Add Canada 2019 to the set of plurality reversals. As anticipated before the election, the two largest parties each ended up with around one third of the vote. This is the lowest vote percentage for a governing party in Canada ever, I believe. The seats are somewhat less close than the CBC’s Poll Tracker estimated they would be. Instead of 133 seats to 123, the seats split 157 to 121. The Liberals are indeed that largest seat-winner, despite trailing the Conservatives in votes percentage, 34.4 – 33.1.
The NDP was either overestimated by polls or, more likely, suffered some late strategic defection. Instead of the near 19% of the vote in the final Poll Tracker, the party ended up with only 15.9%. More importantly, its seats stand at only 24, well below where estimates late in the campaign had them (per the CBC Poll Tracker).
As excepted the BQ had a good night, with 32 seats. The Greens picked up one new seat to augment the two they already held. The new seat is Fredricton, New Brunswick, whereas the other two are both on Vancouver Island.
In what I will call the two best pieces of news form the night (other than there being no single-party majority), the People’s Party crashed and burned, winning only 1.6% and seeing its leader lose his seat. That and the fact that Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former Attorney General who was kicked out of the Liberal caucus, retained her seat, Vancouver-Granville, as an independent.
I will certainly use this result often as a demonstration of how the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system can produce strange results.
Not only the plurality reversal for the top two, but the differential treatment of the next three parties, show anomalies of the sort that are inherent to FPTP. The BQ is only somewhat larger in votes than the Green Party, but will have more than ten times the number of seats. Under FPTP, it is good to have efficient regional distribution of support, and getting all your votes in one province, where you perform exceptionally well, is really efficient. The Greens, on the other hand, gained in almost all provinces, but it was good enough to add only one seat.
The NDP’s situation is one of a quite strong third party, but also inefficient regional distribution: 7.1% of the seats on 16% of the votes is a punishing result, but nothing at all unexpected, given the electoral system.
For that matter, the plurality reversal is itself a signal of the problem of inefficient vote distribution. The Conservative Party mostly gained votes where they could not help the party win seats, whereas the Liberals were much more successful winning close contests.
In his victory speech, PM Justin Trudeau was bold enough to use the M-word (mandate), but this most certainly is not one. For the moment, he can be pretty happy he broke that promise on 2015 being the last FPTP election. His party remains in position to form the government, and has a substantial seat bonus. The advantage ratio (%seats/%seats) is 1.40. (How does that compare with past elections? Click to see.)
Canada would be well served by at least some degree of proportionality. In fact, so would the Conservatives, given their tendency to run up margins where they are already strong. (Note that they are only barely over-represented in seats, with 35.8%.) However, this result is unlikely to advance the cause of reform, as the Liberals’ position–46% of the seats and a 36-seat (more than ten percentage point) edge over the runner-up–looks quite solid.
The other reason the country could really use electoral reform is the map. There is no Liberal red to be seen from central Ontario westward, except around Vancouver (and two northern territories). The party lost some of its ministers’ reelection bids in Alberta and Saskatchewan. With even a minimally proportional system, the situation of a governing party without members of its caucus in nearly every province would not happen.
While a PR system would be beneficial, the country is stuck with FPTP at least for now. So how did this result compare to what we should expect from the electoral system actually in use?
The Seat Product Model and the outcome
The Seat Product Model (SPM) performed better than the CBC Poll Tracker’s seat estimator. For an assembly of 338 and districts with magnitude of 1, we should expect the largest party to have, on average, 48.3% of the seats, which would be 163 seats. So the actual result (46.4%) misses the expectation by 6 seats, or 1.78 percentage points (compared to the a 20-plus, or 6 percentage point, miss by the Poll Tracker).
Of course, the SPM has one advantage in its favor: it does not “know” that the seat-winning party would have under 33.3% of the vote, whereas the Poll Tracker must work with this expectation (and, as it turned out, reality). In fact, when a party wins 48.3% of the seats, the formulas of SPM (collected in Table 9.2 of Votes from Seats) expect it to have won 43.3% of the votes. (Theoretically, we do not expect the SPM to perform as well with votes as with the seats that are at its core; but in Votes from Seats, we show that, on average, it performs about equally as well with both.) The Liberals underperformed this expectation by more than ten percentage points! The voters genuinely voted for something their electoral system could not deliver, even if the system indeed delivered what should be expected solely on institutional grounds.
In terms of the effective number of seat-winning parties (NS), the actual result was 2.79. This is slightly higher than the SPM expectation, which is 2.64. The miss is minor, with a result only 1.057 times expectation.
On the other hand, the effective number of vote-earning parties (NV) was 3.79. The SPM expects 3.04. Let me pause and emphasize that point. Because Canada uses FPTP in a 338-seat assembly, we should expect the votes to resemble a “three-party system” and not the two-party system that all the conventional “Duvergerian” wisdom claims. If we calculated expected NV based on the known NS=2.79, we would expect NV=3.17. However, neither the SPM nor Duverger’s “law” expects that the largest party nationwide should have only around a third of the votes. That is the really remarkable thing about this outcome.
The district level
At the district level, there were numerous non-Duvergerian outcomes, as would be expected with the known distribution of nationwide votes among parties. According to an extension of the SPM (in a forthcoming book chapter), we should expect the effective number of vote-earning parties at the average district (N’V) to be 1.59 times the square root of the nationwide NS. That would be 2.66. It will be a while before I am able to calculate what it actually was, but it would not surprise me if it was a fair bit higher than that. But, again, let me pause and say that a Duvergerian two-party competition at the district level is NOT to be expected, given both the nationwide electoral system and the actual aggregate seat outcome. (If we went off expected nationwide NS, instead of the known outcome, the district-level mean still would be predicted to be 2.58; see Chapter 10 of Votes from Seats.) Canadian elections of the past several decades have tended to conform closely to this expectation for district-level N’V.
