest -- not delusional and/or dishonest. But she repeats this lie, because it is politically expedient for her to do so -- if enough people believe her lie, then maybe she gets her 10% of the vote and gets a bunch of campaign money reimbursed.

This lie is not new. Every single election we are implored to come together and vote with our hearts, and every single election (maybe with the exception of the Rae government) it does not work. I believed this rhetoric for a few elections, but now I am sick of it. I think the mistrust our politicians sow through their political lies -- the broken promises, the character assassinations, the delusional appeals to hope -- are destroying our democracy by undermining our trust. I refuse to reward such behaviour with my vote, and you shouldn't either.

Sure. It's possible that a smaller party will win a seat. Jack Layton's surging popularity may well translate into more votes for the local NDP. Maybe -- despite the well-publicized tight races between the Liberals and Conservatives in our local ridings -- the NDP will miraculously take the riding. Maybe one day Charlie Brown will kick Lucy's football. But I would not count on it -- not for the NDP, and especially not for the Greens, where there is no such surge of support.

Green MP impact

It may be true that a few Green MPs could have a profound impact on parliament. But if it does, that is because those Green MPs that hold the balance of power have a disproportionate influence on parliament -- power in excess of the support that they received in the election. That is unfair, and that is one of the Achilles heels of proportional representation -- very small parties are needed by coalition governments in order to pass bills, and those parties influence government in some nasty ways. A classic example is the New Zealand First party, an anti-immigration party that has dogged New Zealand's MMP (mixed-member proportional) voting system since its inception. The existence and influence of this party may have sunk MMP in that country -- we will find out November 26, when New Zealanders head to the polls for yet another referendum on electoral reform.

On the other hand, if the Greens do not hold the balance of power in parliament, their influence will be greatly diminished. Green MPs can propose private-members bills, but none of those bills will pass. They can participate in committees, but their influence will be small, not large. Stephen Harper's autocracy demonstrates this -- the Prime Minister's office holds most of the power in parliament, and it wields this authority with impunity.

Having said that, I think that the Greens and Elizabeth May are focusing on the right things during this election -- getting Elizabeth May (and maybe one or two other ridings) elected. Green MPs might not make a big difference in parliament, but they will enjoy increased media presence, and will help shape debate that way. However, it is exceedingly unlikely that MacLellan (or Byron Williston, her counterpart in Kitchener Centre) will win a seat and go to Ottawa.

Green support shifts other party policy

Wouldn't it be nice if Green values were transferred to other parties? Sure -- but as I stated above, this only happens if those other parties think they can get votes or power by doing so. The Liberals tried this and lost the election badly, so now the environment is off the agenda.

We see this in the provincial government as well. McGuinty's Liberals have adopted a number of platforms that Green voters should appreciate -- the Green Energy Act, Greenbelt legislation, and even proportional representation. But because these initiatives are niche interests without broad support with the average voter, they make easy targets for the opposition. Proportional representation has already been defeated, and is now a dead issue. Greenbelts may be on the chopping block this November; the Green Energy Act certainly will be, because consumers have seen their electricity costs rising and are looking for a scapegoat. The new Conservative government this November will be more than happy to oblige.

Having an impact on the riding

Is Cathy MacLellan having an impact on the riding?
Locally she has raised the quality of the debate a lot, and by being such a strong candidate she has highlighted weaknesses in the other local candidates. But because few people pay attention to the local candidates in federal elections (which is why the Conservatives muzzle their candidates from attending all-candidate meetings without consequences) her ability to change the discourse of the election is limited. Given that I pay more attention to local candidates than to national campaigns, I wish this was not the case.

On the other hand, MacLellan is the national shadow cabinet for the Green Party. In this role, she has direct impact on Green policy and analysis, so one could argue that she has quite a bit of impact in the Green Party overall, which in true Reaganesque fashion trickles down to the local level.

I think young people and local enviro-heads recognize MacLellan. But I am not sure how much she -- or even ARISE Technologies -- shows up on the radar of the average voter in this riding.

