Votes are being cast today in a general election in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. The incumbent Conservative party is expected to be reelected. The current standing of parliament is 34 Conservatives, 11 Liberals, and 1 NDP (and two vacancies).
The Conservatives won the last election, in 2003, handily. Those 34 seats represent more than 70% of the seats, which were won on a solid majority of the votes: 58.7%.
Despite the 2003 outcome, the electoral system (FPTP, of course) is actually biased against them. How can an electoral system be “biased” against a party that has more than two thirds of the seats? Consider that in a “normal” FPTP system, with such a small assembly, and two leading parties at almost 59% and only 33% of the votes, respectively, we might expect the leading party to have around 86% of the seats. That would be 41 seats, or seven more than the party actually won. If we value strong oppositions, we might consider the actual, biased, outcome a lot better than the “expected” one. The twelve seats the Liberals won in 2003 almost gives the opposition something resembling a caucus, whereas the seven they would have been expected to win would hardly deserve to be called opposition caucus (though it actually would not be close to the most decimated opposition in even recent Canadian provincial electoral history).
Obviously, with one party so dominant and the other party retaining significant representation in parliament, the electoral system would not be expected to be a political issue in the province. And indeed it is not, as far as I know. Nonetheless, as the graph below shows, the bias against the Conservative party–or in favor of the Liberals–is systemic and ongoing.
This graph, as with others I have shown here in the block on the “seat-vote equation” shows, in the lower segment, the deviation of the second largest party (in seats) from what it would be expected to have won, for the given votes for the parties and the size of the assembly and the number of total votes cast. On that lower (dark green) trend line, we see the identity of the second largest party. Since at least 1989, every time the Conservative party has come in second in votes, its seat share has fallen below expectation (the horizontal line at zero). When the Liberals fell to second place in 2003, the party was significantly over-represented (as discussed above).
Why this has not been a political issue–that is, why Newfoundland and Labrador does not have a significant electoral-reform movement–is apparent in the upper part of the graph. This portion indicates how close the election is, in votes. The 1989 election actually shows the vote differential as negative, because it is indicating the vote difference between the party with the most seats and the party that came in second in seats. In other words, the 1989 election was a plurality reversal: The Conservatives were second in seats despite having the most votes. The votes split in 1989 was 47.50% to 47.05%, but the Liberals won 31 seats to only 21 for the Conservatives.
So, while the bias against the Conservative party is not currently politically significant–the party is enjoying a large majority in spite of it, and will probably continue to do so after today’s election–it has significant political consequences in 1989. A plurality of voters that year actually voted to retain the Conservative government then in power, but the electoral system produced a “spurious alternation” to the Liberals. It may not have seemed spurious at the time (at least to those who are not Conservative partisans), as the Conservatives were actually big vote gainers, compared to 1985 (when they had only 36.6%, compared to the Liberals’ 48.4%). Nonetheless, the opposition failed to win the plurality that one presumably expects in order for an incumbent government to be voted out of office.
After the 1989 anomaly, the Liberals were returned to power in the next three elections, and, as the graph above shows, there was not a close election among the three.
The bias in the Newfoundland and Labrador electoral system is not an issue now, but if it continues in future elections, and if one of those is very close, this province’s electoral system is a good candidate for producing another anomaly.