Canada 2006: A dysfunctional FPTP system

How did the seat-vote equation perform in the 2006 Canadian election? To determine that, I repeated the methodology outlined in my pre-election post about seat estimation, entering the now-known votes distribution into the equation. The answer is: Not all that well. The divergence between the model and the actual translation of votes to seats only underscores a point I made in introducing the seat-vote estimations: Canada’s electoral system does not behave like a ‘normal’ first-past-the-post (plurality) system. This is not really surprising, for I noted that the normal seat bonus expected to be enjoyed by the largest party in FPTP is rarely realized in Canada (see the graph in the pre-election post). However, in the preceding two Canadian general elections, the seat-vote equation estimates were largely correct for the votes cast and seats allocated outside Quebec. In 2006 they were not.

The Conservative party–the party with, as expected, the largest share of the votes nationally, would be predicted by the seat-vote equation to have won a large majority of the seats allocated in provinces other than Quebec: 143/233 (61.4%), based on its 40.2% of the votes won outside that province. Instead, it won only 114 (48.9%), thus benefiting much less than might have been anticipated from the normal FPTP tendency to over-represent the largest party even when we exclude Quebec from the results.

Added to the known outcome in Quebec (where Conservatives won 10 of 75 seats), the Conservatives’ winning 61.4% of the non-Quebec seats would have put the party at 49.7% of the total seats, or two seats short of a majority. In other words, allowing for error of estimate, the party would have had either a commanding position despite being short of a majority, or would have had an exceedingly narrow majority. Instead, however, the party won a mere 40.3% of the total seats in the House of Commons–which is the smallest share of seats for a leading party in Canadian history (a point I will take up in greater detail in a separate post).

What this all means is that the Canadian electoral system has crossed a threshold of sorts, where it is no longer performing as a FPTP system is expected to perform, according to its own normative justification. That is, the claimed advantage of such a system is ‘governability.’ FPTP systems in parliamentary democracies are not supposed to deliver seat allocations that mirror the distribution of citizens’ votes. They are supposed to produce clear winners, either ‘manufacturing’ a majority for the party with the plurality of the votes, or at the very least giving the largest party a sufficiently large plurality of the seats that it is in a commanding positions vis-a-vis parliament even if it lacks a majority of that body. The Canadian electoral system has failed miserably this time, by the standards of the family of electoral systems of which it is a part. The Canadian FPTP system is, in a word, dysfunctional.

The Conservative party won 36.3% of the votes nationwide, with a 6.1 percentage-point margin over its nearest competitor, the Liberal party. So, where the votes split 36.3-30.2, the seats percentages split 40.3-33.4. Considering only these two parties, this is not a result far divergent from what many proportional representation systems might produce. PR systems with many districts of small to medium magnitudes–Spain or Norway, for example–often produce similar votes-to-seats relationships for the two leading parties.*

Where the Canadian system does not resemble a PR system, of course, is in how it treats the smaller parties. For instance, the Bloc Quebecois won in this election 51 seats (16.6%) on 10.5% of the votes, whereas the NDP won just 29 seats (9.4%) on 17.5% of the votes. Any small-district PR system of the sort that would give the largest two parties results similar to what they actually obtained on January 23 might continue to over-represent the BQ (because its votes would remain concentrated in several smaller multi-seat districts within Quebec) and under-represent the NDP (because it is less concentrated), but it would bring the results for these two smaller parties closer to their votes. So, even if Canada had a PR system about as proportional as those of Norway and Spain and an allocation of seats for the top two parties about like what actually resulted in the just-concluded election, under such a system the NDP probably would have had about 45-50 seats**, but the BQ more like 30-35–reversing the actual outcomes for these two parties in a way that matches their ranking in the national votes.***

It is a result of the regional distribution of party voting support that the seat-vote equation does not handle the Canadian seat allocation as well as it handles other FPTP systems. For instance, if all of the five leading parties were national, parties the size of the NDP and BQ might have been expected under FPTP to get less than 20-25 seats combined. A leading party with 36.3% of the votes against such a fragmented field of contenders might have been expected to win 57% of the seats. If that sounds high, consider that the Labour party in the most recent British election won 55% of the seats on just 35% of the vote.§

The largest party in Canada under-performs its seat-vote equation estimate for the same reason that the smaller parties over-perform: geographic concentration. This is obvious in the case of the BQ, which is absolutely not a national party (contesting elections only in one province, where it is by far the leading party). But as I noted before the election, the NDP can also be expected to out-perform its seat-vote estimate because it, too, is concentrated (although far less so than the BQ). It is quite obvious that if two parties have the votes concentration to exceed their estimated seat allocations, then larger parties will fall short of their estimates. Such was the case with the Conservative party, which wound up with barely over 40% of the seats despite a votes share that would be expected to result in something between 48 and 54% of the seats in the House of Commons.

In follow-up posts, I am going to look at the within-Quebec results and in somewhat more detail at the significance of the minority government that was just elected, given the distribution of votes and seats for other parties.