Personally, if Cathy MacLellan was really interested in making a political difference locally she should run for municipal government. She would have a better chance of getting elected that way, and she could really influence policy. We already have politicians in municipal government who are de facto Greens, and they are making a real difference to the local community.

Increased voter turnout

I don't know whether to believe this claim or not. I would like to see some numerical analysis.

Certainly, lots of young people are swept up by Green Party rhetoric. The Green Party is online and responsive to voters. It's entirely plausible that lots of young people cast their initial votes for the Green Party. I do not think that this translates into increased voter turnout in the long-term. How many times do you need to cast your vote only to have it ignored before you get the hint that your political system does not really want your participation? Certainly I have reached that point, and I have a hard time believing I am alone in this.

Voting for the future we want

In some sense, I agree that there are aspects of the Green Party that reflect the future I want. I like the fringe of the party that is fiscally conservative and socially liberal. I like the idea of "getting the prices right", of embracing science and environmentalism and relationships simultaneously, of transparency and honesty in government institutions, of taking long-term issues seriously and dealing with them using long-term solutions, of environmental sustainability. The Green Party put the bug in my head of "walkable communities connected by rail", an idea I continue to champion despite all logic and evidence to the contrary. So yes. In many ways the Green Party -- at least in theory -- represents a future I want.

But I do not think that means a vote for the Green Party is voting for that future. I want my vote to accomplish something concrete, and I question whether throwing my vote at a party that will not elect MPs or MPPs in this riding (at least not under first-past-the-post) does not represent progress to me. Do we want to be having this exact same debate over strategic voting and "voting with our hearts" five elections from now? Ten elections from now? If not, then what will change the situation?

Voting for something, not against something

This is meant to be an argument against strategic voting. I largely agree with the sentiment, but it does not reflect the reality of the broken electoral system that we have. At the end of the day the purpose of an election is for the citizens to choose the people who will represent them. By voting for candidates we know have no reasonable chance of winning their seats, we are giving all influence to those who vote for the forerunners. That is fine if we don't care about the outcome of the election one way or the other. But if we have a strong preference one way or the other, maybe it is better to vote for that option.

Maybe. I don't like this argument at all, and I rarely follow it. I hate the way it plays into the hands of the two big parties. Is it any surprise that neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives are eager do away with first-past-the-post?

As a long-term strategy it might make sense to vote Green. Voting Green helps the local movement stay motivated, which might mean that they continue to work in the community (hopefully during non-election years as well). In that sense I can understand how a rational voter might choose to vote for the Green Party, assuming that we will somehow eventually get some way to parlay that support into actual political power.

You can make up excuses for deferring a Green vote in any given election. My excuse this election is the threat of a Harper majority government. There have been other governments I have disliked in the past -- the Harris government comes to mind -- but as far as I am concerned the extreme centralization of power exercised by the Harper government is a unprecedented threat in Canada.

There is no question that the Prime Minister is a brilliant tactician, and given his autocratic power I think Stephen Harper has done a better job leading the country than I would have expected (which is not to excuse the terrible policy he has endorsed, starting with climate change and heading downhill from there to torture, making the census non-mandatory, ballooning the deficit, cutting the GST more than the government could afford, endorsing bad copyright legislation, distributing residential school apology payouts destructively, and lots more). But overall I view this centralization of power as deeply dangerous. When it gets to the point where members of Parliament are forced to echo talking points, where candidates for election are muzzled from attending all-candidates meetings, where media questions are limited and all questions for Environment Canada have to be vetted through the Prime Minister's Office, I think we have gone way too far. I believe that the primary moderating influence on this centralized power has been minority government, and I am extremely reluctant to see whether Prime Minister Harper is willing to moderate his own power when he has a majority government. So first-past-the-post has won, and I surrender. Voting for something won't get me anywhere, so this election it looks like I will be voting against something. Sorry, Cathy.