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The Tech Election: Canadians Experiment with Online Vote-Swapping

This year, a slew of homemade websites appeared where Canadians could swap or coordinate their votes to avoid a split.

Yvonne from Chilliwack? Robert from Winnipeg? I went on Facebook last week looking for the person who would cast my vote. I was shopping, not really for a person, but for the perfect district, a place where my vote could tip the scales. It was exciting like eBay, as hard as finding a great apartment on Craigslist.


Canada’s federal election this spring was a wild ride. As of last night our prime minister, Stephen Harper, has his first Conservative majority in the House of Commons—but our far-left social democrats, the New Democratic Party, more than doubled in number. Two parties all but disappeared, and the Green Party won its first seat ever.

But many voters were on a different kind of wild ride, voting strategically in the age of the social media. This year, a slew of homemade websites appeared where Canadians could swap or coordinate their votes. And while this election hacking didn't change yesterday’s outcome, it's clear that technology is slowly changing the one-person, one-ballot system to something a little more collaborative.

Canadians drive themselves crazy with a chronic case of vote-splitting. Fifty-one percent of people polled in March said Harper would not be the best leader of those running. However, there are four parties on the left.

The Wordpress-looking vote swapping websites started showing up in mid-April as people tried to stop that split. One site named likely front-runners in the swing districts. Another one organized campaign donations, and for the apathetic there was the shitharperdid.ca, with its YouTube videos and factoids about our right-wing government. The websites were driven by volunteer hours and online donations, and they were shared feverishly. Shitharperdid.ca crashed the afternoon it went live. Its creators said it got a million hits within hours.

My neighborhood in Montreal was sure to re-elect its representative, a separatist, making my vote moot. Then I learned about vote-swapping: If my preferred party couldn’t win where I live, maybe my vote for that party could be useful somewhere else. In return, I’d vote for my partner’s favorite party. Americans practically invented vote-swapping with the “Nader trader” websites of 2000, but, of course, the two-party system makes it all but unnecessary in the United States.

I registered to be paired with someone on a website that used an algorithm to match us. But then I found the Facebook app. Why be matched blindly with a stranger when you can choose your partner’s face and town?

I said I was a Liberal supporter. I wanted to send a centrist vote far away to wherever centrists battle with conservatives. First I snapped up Angela. She was a Green supporter from Kitchener, Ontario, where the local Liberal had lost by just 17 votes in the last election. She would vote Liberal for me, where the vote would really matter, and I would cast her Green vote in my district.

Then things got complicated. Polls changed, my “hopeless” district was now in a dead heat, and I canceled the swap. I went back on the app, changing my information, searching for someone who could offer a meaningful vote for my district. It seemed morally ambiguous, but I explained the situation to Laura, my new partner.

“Yeah, I'm definitely on board,” she said. “Deal?”

“Deal!” I wrote. Laura was also in Kitchener, which made me unreasonably excited. I felt like I had adopted that 17-vote gap.

The algorithm website, votepair.ca, matched more than 8,000 people in the end, with an unknown number matching themselves over Facebook. Harper was re-elected, and left-wing voters’ determination to avoid splitting their votes may have helped him indirectly (the party that many Canadians settled on was too far left for many voters, who were driven to Harper).

But in at least one place the vote-swapping did make a difference. In the last few days of the election, there was a big push to concentrate Green votes from across the country in the west-coast district where the party leader was running. Although polls predicted a split, which would have given the seat to the Conservatives, the Greens won their first-ever seat there.

In the end, though, Canadians weren’t just conniving for a win over Harper. Organizers said a main goal was simply to register Canadians’ anger at a first-past-the-post system, one where 40 percent of the population can give us a Harper majority for the next four years. England, which has seen some vote-swapping itself, is going to the polls this week for a referendum on electoral reform. Many Canadians see swapping, and communicating about the election online, as a subversive way to demand progress.

Across the border, strategic donating has taken off with the help of websites like actblue.org. But Americans haven’t experimented much with the electoral system itself. That's partly because many strategies are suited to multi-party systems like in Canada and England. But it's partly because there’s a special ritual and reverence associated with the American voting booth, says Michael Cornfield, a political scientist at George Washington University.

"I think everything but elections will change before elections," Cornfield says.

But as the Internet changes people’s behavior, it is slowly making its way into American politics too. The injection of cash and volunteers into the Wisconsin recall elections was largely organized online, Cornfield said. There was Obama’s 2008 campaign. When Rush Limbaugh started “Operation Chaos,” getting Republicans to pose as Democrats in Indiana and North Carolina primaries, so they could vote against Obama, that was strategic voting, in a way.

What’s next, aside from a Harper majority? Nobody knows. Christopher Majka of the strategic voting website projectdemocracy.ca politely refused to tell me who was masterminding the site’s (open-source) poll calculations. Majka’s day job is researching beetles in Nova Scotia, but some of his co-volunteers on Project Democracy were in “politically vulnerable” positions, he said, and were working secretly from their living rooms like the cells of a huge, pulsating spy network. No one is in charge. But on Facebook, not an hour after the results, I saw that people were planning to wear black on Tuesday. We’re now part of a thinking process that is larger than our separate brains, and I don’t know what decision we’ll come to in the next election.

“It’s the idea is that knowledge is power,” said Majka. “We have to wrestle the system to get some kind of meaningful outcome.”

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