As the Democratic party and the media fret over whether the Green Party will siphon off Democratic votes come November, many are making the case for voting pragmatically rather than emotionally. But can that principle be applied on a national level? In Canada, it has been done. Hisham Abdel-Rahman, founder of Canada's Strategic Voting Project, devised a methodology and a website that showed people in various parts of the country how best to optimize their vote so as to not split the progressive bloc. And in 2015, they got results. Bob talks with Abdel-Rahman about how he came up with his voting recommendations and what the United States can learn from strategic voting.
"The Hop" by Radio Citizen feat. Bajka
Robinson's vision of strategic voting is more personal principle than a national strategy, but what if we actually had one of those? What would strategic voting look like, scaled up to encompass an entire nation of voters trying to enact change? If only there were a similar country that had actually devised and executed a plan for strategic voting. But wait, there is! It's a strange and distant land called Canada, where the optimizers optimized as recently as 2015, and they got results.
Hisham Abdel-Rahman is the founder of the Strategic Voting Project in Canada. Hisham, welcome to On the Media.
HISHAM ABDEL-RAHMAN: Hello, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Let’s begin with the difference between the Canadian system and the US system. Instead of two major parties battling it out, you have multiple parties and the winner is the one who polls the most, often a very small plurality among many, correct?
HISHAM ABDEL-RAHMAN: Yeah, that’s true. We have a few parties in Canada and all of them are competing for 338 seats in the Parliament. And whichever party actually had more seats will govern. It doesn’t have to be a majority. It can easily create a minority government.
BOB GARFIELD: And if there's more parties on one side of the political spectrum, in this case the political left, and fewer parties on the opposite side of the spectrum, in Canada's case really the one Conservative Party, that gives a structural advantage to the political right. When did that start being an issue in Canada?
HISHAM ABDEL-RAHMAN: It started in 2003. In 2003, we have two parties on the right and those two parties merged and created the new Conservative Party of Canada. At the same time, the three parties on the left stayed the way they are and in 2006 election the Conservatives start winning election, with around 37% of the vote. And the other three progressive parties get 63%, with no say in how the country actually runs.
BOB GARFIELD: So all you have to do is change the rules to create a proportionate representation, except that's not gonna happen. Why?
HISHAM ABDEL-RAHMAN: Under the Conservative government, they totally understand that proportionate representation will actually end their possibility of governing the country, so this solution is actually a no-go for them because in Canada, at least right now, we have 66% of the voter are progressive. Having a majority between them, they can make a coalition. So what we have to do in Canada is to elect one of those progressive parties that promise to change the system, so that they actually can implement what you have promised the electorate.
BOB GARFIELD: So if you're on the left, this is a vicious cycle. You need a progressive government to change the rules but under the current rules you can never achieve a progressive government, unless you employee strategic voting. How does that work, and what did you accomplish?
HISHAM ABDEL-RAHMAN: So we looked at electoral districts where actually a majority of the voter voted for a progressive candidate and they end up with a conservative one, and tried to tell those voters that if you want really to make a difference, you have to vote for candidate A of the progressive candidate and please forget about candidate B because if you divided your vote between those two candidates, you will end up with none. So for somebody in Hamilton, they will go to the website and click on the right province and from there they will find a recommendation.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I can see how if you’re a candidate, I might be miffed because I see myself as an individual candidate with an individual set of values and beliefs and, you know, who are these carpetbaggers to tell my constituents [LAUGHS] not to vote for me?
HISHAM ABDEL-RAHMAN: In Canada, I said we have four different parties, three on the left and one on the right, and when you recommend one party you’re going to get three people mad. And I got my fair share. [LAUGHS] I got my fair share. We are trying to fix a system that is actually broken. When the majority in a certain district is selecting left-leaning candidates and they end up with somebody on the right representing them in every single election, then there is something wrong with the system. If the system was equitable enough, was fair enough, we wouldn't have to do any of that.
BOB GARFIELD: So, lo and behold, 2015 elections, Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are kicked out. The left parties win a majority in Parliament. Justin Trudeau is the prime minister. Are you accepting congratulations for this?
HISHAM ABDEL-RAHMAN: [LAUGHS] Justin Trudeau represents more of Canada than the previous Conservative government, for sure, and I absolutely attribute part of it to strategic voting. Hopefully, Justin Trudeau will pass some sort of proportional representation system and we don't have to go through this route again anymore.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the occasion for this conversation is our own forthcoming elections, where there are, of course, two major dominant parties, but also one or two minor parties, notably Jill Stein of the Green Party who, at least theoretically, could swing the election one way or the other. How would we take the principles of strategic voting to make sure that votes aren't squandered in November here in the States?
HISHAM ABDEL-RAHMAN: Doing a swap within the progressive bloc where voters who vote for Clinton in the red states can vote instead for Dr. Jill Stein and voters on the swing and blue states who will vote for Jill Stein will vote for Clinton. That will give the Green Party the votes to represent themselves as a bigger movement and, in the meantime, will ensure that all progressives are voting as one bloc in those swing states where the votes are going to be very precious this election cycle, for sure.
BOB GARFIELD: So to take the votes in the battleground states and push them towards Hillary Clinton and, at the same time, in the states where the Democrats have no chance, for progressives to vote for the Green Party to make the Green Party more sustainable in the future as a sort of viable third-party option.
HISHAM ABDEL-RAHMAN: Exactly. In the last election, President Obama received 18 million votes in those 22 red states. Those 18 million votes did not produce one Electoral College vote for him. So deploying those to vote for Dr. Stein, in the meantime, getting Dr. Stein’s supporters in those swing states to vote for Senator Clinton will actually achieve only good for the greater progressive movement in the United States.
BOB GARFIELD: So it’s like taking slag from the steelmaking process. You know, it's useless waste, but you use it to build roads. You're taking waste votes and using them to build democracy, eh?
HISHAM ABDEL-RAHMAN: Exactly. Those votes are of no concern for the Clinton campaign at all but they are totally crucial for the Green Party and Dr. Stein to establish this viable option that actually the Democrats actually need this movement.
I’ll quote you three different presidents in the United States talking to three different generations. I start with FDR. FDR was talking to Sidney Hillman, a labor leader. FDR said to Sidney, I agree with everything in your proposal. Now, you just go back home and make me do it. Lyndon B. Johnson actually had a similar saying talking to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When Dr. Martin Luther King was trying to push the Civil Rights Act, he said, you go out there, Dr. King, and keep doing what you are doing and make it possible for me to do the right thing. And a similar quote from President Obama: In a 2009 environmental event, he said, show me the movement. Make me do it. So three different American presidents, all of them asking for the movement that will keep them to their promises, and having a third viable alternative all the time there will light a fire under the Democrats to do the right thing to their voters.
BOB GARFIELD: And, perhaps, we’ll make America great again.
HISHAM ABDEL-RAHMAN: America is great. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Hisham, thank you very much.
HISHAM ABDEL-RAHMAN: Thank you, thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Hisham Abdel-Rahman is the founder of Canada's Strategic Voting Project, which can be found at strategicvoting.ca.
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Coming up, the man who changed history - or maybe didn't, Mr. Spoily McSpoiler. [?]
RALPH NADAR: We don’t allow small parties to have a chance to compete. I mean, what if nature wouldn’t allow seeds to sprout?
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