PR can look so much better after the fact…

Note via Wilf Day:

The recommendation of the Boundaries Commission resulted in the Nova Scotia NDP pledging, if re-elected, to support the striking of a new electoral reform commission to consult with Nova Scotians on the way the province’s electoral system functions.

Too late. They lost power this week. Just like the Saskatchewan NDP in 2007, who finally decided to hold a Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, just as they lost power.

So Nova Scotia has yet another majority one-party government elected by a minority of voters while the party that came second in the popular vote came third in the seat count.

But regional disparities continue: even while the Liberals swept mainland Nova Scotia,
Liberal voters in Cape Breton are under-represented.

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Affirmative gerrymandering in Nova Scotia

I was not aware till I came across a Globe and Mail article from September 10 that Nova Scotia has provincial electoral districts that are drawn for the benefit of two groups: Acadians and African-Nova Scotians. These “dedicated ridings”, or what in the US would be called minority-majority districts, represent cases of affirmative gerrymandering: the drawing of district boundaries to enhance minority representation.

The article says that these districts are believed to be the only ones of their kind in Canada.

These districts were established 20 years ago. The NDP government of the province has appointed a boundaries commission to attempt to equalize populations of districts (ridings). The commission’s terms of reference require each riding be within 25 per cent of the province’s average number of electors. Nonetheless, the commission recommended retaining the affirmatively gerrymandered ridings. The commission regarded the terms as non-binding; the government’s attorney general has considered the proposed retention of the districts as “null and void.” (See map of proposed changes.)

Regarding the districts themselves:

Right now there are three Acadian MLAs representing the Acadian ridings, but there has not been an African-Nova Scotian MLA in the designated black riding of Preston (outside Dartmouth) for more than 13 years. The ridings each have about 7,000 voters, far fewer than the other 48 ridings which vary between 10,000 and 21,000 voters.

Thus the districts are not only gerrymandered–drawn for a political purposes–but also malapportioned, meaning having fewer voters per single-seat district.

A very interesting case not only of boundary-drawing for minority representation, but also commission-vs.-government conflict over the process!

Anomaly watch: Nova Scotia goes to the polls today

UPDATE, 14 June, morning and again in the afternoon:

The CBC link (first one below) has been updated with early vote count results, which suggest the Tories will retain their plurality in the assembly, 23 seats, or a loss of two. The big gainer was the NDP, going from 15 to 20 seats, while the Liberals–whose leader declared the party would double its seats, instead lost three (including that of the leader himself!) and now has nine.

So, does this result qualify as anomalous? The incumbent party lost seats but may remain in office unless the other two join against it when it faces parliament the first time. The second party gained the most, but can’t form a government unless the Liberals back it.

In the votes breakdown, it looks to be: Conservative, 39.6%; NDP, 34.5%; Liberal, 23.6%. So both leading parties gained about three percentage points at the expense of the Liberals, yet one of them lost two seats (3.8%) while the other gained five (9.6%). Very odd indeed. Ah, the fun of three-party FPTP elections!

Don’t miss Rici’s comment below. Among other interesting details, including an ‘experimient’ with regional PR, he notes that the result it not very anomalous and unlikely to give any impetus to an electoral-reform push. I certainly agree on that latter point. In fact, one of the things I am saying at this weekend’s conference in Montreal is that there is no clear path to PR from minority governments. That may seem like a paradox–after all, minority governments already introduce an element of interparty cooperation in parliament unlike the typical Westminster–FPTP pattern, and they almost by definition give leverage to smaller parties that might be expected to prefer PR. Yet if the theory in my own paper [PDF] is anywhere near accurate, minority governments are unlikely to provide the conditions needed to generate a reform process.

In a second and very rich and interesting comment below, Rici saves me the trouble of applying the seat-vote equation to this election, and notes that according to the equation, this is another unexpected minority government.

Nova Scotians vote today in a provincial legislative election. The current government is a Conservative minority. Nova Scotia is one of the provinces that has a real three-party system. Many districts are expected to be close, which could cause (as in past elections) odd relations between votes and seats.

What follows is a re-post of my previous discussion of the province’s elections (originally posted 14 May).

Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald has called a provincial election for June 13.

