The seat-vote equation and Canada 2011

I have hesitated until now to run the seat-vote equation on the polls for Canada’s current election, because the campaign has been so unpredictable and regional and riding-level factors are likely to be decisive. Then again, maybe this is Canada’s most nationalized election in two decades or so…

So I ran it, based on the EKOS final numbers:

    CPC 34.0
    NDP 31.6
    LPC 20.8
    BQ 6.4
    GP 5.9

(Most other vote projections do not differ much from this.)

Disclaimer and background: The seat-vote equation is NOT a seat predictor. This is not a “projection”; you can find those elsewhere. The seat-vote equation simply tells us what the main parties’ seat totals “should have been” for a given votes distribution, based on “mechanical” features of the electoral system–how many districts there are in relation to the number of voters. It offers no insight into district-level factors. It has missed some past Canadian elections badly; in fact, I assembled the database specifically to see which elections were so out of line with how FPTP works that electoral reform might be put on the agenda. There have been many of those over the years in Canadian provinces, although at the national level Canada’s FPTP has not been prone to “anomalous” results, but rather has tended to be relatively proportional compared to other FPTP systems. (The seat-vote equation performed either admirably or terribly in the UK 2010, depending on your criteria.)*

With that disclaimer and background out of the way, what does it say the seats “should be” if we use the above votes?

    CPC 146
    NDP 123
    LPC 38
    others 1

Of course, the BQ is not going to win only one seat, and the Greens just might won one, as well. I said it was not a projection!

The seat-vote equation does not like parties that win seats despite having quite small national vote shares. It is right about the Greens getting 0 or 1 seat on their ~6%, but not about the BQ, despite the latter also being on only 6%. Regional concentration, or its absence, matters in FPTP.

Nonetheless, and for whatever it might be worth, the estimates for the Conservatives, NDP, and Liberals are well within the range of the EKOS seat projections. To be precise, the CPC and NDP numbers are near the upper end of the EKOS projections, and at least one of them will need to be nearer the lower end (130, 103, and 36, respectively, at EKOS) to make room for 10-20 BQ seats.

But, yes, a third straight Conservative plurality–possibly reduced from what it was in the dissolved parliament–and an NDP total around 100-125 really could happen. And if those were the top two parties’ seat totals, it would mean that Canada 2011, far from being any sort of anomalous FPTP election, would be in line with what the seat-vote equation says “should be” the outcome, given these expected votes.

* For more on the seat-vote equation, just click those words in the “Planted in” line above. I have been writing about the equation and various elections, especially Canadian federal and provincial elections, since 2006. The first entry in the series provides the most detail about the equation’s application. If you want the full explanation, please see:

Matthew S. Shugart, “Inherent and Contingent Factors in Reform Initiation in Plurality Systems,” in To Keep or Change First Past the Post, ed. By André Blais. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

16 thoughts on “The seat-vote equation and Canada 2011

  1. When I wrote “Of course, the BQ is not going to win only one seat,” little did I know that the actual result would be a whole lot closer to 1 than to the 10-20 that seemed like it would just have to be!


  2. It appears that Montreal politically behaves differently from the rest of Quebec, especially the rest of Quebec outside of the ridings extending between Montreal and Ottawa, and outside of Quebec City. Voters in Montreal seem to resist the sweeps that occur federally in the rest of the province. This should not be surprising given that in many Montreal ridings, voters literally speak a different language.

    One thing that is becoming apparent at least to me, looking not only at this but at past Canadian elections, is that there is a strong bandwagon effect in Canadian politics. The fragmented regional nature of Canadian federal politics disguises this, because in a federal election you could get different parties sweeping different regions and subregions. But you see cases where, once a party gets even a small plurality in a twenty riding region or subregion, they win the lottery and take all twenty ridings. But there are parts of Canada where this effect does not apply at all, currently Atlantic Canada and the major cities.

    I have no idea why this is the case. One explanation could be that the personal vote for an incumbent MP is unusually low, too low to withstand a change in public opinion against his or her party. But an equally valid possible explanation is that the personal vote for an incumbent is unusually high, so when an incumbent MP retires the riding is genuinely up for grabs and no party has a block of truly safe ridings they can count on every election.

    If this is correct, one mistake proportional representation advocates may have made would have been trying to sell Canadians on systems like STV and MMP that try to preserve an element of local representation. It really seems that Canadians don’t care who their local representative is at all. Closed party list proportional representation, run on a provincewide basis, might be more in keeping with the realities of Canadian politics.


