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Andrew Coyne Shouldnt every riding be a battleground The problems with how

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The safest thing to say about this election is that it’s “too close to call.” After all, aren’t the Liberals and Conservatives virtually tied in the opinion surveys? A weighted average of the major national polls, as calculated by the CBC’s Poll Tracker website, puts the Conservatives at 34.0 per cent, the Liberals at 33.7.Ah, but national polls, as any student of Canadian politics can tell you, mean nothing. Conservative support is heavily concentrated in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Tens of thousands of its votes are therefore likely to be wasted racking up massive majorities in a relatively small number of seats.The Liberal vote, by contrast, is more efficiently distributed, notably in Quebec, with its tight three- and four-way races, where a winning candidate might slip through with 30 per cent of the vote or less. So even though the Liberals are projected to win fewer votes than the Conservatives, they are also projected to win a solid plurality of the seats — perhaps even a majority.Then again, the polls are misleading in another way. A poll can project, with some uncertainty, the level of support for the various parties among the voting-age population. It is a more difficult matter to predict what proportion of each party’s supporters will actually turn out to vote. The Liberals benefited in 2015 from a surge in turnout, especially among younger voters, on the strength of Justin Trudeau’s sunny idealism. No such enthusiasm, or idealism, is detectable this time around.Aren’t the concerns of voters in Alberta every bit as important as those of voters in the Greater Toronto Area?It all makes for a close, unpredictable race. The Liberal challenge is the usual one: to round up the vote on the left without giving too much ground on the centre, appealing to those tempted to vote NDP or Green not to split the progressive vote lest the Tories get in.Story continues belowThis advertisement has not loaded yet,but your article continues below.The Conservatives, for their part, will also be fighting a two-front war, with the emergence of the People’s Party to their right imposing some constraint on their ability to reach across the centre. To date the PPC has not posed much of a threat — its support has stalled at around 3.0 per cent — but it is not impossible that it could break out of that range now that voters are paying more attention.And if Conservative support is not as soft as the Liberals’, neither is there as much potential for gain. While centre-right voters may be alienated by Liberal deficits and ethical lapses, they are as likely to mistrust the Conservatives on social and cultural issues. It will all likely come down to a few “battleground” ridings in suburban Toronto and Vancouver.That is as good a roundup as any of the conventional wisdom on the election. It’s probably true enough, as far as anyone knows. And yet it contains much that is wrong with how we do elections, and how we in the media cover them. Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press Begin with the last bit, about the “battleground” ridings, the subject of vastly disproportionate amounts of campaign resources and media attention. Surely the oddity of this will have occurred to someone: isn’t every riding supposed to be a battleground? Aren’t the concerns of voters in Alberta every bit as important as those of voters in the Greater Toronto Area? Isn’t every vote equal?Well, no: not under our current electoral system, known as “first past the post,” where each riding is represented by but a single member, who needs only a simple plurality of the vote to win. In such a system, it is true, whole regions of the country may be treated as “safe” in the pocket of one party or another, and as such barely worth campaigning in — a bizarre state of affairs in a democracy, but one that we have come to accept, unthinkingly, as “normal.”But in a system where each riding elects not one member, but several — where not only are supporters of the first-place candidate represented in Parliament, but others are as well, in rough proportion to their share of the vote — it is not possible to write off whole regions in this way. There are seats to be won, and lost, in every part of the country, and therefore an incentive for every party to campaign with equal vigour everywhere.So, too, the emphasis in the above on how the vote splits, and on the strategies parties devise, or demand voters adopt, in response. Perhaps we find it normal for voters to be told, in every election, that they cannot vote for the party they actually support, but must vote for a party they dislike to forestall the election of a party they detest. But in the vast majority of the world’s democracies that use some form of proportional representation the idea would seem absurd, not to say presumptuous. It is for voters to tell parties what to do, not the reverse. Liberals and Conservatives still neck-and-neck in election poll, despite SNC-Lavalin fallout Chris Selley: Trudeau’s mea culpa over his electoral reform debacle is truly mind boggling John Ivison: Vapid federal election ads unlikely to inspire indifferent electorate Third, there’s the emphasis on turnout. Every time you read about parties trying to “mobilize their base” or “depress” their opponents, that is what is meant. That’s another reason why our campaigns are typically so nasty, negative and narrowly focused. It’s not about expanding your support, but intensifying it. But in countries such as Australia, where voting is mandatory and turnout near universal, turnout strategies are irrelevant.Last, there’s the obsession with the horse race: where the parties are in the polls, and what strategies they are likely to pursue in response. That’s valid, up to a point. Some voters might find it useful to know which party is most likely to form a government. And strategy analysis may help voters understand why the parties behave as they do.But it’s a question of proportion. Some coverage of the horse race is in order, but not to the exclusion of what most voters, and readers, really want to know: who the candidates are and what they would do if elected.Again, this is partly a phenomenon of first past the post, and the winner-take-all mentality that accompanies it. The point of an election is not just to find out who won, but what the public wants. And the point of election coverage is not just to report who’s winning, but what the winners would do with the mandate they seek. An empty lectern stands where Justin Trudeau would have been if he attended the first leaders’ debate on Sept 12. read more