*For example, the leading party in Norway’s PR system in 1997 had 35.0% of the votes and 39.4% of the seats. In 2005, the leading party in Norway had 32.7% of the votes and 36.1% of the seats. Spain’s PR system–a better referent for Canada, given the presence of many regional parties–produced a result in 2004 of 46.9% of the seats for the leading party, which had 42.6% of the votes. The runner-up in that election had 42.3% of the seats on 37.7% of the votes. These allocations for the larger parties in small-district PR systems are strikingly close to those of the just completed Canadian FPTP election: The PR examples just given feature an advantage ratio (%seats/%votes) for the largest party of at least 1.10. The Conservatives’ advantage ratio in this election was 1.11.

**It is worth noting that 103 seats for the Liberals and close to 50 seats for the NDP would have put them on the cusp of a majority, and thus possibly put the center-left, with combined votes of almost 48% even without including the Greens, in a position that the actual outcome did not give it: An ability, within the existing conventions on government-formation, to prevent the Conservative minority from forming a government on its own. In other words, governability, the supposed advantage of FPTP, would have been improved by PR!

***I am assuming, of course, that the actual votes would not have changed under PR. Given that there was apparently no large-scale strategic desertion of the NDP (contrary to widely reported expectations of pundits), I think that is not a terribly unreasonable assumption.

§Added Jan. 25: Well, a clear majority of seats on 35% of the vote is unusual. In fact, UK 2005 was the second smallest share of votes ever (within my data) to have resulted in a parliamentary majority. The lowest was a few percentage points lower in New Zealand’s last FPTP election (1993). But several seat majorities have resulted in other elections in various countries or provinces from around 36% of the vote.

12 thoughts on “Canada 2006: A dysfunctional FPTP system

  1. Pingback: Fruits and Votes

  2. Thanks for all the analysis. Just a little correction, the Tories got 114 seats outside Quebec (about 49%), not 100 as you wrote.

    [MSS: Thanks, Vasi, for the correction! Let’s see, 124-10, yep, I should have gotten to 114!!]

  3. Absent a Québec electoral reform thread, I’ll post this here.

    After public hearings that began Nov. 1, 2005, and continued for 25 days across Québec, public reaction has borne its first fruit: the Citizens’ Committee has reported. Nine Members of Québec’s National Assembly, and eight citizens selected by a structured random process from interested volunteers, have consulted the general public and particular experts on the government’s draft bill for an MMP system.

    The first shoe has dropped (what kind of fruit is a shoe?), but it has no legal weight. The eight citizens sat at the same table as the nine MNAs and had the same right to ask questions, but have no vote on the Report of the Special Committee (the nine MNAs.) The thud, if any, will come from their report.

    Six Citizens have written a masterful 59-page report with no technical assistance. (One more wrote his own, while the eighth signed nothing.) It calls for an improved MMP model with province-wide proportionality, with 40% compensatory seats assigned to regions and filled from regional lists with a 5% threshold using a two-vote model. To the surprise of those who thought citizens would always want an open-list model, they want closed lists in each of Québec’s 17 administrative regions, ranging from a few little three-seat regions to Montréal’s 30 seats (18 local, 12 regional list.)

    It also calls for fixed election dates. Uniquely for a citizen panel, it calls for rules to maintain stable government: for example, that a government cannot be defeated in the House except by the formation of a new coalition government holding a majority of seats. (They did not attempt to define exceptional circumstances permitting an early election.)

    Will the government pay any attention to the Citizens’ recommendations? The Minister says he too had some reservations about the draft bill, and will take the committee’s recommendations as a starting point for presenting a new version of the reform in coming months. We’ll see.

    As a PR wonk, what interested me is the Citizens’ formula for assigning the 50 compensatory seats to the 17 regions. All they said is “start by giving Party A a seat in the region where it is most under-represented” — presumably by highest average, as the draft bill uses — “and continue compensating parties under-represented in regions so long as the region has seats available” until the party’s seats are all assigned. Unlike Germany, the regions have a fixed number of seats, making the assignment process far trickier than in Germany.

    Suppose a fourth party won 7 seats. Would parties go turn-about? Then all seven of their seats would be among the first 28 assigned by this process, leaving the large parties to take the left-overs. Or would they go in order of which party has the highest average (is most under-represented) in any region? If so, the fourth party’s 7 seats will mostly be assigned at the end of the process, and some will go to regions which have a seat left over but where the fourth party had little support.

    Here the citizens’ talents hit a wall. They ask the Special Committee staff to do simulations of how this would work and attach them to the Citizens’ Report (not attached). Once again, as in BC, we find citizens needing experts to help them write their MMP model, and no experts assigned to that task.

  4. Thanks for the information, Wilfred! I hope the press picked this up, unfortunately I haven’t seen a newspaper in a few days.

    Some notes:

    In order that list MNAs not become immune to being thrown out, they recommend a limit of two consecutive terms as a list MNA. They do want to permit double-candidacy (list and district), however.

    Apparently Quebec law already provides parties with election financing dependent on the number of votes received last election–with a bonus if a certain percentage of candidates are women. The proposal wishes to increase the bonus, increase the required percentage, and make it apply to elected members rather than candidates. There should also be a separate bonus which applies to minorities. Moreover, if this measure does not result in significantly increased representation of women within two elections, then parties should instead be required to alternate between men and women on the lists. (Note that apparently English-speakers and those of minority religions are not considered “minorities”–not that I’m bitter or anything.)

