First-past-the-post encourages strategic voting in multiparty systems, a practice where citizens might base their electoral choice on who they believe has a chance of winning, thereby sacrificing their preferred candidates. Voters will consider who they perceive as capable of forming a government that comes close to their overall preferences. While such an explanation reduces Canada’s complicated federal story, its implications remain clear. Strategic voting has become a salient feature of the current election, creating a unique space for first-time voters—in particular, students.
Canada inherited its electoral scaffolding from the United Kingdom, where first-past-the-post reigns supreme. In this system, the leading candidate can win with a simple plurality, which means candidates can earn their seat in the House of Commons by a single vote, and not need a majority share of the vote. Such a system works smoothly when there are only a few viable candidates.
The current electoral field is split along the lines of the three major parties: The Conservatives, the Liberals, and the NDP. Thus, the available choices split those who are left-leaning. For those interested in replacing a Conservative member of parliament, strategic voting may be necessary.
For McGill students, such a decision can be more complicated. Out-of-province students may have their choice of two ridings—where their family lives, or where they live for school—at the ballot box. To illustrate the point, consider a McGill student who lives in Outremont but is from a riding such as Calgary Centre or South Surrey—White Rock—Cloverdale. The latter two ridings typically go Conservative, whereas Outremont is home to Thomas Mulcair, leader of the NDP and official opposition. Should a strategic movement exist within the student’s home riding to support a progressive candidate, that McGill student may consider casting an out-of-province vote. In short, out-of-province students may be able to decide where their vote will have the most power in creating a certain federal outcome.
The structure of our political system means that federal elections have a somewhat indirect impact on the student experience, which casts a shadow over the potential for student engagement. Under sections 91 and 92 of the constitution, education is delegated to the provinces. Yet policies pertaining to, for example, internships and youth employment are on the federal agenda. More broadly, how the different parties envision the electoral system itself could have an impact on students. The Liberals have promised to develop recommendations for democratic reform, and the NDP has promised a change to proportional representation out right. The Conservatives have made no such promise.
Proportional representation would enable issues to coalesce around the student voice. In first-past-the-post, students can engage in strategic voting in order to create change. But this is not the best option. First-past-the-post can be disingenuous as it encourages voters to make their decision based on calculations rather than their political convictions or policy outcomes. For students, this may mean compromising on their political ideology or the stance of political parties in order to ensure a certain change of government. Proportional representation would mean that non-Conservative voters do not have to choose between the NDP and Liberals, as the percentage of votes would translate directly to the number of seats for each party.
Strategic voting is not unique to students. Indeed, it is only worthwhile when a large proportion of the population behaves the same way. Yet students have distinct opportunities to engage in elections depending not only on who they decide to vote for, but also where.