Anomaly watch: New Brunswick


Well, so the party that appointed an Independent Commission that recommended MMP, scheduled a referendum for May, 2008, then called yesterday’s election, was reelected. Yes, it was. The voters rewarded it with a plurality of the vote (47.7% to 47%), and a higher share than in 2003.

But hold on just a moment. A funny thing happened on the way to the seat allocation. While the Conservatives won the most votes, the Liberals won the seats, 29-26, and will have sole control over the next provincial government.*

Folks, we have here a reversed plurality. A spurious majority. A wrong winner. And right smack dab in the middle of an electoral reform debate. Well, not much of a debate; as I noted in previous posts on this campaign, the Commission on Legislative Democracy and its recommendations, and the favorable government response to them, and the scheduled referendum were mentioned only in the platform of the third party (no seats, over 5% of the vote).

So, the Conservatives had committed to a referendum that would make future reversed pluralities impossible. The Liberals are in power only because of an electoral system that makes reversed pluralities possible. Will the referendum go ahead?

This was not New Brunswick’s first anomalous outcome. Will it be its last?

Pardon my glee, but I just love real-time experiments for my theories.

* The new district boundaries may have had an effect, as changing demographics meant that “two rural seats were lost and two urban seats were created,” according to the CBC.

How refreshing that districts are not drawn by the incumbents, but by an independent boundaries commission, such that the incumbent government can actually lose districts. I mean, that is almost, well, democratic. Voters get to pick their legislators, rather than vice versa. But of course, they still can only do so within the confines that the line-makers create for them–a reminder of the limits of fair redistricting.

Of course, any electoral system that assigns political power to parties but does so according to regional distributions has an inherent tendency to produce votes-to-seats anomalies. Districting, even the fairest, can’t prevent anomalies in single-seat district systems. Only an electoral system that distributes power among parties based on the parties’ actual voting strength can do that.

Update: Check out the comment thread on the NB election at Idealistic Pragmatist. It is interesting in that the comments encapsulate the various threads of my ongoing work on electoral reform in first-past-the-post systems.

One commentator says that the reversed plurality is no big deal because the Tories gained most of their votes in districts they already held. This could be considered the inherent-conditions argument, in that it defends the system against normative charges of “anomaly” by reference to the way FPTP works: a series of self-contained regionally circumscribed contests. (The logical extension would be that those votes deserved to be wasted, because they simply weren’t needed in the districts where they happened to have been cast. Such an argument, of course, conveniently ignores the fact that the aggregation of these races determines who controls the agenda of the body so elected; in a parliamentary system, that means the majority party–in seats, the aggregated votes being irrrelevant–monopolizes the government itself.)

Another comment suggests that the Liberals would have no interest in continuing with the referendum because–as I alluded to above–they just benefited from the status quo system. This is the outcome-contingency argument: the party in power weighs its position on electoral reform based upon calculations of which electoral system will benefit it. If it is better off under FPTP, it will cancel the referendum to prevent PR from being adopted.

And another notes that it would be quite an act of “chutzpah” for the new government to call off the referendum, inplying they might not be willing to do it. This is the act-contingency argument: the party in power will weigh its position with respect to electoral reform according to its calculation of the political cost of appearing to stand in the way of reform (whether or not it actually wants the reform).

Credit where credit is due: The whole outcome/act contingency argument is my adaptation from occasional F&V propagator Mike. The inherent vs. contingent concept is my adaptation of the late Harry Eckstein’s clasification of explanations of revolution.

4 thoughts on “Anomaly watch: New Brunswick

  1. Press statement today from Fair Vote Canada:

    ““If you want yet another illustration of why so many countries have scrapped first-past-the-post voting, here it is,” said Larry Gordon, Executive Director of Fair Vote Canada, a national citizens’ campaign for electoral reform.

    “In a democracy, you would think any party failing to win a majority of votes should not have majority control of the legislature,” said Gordon. “You would certainly not expect a party coming in second place to be given complete control of the political agenda.”

    Gordon noted that first-past-the-post voting produced two other wrong-winner elections in the 1990s in British Columbia and Quebec.

    Fair Vote Canada commended former Premier Lord for his June 2006 commitment to hold a binding referendum on the mixed member proportional voting system recommended by the New Brunswick Commission on Legislative Democracy.

    “Particularly given these distorted election results, we call on Premier Graham to honour the former Premier’s pledge for an electoral reform referendum in 2008 and to honour a majority decision by New Brunswick voters in that referendum,” said Gordon.

    In a previous study of Canadian provincial elections between 1980 and 2000, Fair Vote Canada reported that New Brunswick had the most distorted election results among all provinces, when comparing the differences between the percentage of votes cast for parties to the percentage of seats won.

  2. I certainly agree with the thrust of the Fairvote statement, but really there are not “so many” countries that have dropped FPTP for PR.

    Very few European countries that adopted PR around the turn of the 20th century had previously used FPTP (just Denmark and Sweden, as I recall). New Zealand is one of the very few recent examples. Most of today’s PR (or, for that matter, MMM) countries, if they had competitive elections under a previous system, came from a background of multiseat plurality or SNTV, or else a two-round system in single-seat districts.

    I’m not always fond of “path dependency” arguments, but when it comes to electoral systems, they are pretty compelling.

  3. I believe there was also a “wrong-winner” election in Saskatchewan in 1999. (It was a minority government, though.)

  4. Pingback: New Brunswick electoral reform proposal (yes, again) | Fruits and Votes

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