  5. Will Canada’s Parliament become as dysfunctional as its electoral system?

    Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised to put in place Senate reforms in time for the next election that will see candidates for the upper chamber elected. An announcement is expected soon.

    But Canada’s Senate has, on paper, powers almost equal to the House of Commons. It never tries to override the Commons since it has no democratic mandate. Will future governments of Canada need a double majority in order to function?

    Harper is a great fan of Australian Prime Minister John Howard. He will know all about their system of double dissolution: in case of deadlock between their two Houses, the Governor-General may dissolve the Senate and the House of Representatives simultaneously, and a rare (for Australia) double election will result. The last time this happened was in 1987, but that double dissolution produced a continued Senate deadlock.

    Does any other country have such a double dissolution provision? For that matter, does any other country have a lower house elected by First Past The Post and an upper house elected by proportional representation? Is Australia doubly unique?

    And how will Canada handle such deadlocks? Perhaps it doesn’t matter: if big government is the problem, is a deadlock a good thing?

  6. Pingback: Fruits and Votes

  7. Freewheeling through a country and its institutions I do not know that well, I would suggest a Canadian senate where the seats are apportioned to the provinces not on a purely population-proportional basis, nor on a purely equal basis (like the US and australian senates). The existing distribution of seats seems anomalous to me because these is no relation at all between seat share and population share: in some cases bigger provinces get less seats than smaller provinces. (this eis even worde than an equal distribution!)
    I take the exaple of a 100-seat senate (overrepresentation is defined as the ratio between population share and seat share)

    1) To begin we give the 3 territories (0,1% each) one seat each – as in the existing senate? So they are almost 10 times overrepresented, but we can’t give them less…
    2) Then we give Ontario (39%) and Quebec (24%) an equal amount of seats. Although it’s the 2nd province, it’s important that Quebec is guaranteed a fixed part of the seats. On the other hand, the biggest province, Ontario, shouldn’t get less seats than any other province.
    Giving Quebec and Ontario a quater each – almost as in the existing senate – is a small overrepresentation for Quebec (%seats/%pop.=1,06) and a major underrepresentation of Ontario (%seats/%pop.=0,64)
    3) Then we give the 3rd and 4th province, British Columbia (13%) and Alberta (10%), the seats they deserve on a proportional basis: 13 and 10 seats.
    4) The rest of the seats (24) are divides between the 6 smallest provinces (14%).
    In this category (i) a smaller province should be more overrepresented than a bigger one but (ii) a bigger province should not get less seats than a smaller one.
    In a 100-seat senate: Manitoba, Saskathewan and Nova Scotia (3,6% + 3,1% + 2,9%) get 5 seats each (%seats/%pop.=1,37 + 1,62 + 1,72), New Brusnwick (2,3%) gets 4 seats (%seats/%pop.=1,72), Newfoundland and Labrador (1,6%) gets 3 seats (%seats/%pop.=1,88) and Prince Edward Island (0,4%) gets 2 seats. Compared tot the other provinces Prince Edward Island is almost 5 times overrepresented, but a secound seat seems reasonable to make the difference with the one-seat-territories.

    In sum the four western provinces have 33 seats with 30% of the population and the four maritime provinces have 14 seats with 7% of the population.
    The only underrepresented province is Ontario (25 seats with 39% of the population): if we give smaller provinces more seats than they deserve on a proportional basis, at least one other province must give in, and it is logically the biggest one.

    When the proposed rule is compared with the existing senate, the major changes would be as follows:
    – The four maritime provinces would lose part of their overrepresentation. Every maritime province is smaller than every western province, but in the existing senate Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have 10 seats each and a western provinces only gets 6 seats. This anomaly disappeares with the proposed rule.
    – British Columbia and Alberta wouldn’t be underrrepresented any more.

    I do not give any suggestion about how these seats should be filled. Apparently no-one likes the way they are now (appointed by the federal government), but I have no idea which system would suit Canada best:
    1. appointment by the provincial legislature or government, or
    2. direct elections:
    a. in single-seat-constituencies or by PR in province-wide constituencies?
    b. in all provinces at the same time or province by province?
    i. If in all provinces at the same time: simultaneously with the House of Commons elections or not?
    ii. If province by province: when there are provincial elections over there or not?

  8. Pingback: Pro PR

  9. Pingback: Pro PR

  10. How would the party balance look like in a 100-seat senate apportioned as in my earlier planting, if the seats are awarded proportionally (D’Hondt) with the 2008 general election result in that province?
    Con. (37.6%): 40 seats
    Lib. (26.2%): 27 seats
    NDP (18.2%): 19 seats
    BQ (10.0%): 10 seats
    Green (6.8%): 4 seats
    (preliminary results)

  11. totally agreed with Paul “Canadians do not have a lot of political bloggers with the depth of some of the leading American political bloggers” time to expand on various topics.
    Anyway fruitsandvotes.com is doing a great job.

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