  3. On Atlantic Canada, it’s said that voters there tend to vote more by tradition. So even after the Progressive Conservatives were massacred in 1993, Atlantic Canadians may have voted Tory because “I always have” or even “my parents always have”. I have no idea if this is corroborated by actual evidence, or just armchair theorizing.

    On cities…well, I need more evidence to accept the premise. What are some examples of sweeps that don’t include cities? Montreal went rather heavily Tory in 1988 and now is mostly NDP in 2011, if a touch less so than the province as a whole. It did resist the provincial ADQ “sweep” in 2007, but so did many other regions. Vancouver participated in the 1999 sweep of BC by the provincial Liberals. Toronto was part of the 1993 sweet of Ontario by the Liberals.


  4. Canada might be better off with open party list. Canada is country with a British and French heritage, and having a system of closed party list PR would be anathema to it’s values and history. That is why the MMP system in Ontario was rejected. STV was rejected at the second referendum in British Columbia mainly because of it’s complexity.

    I wonder what would happen if British Columbia has another reverse plurality which is what cause the referendum in the first place. Electoral Reform is not easy, it seems so easy in NZ, but then they had two reverse pluralities in the late 70’s early 80’s, and the issue did not go away.

    I think Open Party List is the only system of PR that Canada has not been put to a referendum. It uses multiple member districts, and voters could be required to vote for a candidate with in a party or make it optional.

    Maybe Open List PR will be the electoral system that will be used to elected Canada’s Senate. Hopefully the British will transforms the House of the Lords into an elected Senate with PR as well.

    The problem with any PR system in Canada is how to represent sparsely populated rural areas of Canada. I think for those areas, perhaps a Single Member District should be kept for those areas. At least 10% of Canada’s parliament should be reversed as at large or adjustment seats for the country as a whole, but would that require a constitutional amendment to be ratified by all the provinces. Maybe this is not such a good idea.

    How does open party list work? I know that the Dutch system is more open than closed, and that the Finnish, and Brazilian system are much more open, and that the Swiss system is the most open and free, but how do all these systems work?


  5. Again, I hate to burst bubbles, but I don’t think it’s been well established why the electoral reform referenda in Canada have failed. There are many plausible reasons aside from the actual features of the electoral systems on offer, including:

    * Lack of electorate anger over recent election results
    * Lack of support from politicians and other public figures
    * Attachment to tradition
    * Lack of experience with alternate electoral systems
    * Susceptibility of some electoral systems to be misinterpreted
    * Disagreement with the process used to propose the new system, or the people putting it forward

    MSS has already written about the contingent factors necessary for electoral reform to become a salient political issue in FPTP-majoritarian polities. To explain what causes the success or failure of these reform processes when put to a public vote, I’d suspect we’d need a higher N of such referenda, right now I count only seven (2 BC, Ont, PEI, UK, 2 NZ).


    • Vasi, those are indeed the only referenda I know of that pit a new electoral system (or set of options) against the status quo, with another scheduled in NZ this November. It is indeed a very small number to try to generalize from. And, of course, one of the Canadian cases actually obtained a substantial majority in favor of change (BC in 2005), but the rules required 60%.


  6. The Italian referendum (Jan., 1993) was rather different. It was not a vote pitting a specific proposal against the status quo. Rather, it was a citizens initiative to delete a clause of the Senate electoral law; is all a citizens initiative in Italy can do is strike provisions of a current law. The provision in question was the one that said candidates nominated in the already-existing single-seat districts needed 60% of the votes, or else the seat went into the PR pool. The actual electoral reforms, for both Senate and House, were passed subsequently through regular legislative processes, without further referendum.

    I suppose it could count, depending on your specific criteria. After all, the initiators clearly intended that the process they were kicking off would lead to a more majoritarian electoral system for both chambers. But it seems to me clearly different in character from the other examples Vasi lists above, which all involved specific reform proposals.

    (There had also been an earlier Italian referendum, in 1991, that reduced the number of preferences votes within the open lists.)


  7. Well, deleting the crucial 65% (not 60%) hurdle for a candidate to win “their” local seat did have a big effect on the Italian Senate. Rather as if one amended AV to make the threshold for election (say) 40%, as in North Carolina, rather than the usual 50%. The 1993 referendum made the Italian Senate (a co-equal house of Parliament, even more powerful than its Australian counterpart and nearly as much as its US counterpart) considerably more winner-take-all. (Thereby giving Italy a stable two-party system, ending corruption, enhancing voters’ power to “throw the rascals out”, and all that… (-:)

    I’d consider it “specific”.


  8. Point taken, but I still would not. First, the referendum did not directly affect the other chamber’s rules, and second, it only referred the matter to the legislature to sort out, rather than being a vote to adopt the new system. Those are important differences, both in scope and procedure.

