Canadian provincial elections this week

Update: In a comment (#7), I compare the result to the seat-vote equation estimate.

Three Canadian provinces have elections this week. Voting has already been completed in Prince Edward Island (PEI) and Manitoba, and is taking place today in Ontario, the largest province. Each elections shows–or is likely to show–the vagaries of FPTP.

(Newfoundland & Labrador votes next week, 11 October)

First, the election in PEI produced a lopsided majority–again. The incumbent Liberal party returned to office with 22 of the 27 seats, on a slightly reduced vote percentage (51.4% compared to 52.9% in 2007). This was a loss of one seat, with the Conservatives winning 5 (+1). For the second straight election, the Greens supplanted the NDP as the (distant) third party, with 4.3% (up from 3%).

The province has a history of lopsided results (as I have shown in graphs); the 2003 Liberal victory marked an alternation from a Conservative government, which itself had 23 seats. In the election before that, the Conservatives had 26 of the 27 seats. In 1996, the last time no party won a majority of the vote, the Conservatives, with 47.4% could manage “only” 18 seats (a 2/3 majority).

The seat-vote equation, which estimates seats under FPTP systems, based on jurisdiction-wide votes for the top three parties, the size of the assembly, and the number of voters, says that a party with around 51% of the votes, where the second party has around 40%, “should” be expected to win around 65% of the seats, rather than the 85% it won in this election. ((Four seats in PEI were decided by fewer than 100 votes, and some of these might swing on recounts. Each major party has won two of these seats, based on current results.))

One key reason why PEI has such lopsided results is that its assembly is about half the size that the cube root rule says it “should be,” for its electorate. With around 80,000 voters turning out in recent elections, an assembly of 55 seats would be more appropriate than 27. The undersized assembly is why the seat-vote equation sees as “normal” for FPTP even a a party with just over 50% of the votes potentially getting almost two thirds of the seats. The geographic distribution of the vote in PEI, and its tendency towards big island-wide vote swings, only exacerbate an inherent tendency for big seat bonuses for the largest party.

Of course, the Island could also get less distorted results with even a modestly proportional mixed-member system, such as the one resoundingly turned down in a referendum in 2005.

In Manitoba‘s election, the incumbent NDP was returned to office with 37 of the 57 seats (64.9%) on just 46% of the votes. The NDP had won 36 seats in 2007 on 48% of the votes. So the party’s votes declined, but it seats increased. The second-place Conservatives substantially increased their votes, from 37.9% to 43.7%, yet saw their seats remain steady on 19. Such are the vagaries of FPTP. Liberals saw their votes fall from 12.4% to 7.5%, and dropped from 2 seats to 1.

The seat-vote equation would expect such a close race between the top two parties to have resulted in a seat split of about 30-27, instead of the actual 37-19. ((Given the greater gap in votes between the top two, we would expect the 2007 election to have split the seats 37-20; in other words that election turned out almost exactly as expected.))

Manitoba has no record of particularly odd results, although in both 1990 and 1995 the second largest party won many more seats than it “should have” won. This is a pattern that can result in a plurality reversal (higher seat total for the second largest party in votes), if the election is close enough. In both of those elections, the Conservatives won narrow seat majorities on less than 43% of the votes, while the second-place NDP in 1995 had 40% of the seats despite only 33% of the votes. ((In 1990, it had only 28.8% of the votes, yet 35% of the seats.)) Evidently, in several recent elections the NDP’s geographic distribution of its votes has been such that it can translate them into many more seats than expected, whether it is the largest or runner-up party. I point this out simply because this week’s election was quite close in votes (46%-44%) yet produced an unexpectedly large seat bonus for the NDP. A plurality reversal may have been barely more than a couple of percentage points of the provincial vote from happening.

In today’s Ontario election, we see real three-party competition, with the third largest party, the NDP, polling at around a quarter of the votes. The incumbent Liberal party won 71 seats in the 2007 election, or 66.4% on just 42.2% of the vote. For most of this year, it was expected to lose, possibly by a wide margin, to the Conservatives. Yet as the official campaign got underway, the Liberals and NDP made gains in polls. For a while the Liberals and Conservatives looked headed for a near tie in seats, with neither winning a majority, and a potential plurality reversal. Now the Liberals could retain a majority of seats, depending on how some key ridings (districts) turn out.

The ThreeHundredEight final projection sees the Liberals winning 58 seats (54.2%) on 36.6% of the vote (to 33.3% for Conservatives). No party in Ontario ((at least since 1967, which is the first year in my data.)) has won a majority of seats on less than 40% of the votes since the NDP won 74 of a then 130-seat parliament on 37.6% of the vote in 1990–the only time the NDP has been the governing party. For the record, the seat-vote equation agrees that this projected vote split would produce a majority (about 56 seats); what it does not expect is the mere 29 seats the Liberals are expected to win, according to the ThreeHundredEight projection. The seat-vote equation expects such a close second place to be good for 44 or 45 seats, which would leave only 7 for the NDP. That the NDP could be projected to win 20 seats by ThreeHundredEight–which takes into account district-level information unlike the seat-vote equation ((As I often point out, the seat-vote equation is not a projection tool. It is only meant to see how close an actual result deviates from what a “typical” FPTP election would produce, for a given jurisdiction-wide votes breakdown, and number of voters and seats)) –only shows how much the existing FPTP electoral system favors the NDP. Their huge manufactured majority in 1990 shows this pro-NDP bias is not new. ((Of course, potentially winning in this election nearly three times the number of seats as could be expected in a “normal” FPTP system offers minimal benefit when some other party has won a manufactured majority. Clearly the NDP today–although not back in 1990!–would benefit from a proportional system that would promote minority or coalition governments in which such a strong (in votes) third party could have real policy influence.))

