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.Â§
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.
Â§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.