The country does not tend to have two-party contests at district level, nor should it (when we have the Seat Product Model to guide our expectations). In other words, voters do not tend to vote in order to “coordinate” their district outcome around the two most viable candidates. They tend to vote more towards their expectation (or desire) about what the nationwide parliamentary outcome will be. This is so even in Quebec where, in this election, many Francophone voters returned to the regional party, the Bloc Québécois. Quebec has numerous district contests that feature three or four viable parties.
So if your image of Canada’s party system is that in Quebec districts it is BQ vs. Liberal, with other parties barely registering, while elsewhere it is Liberal vs. Conservative, except where it is one of those vs. NDP, it is well past time to update. Canada does not have nationwide multiparty politics because it has separate regional two-party systems (as many folks, even political scientists, seem to believe). Canada has district-level multipartism because it has nationwide multipartism. (See Richard Johnston’s outstanding book for a rich “analytic history” that supports this point.) And this may be even more true in the one province in which there is (again) a strong regional party. Consider the aggregate provincial outcome in terms of vote percentages in Quebec: Liberal 34.2% (slightly higher than nationwide), BQ 32.5%, Conservative 16.0%, NDP 10.7%, Green 4.5%. This gives a provincial-level NV of 3.82, a bit higher than nationwide.
I will offer a few striking examples of multiparty contests at district level, just to illustrate the point. The new Green Party MP from Fredericton, Jenica Atwin, won 32.8% of the vote. The Conservative had 31.1%, the Liberal 27.3%, and the NDP 6.0%. There may indeed have been strategic voting happening here, with some NDP voters–the party had 9.9% in 2015–switching to Atwin to stop the Conservative (and perhaps some who don’t like the Greens boosting the Liberal). But the outcome here is N’V=3.53!
The change from 2015 in Fredericton is really striking, as the Liberal candidate was an incumbent who had won 49.3% in 2015 (against 28.4% for the Conservative, meaning this party gained a little here in 2019). Clearly many Liberals defected from their party to the Green following that party’s success, including a local win, in the recent provincial election. In doing so they only narrowly avoided the serious “coordination failure” that would have been a Conservative win.
Another Green MP, the reelected Paul Manly in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, won 34.5%. This was actually a pretty clear victory despite being barely over a third of the vote; Manly had been elected in a by-election this past May with 37.3%. The runner-up Conservative had only 25.9% in the general election contest, the NDP 23.7%, Liberal 13.6%. N’V=3.83!
Wilson-Raybould’s win in Vancouver-Granville as an independent was also with under a third of the vote. She had 32.3%, beating the Liberal’s candidate (26.6%) and the Conservatives’ (22.1%). The NDP candidate had 13.1%. The Greens, who tried to recruit Wilson-Raybould to be their candidate, put up their own against her, who got 5.0%. It should be noted that the NDP candidate in this riding last time won 26.9%, so it would appear there was ample strategic voting here in Wilson-Raybould’s favor. (She won 43.9% as the Liberal candidate in 2015.) The Green voters, on the other hand, did not seem to warm to their near-candidate; the party’s actual candidate did better in this district in 2019 than in 2015 (when the party got 3.1%).
One of my favorite cases is Sherbrooke, in Quebec. The winner was Liberal Elisabeth Briere with 29.3%, edging out an NDP incumbent who won 28.3% in this election. He had won the seat with 37.3% in 2015. Close behind in this year’s contest was the BQ candidate who had 25.8%. Following behind them was a Conservative (10.7%), and Green (4.5%). N’V=4.06!! The Liberals won this by basically standing still in vote share, having lost this district by a wide margin in 2015 when their candidate had 29.8%.
A few interesting tidbits from candidate backgrounds. Bernier’s defeat in his own riding of Beauce was at the hands of a dairy farmer, Richard Lehoux. The Conservatives recruited him because of Bernier’s opposition to supply management policies in the dairy sector. (Info found in the CBC’s Live Blog.) Lehoux won only 38.6% of the vote, but it was sufficient to beat Bernier rather badly, as the latter (elected as a Conservative in 2015 and previously) had just 28.4%.
There were several mayors recruited to run, including a case in Quebec where the Conservatives hoped the candidate’s local popularity would overcome the party leader’s unpopularity. (The specific case was Trois-Rivières; the Conservative finished a close third in a riding the BQ candidate won with 28.5%.) There was also an Olympic medal-winning kayaker, Adam van Koeverden, whom the Liberals recruited in Milton (in Toronto, Ontario) to run against the Conservative Deputy Leader, Lisa Raitt. He defeated her–easily, winning 51.4% to her 36.5%. Presumably his celebrity (and perhaps his local roots, which he made a point to emphasize in an interview after his victory was confirmed) helped him win despite a nationwide swing against the Liberals and in favor of the Conservatives. (She had won 54.4% in 2015.) In other words, while I may emphasize that district politics under FPTP in a parliamentary system is mostly national politics, there is still plenty of room for local and personal factors to matter.
What it means for the near term
As to the shape of the government to result, it should be a reasonably stable minority government, although it may not last full term. It can form legislative majorities with either the BQ or the NDP, and thus need not be tied to either one in a coalition. And the NDP certainly is not strong enough to demand a coalition (even if it wanted to try). Nor is it likely strong enough to demand action on electoral reform, even if an election in which two thirds of the voters voted against the governing party, and various other aspects of the outcome can be seen as anomalous, suggests that reform is needed more than ever.