Ontario’s three-party competition suggests it would be well served by a proportional system, such as the mixed-member system proposed by a citizens assembly, but turned down in a referendum the same day as the provincial parliamentary election in 2007.

Finally, both Manitoba and Ontario, like PEI, have undersized assemblies. For their population sizes, the cube root rule expects around 100 seats in Manitoba (instead of 57) and 200 in Ontario (instead of 107). Small assembly sizes only exacerbate the chances of anomalous results, although if one wanted seats distributions more reflective of votes distributions, a proportional electoral system would do the trick without needing to increase assembly size.

For more on the seat-vote equation and estimating the seats in first-past-the-post systems, 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.

Past election data and estimates of seats come from the data set originally prepared in conjunction with the chapter, and updated since.

Error on year of NDP majority in original entry corrected.


10 thoughts on “Canadian provincial elections this week

  1. “When the campaign began, there were about 30 races which were projected to be ‘close’. That has dropped to about a dozen.”

    That is a quote from the essay about the final ThreeHundredEight projection (linked above).

  2. Is Newfoundland part of Canada? 🙂

    Yes, I forgot! No time now for any analysis, sadly.

    (IP, nice to see you here. And I think you just set the all-time F&V record for quickest comment!)

  3. Newfoundland is only a recent part of Canada, a new found province perhaps) so MSS can perhaps be forgiven.

  4. “If one wanted seats distributions more reflective of votes distributions, a proportional electoral system would do the trick without needing to increase assembly size”? Except that a mixed member proportional system, when the Assembly is already undersized, would mean even larger districts, unacceptable to anyone outside a metropolitan centre. That’s why the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly recommended raising the Assembly size. But they compromised by adding only 22 MPPs, raising district size slightly, using only 30% top-up MPPs, and using province-wide lists to avoid compromising proportionality still further. Did Ontarians reject province-wide lists in the referendum?

    • Wilf, agreed. Such are the tradeoffs across the inter-party and intra-party dimensions: more proportionality necessarily means bigger districts, for a given assembly size. If one values proportionality above all else, it’s not an issue: just combine districts to permit PR. But there are other values, such as the relationship between legislators and constituents.

  5. The seats split 53-37-17. The vote percentages were 37.62, 35.43. 22.73. For the record, based on those votes, the seat-vote equation would expect seats to be 53-45-10 (which actually adds to 108, due to rounding). The point prediction for the largest party is 52.6 (out of “106.9”).

    So the Liberals are right where they “should” be, but the Conservatives have fewer seats than expected and the NDP–again!–has more (almost double expectation).

    The Liberals are one seat short of a majority, so it is technically a minority government. But it won’t have much trouble governing, as presumably the range of issues on which all Tories and Dippers would vote as a bloc against the government would be quite narrow.

  6. The Ontario Liberals will have as much trouble governing with 53 seats as with 43; they don’t have the votes to pass a budget or any legislation. It reminds me of what Prime Minister Paul Martin is said to have told Jack Layton in 2005, cruelly but accurately, when Jack Layton was trying to negotiate changes to the federal budget, when the NDP and Liberals together had one seat short of a majority: “Jack, you don’t have the votes.” (Shortly afterwards Belinda Stronach crossed the floor from the Conservatives to the Liberals, thereby giving Jack Layton the leverage he needed: “By rewriting the 2005 budget, Layton successfully diverted $4.6-billion from corporate tax giveaways to important priorities like affordable housing, education and public transit.”) So Canada’s Liberals know very well the difference between being one vote short and having the votes to pass a budget.

  7. Canadians are, sadly, used to seeing exaggerated regional differences in our federal elections.

    On May 2 this year, 256,167 Conservative voters in Saskatchewan elected 13 MPs while 627,962 Conservative voters in Quebec elected only five MPs. Similarly, 129,310 Liberal voters in Alberta elected no one while 130,577 Liberal voters in Nova Scotia elected four MPs.

    Now Ontario’s recent provincial election has joined this parade of stronghold politics.

    In two-thirds of Ontario’s electoral districts, Liberal strongholds — the Greater Toronto Area, Ottawa, Hamilton-Niagara and the North — it took only 26,000 Liberal voters to elect an MPP. Elsewhere it took 53,156 to do so. In the rest of Ontario, 36 of the 107 districts, Progressive Conservative strongholds, it took 25,667 PC voters to elect an MPP while elsewhere it took 73,858 to do so. In the Liberal stronghold regions it took 44,818 NDP voters to elect an MPP, while in the PC stronghold regions it took 153,966 NDP voters to elect an MPP.

    In Ontario’s outgoing cabinet of 28 members, nine were from those 36 districts. In last week’s election only nine Liberal MPPs were elected from those districts. Will all nine be in cabinet, including rookie Teresa Piruzza?

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