    The only thing the legislature could not do was restore the deleted provision and thereby keep the existing Senate system intact. Legislators were under no legal obligation to adopt an MMM model, or to do anything with the Chamber of Deputies system. MMM with all its Italy-specific complications (and differences across the chambers) emerged out of inter-party and inter-cameral compromises.

    As with all classifications, it depends on your criteria. And Vasi’s original point stands: There are too few referenda on electoral-system change (with or without Italy) to make broad generalizations about why they succeed or fail.


  9. If we exclude non-self-executing referenda because the enactment of the specific rules gets kicked down the road to the legislature, would we have to exclude NZ 1993? IIRC, the public just voted for the principle of MMP (albeit as fleshed out in detail, but not in statutory form, by the Royal Commission’s 1987 report).

    Likewise the ACT’s 1992 referendum that voted to replace “modified” (ie, preferential open-list) D’Hondt with Hare-Clark (STV). This was a policy resolution rather than approval of a detaild statutory package. When the Assembly wanted to add an option of above-the-line voting tickets, Bogey Musidlak (PR Soc of Aust supremo) pointed to the referendum yes/ no case booklet, where the Yes case showed a sample ballot with no ticket-voting – and to the fact that “Hare-Clark” as understood in Tasmania for decades meant, no ticket-voting. Under political pressure, the Assembly gave in.

    Even if we add Italy and Tasmania, MSS is right: still a small sample.

    Is it going back too far to add the two Swiss referenda a century ago? (Like the UK abandoning FPTP and the Scots approving devolution, PR in Switzerland failed at referendum the first try).


  10. I have no data to prove that Canadians wouldn’t vote for closed-list MMP (except they didn’t, twice, in Ontario and PEI, but that was partly because most voters didn’t know what they were voting on.)

    But I do know that surveys in New Zealand in 2000 and Scotland in 2005 showed that most voters “would prefer to have been able to vote for individual candidates on the regional vote rather than for a party list.” In my view, no one who campaigned for MMP in 2007 in Ontario can honestly doubt that Ontario voters shared that view.

    Support for province-wide lists declined, of course, in direct proportion to the distance from the capital, precisely as it did in PEI. This was no surprise to Lord Jenkins’ Commissioners in the United Kingdom who wrote in 1998 that additional regional MPs locally anchored to small areas are “more easily assimilable into the political culture and indeed the Parliamentary system than would be a flock of unattached birds clouding the sky and wheeling under central party directions.”

    And this was not news to the Law Commission of Canada, which held 15 consulation meetings across Canada and researched the issue (including the 2000 New Zealand surveys) and in 2004 recommended MMP with flexible lists but otherwise modelled on Scotland and Wales.

    The latest relevant Canadian report was the December 2007 report of the Quebec Director General of Elections. It discussed the pros and cons of open or closed lists. After reviewing the 2000 New Zealand public opinion surveys, the 2004 Law Commission Report, and the Jenkins Report, it said “The aim of the flexible list system is to achieve a balance between voter choice, which is usually associated with open lists, and a better representation of women and minorities, usually attributed to closed lists.”

    Fine-tuning that balance involves setting the threshold for the individual vote to override the list rank. How open is “flexible?”

    When there are 12 list seats (the typical region size in Sweden’s pure-regional-list system), and it takes 8% of the party vote to move up the list, then if everyone uses the individual vote option roughly half the 12 candidates will move up the list, and the ranking will be determined entirely by the individual votes unless a party wins more than 50% of the vote in that region. But being flexible list, not everyone uses the individual vote option.

    If Canada had MMP regions averaging 14 MPs with five list seats, suppose parties nominate ten regional candidates. Suppose 60% of voters use the individual vote option. (In Brazil it’s more like 90%, in Sweden far lower). Now suppose we set the individual threshold at 5% rather than copying Sweden’s 8%. Since the average candidate gets 6% of the party vote, the majority will likely pass the threshold, so they will be ranked by the individual vote, not by the list ranking. Or we could use 4% or 6%. The Law Commission left this open.


  11. The one great thing about open party list is that there is no need for by-elections if an MP dies or resigns.

    There is another great thing about it, is that gerrymandering is eliminated, and no need to draw artificial regions. Just use the natural boundaries of a city, or country and that’s it.


  12. @Suazzaprodi

    STV can achieve the same result more cleanly. In the ACT and Tasmania vacancies are filled by countback. The ballots for the vacated MP are recounted with preferences distributed to the next available candidate. The electors decide vacancies without the disadvantage of by-elections.


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