The last general election for the provincial assembly was in 2003, and it resulted in a narrow miss of a majority for the Conservative party: 25 of 52 seats. With the economy doing well, MacDonald hopes this time the voters will get it “right” and give his party a few more seats. MacDonald’s decision, as a premier heading a minority government, to call an early election puts him in good company with his co-partisan counterpart, Stephen Harper, as Wilf Day put it in a very interesting seed beneath an earlier planting on the Canadian federal minority government. Wilf’s comment offers a quite appropriate lesson from Irish history, and asks why the media seem to think it is perfectly normal and understandable that a minority government ought to go to the polls early in search of a majority.

The question is relevant because it is not as if the governments of either MacDonald or Harper obtained anything just short of a majority of votes. Like Harper’s federal Conservatives in January of this year, MacDonald’s Nova Scotia party obtained only around 36% of the votes in the 2003 election. (For more on minority governments and FPTP, go to my Canada subdomain and scroll down to early February and late January.)

In fact, the Nova Scotia result in 2003 was rather anomalous:

    Party, votes, seats
    Conservative, 36.3%, 25
    Liberal, 31.5%, 12
    NDP, 31.0%, 15

This is arguably a worse result than the federal election, in which the two two parties’ votes percentages were almost the same as in Nova Scotia, but the leading party won just over 40% of the seats–much closer to its actual voting result. Moreover, in the federal election, the third party (also the NDP) was much farther behind in votes and seats, whereas in Nova Scotia, the third party (in votes) actually obtained more seats than the second party.

Despite the rather anomalous nature of the Nova Scotia outcome, in my current research on “systemic failures” of plurality electoral systems and moves towards proportional representation, Nova Scotia does not show up as a severe or even moderate case of failure. I define the inherent conditions for reform as chronic under-representation of the second party (second in seats, that is), based on expectations derived from the seat-vote equation. When this underrepresentation occurs in a very close election–a contingent factor–it becomes noticeable and puts reform on the agenda, although the initiation of a reform process happens only after an alternation to that (now former) second party–a further contingency.

Based on the parameters of the seat-vote equation–the size of the assembly, the number of voters, and the actual ratios of the leading parties’ votes–the 2003 Nova Scotia election might have been expected to produce seat percentages for the top three parties of:

44.5 — 28.4 — 27.1,

instead of:

48.1 — 23.1 — 29.0.

The five percentage-point shortchanging of the second party is high, but not anything like extreme, compared to other countries and provinces, or even compared to Nova Scotia in the 1970s. (The Liberals obtained more than 20 percentage points less than expectation in 1967!)

Thus, Nova Scotia does not look like a candidate for a serious electoral-reform movement–yet. However, if MacDonald gets his wish–a seat majority–without a very large boost in his party’s votes, and if the Liberals thus fall farther behind even without a major votes loss, then the province could go on my “watch list” for likely electoral-system change.

With a three-party system despite plurality elections, Nova Scotia looks like a good candidate for PR. But my research shows it is not three-partism, per se, that generates serious reform processes. Rather, it is underrepresentation of the second party and close elections that do so.

Canada’s minority government in comparative and historical perspective

I noted earlier that the election in Canada resulted in a leading party with the smallest plurality of seats in Canadian history: 40.26%. Here I want to compare this result to other plurality jurisdictions. As part of an academic paper that I am working on now, I have collected data on 187 elections held under plurality electoral rules in parliamentary systems that have mostly nationalized party conpetition.* These elections cover a period of 30-40 years in the U.K., Canada and the Canadian provinces, New Zealand (prior to its shift to MMP), and several Caribbean countries.**

How many of these 187 elections produced a plurality smaller than what the Conservative party currently holds? One.

In Nova Scotia in 1998, the Liberal party obtained 19 of 52 seats in the provincial legislative assembly, or 36.5%, on 35.3% of the votes. That election produced a tie in seats, with the NDP also obtaining 19 seats on 34.6% of the vote.

The next closest examples are:

Ontario 1975, 40.8% seats (36% votes)
Canada 1972, 41.3% seats (38.5% votes)
Ontario 1985, 41.6% seats (37% votes)***
Canada, 1957, 42.3% seats (38.9% votes)

These are the only cases in my data in which the largest party in parliament won under 43% of the seats.

As I noted in a post on election day, Canada’s federal minority parliaments have averaged a life of about 18.5 months, or about the length of the minority parliament elected in 2004. Given what a dysfunctional parliament this is likely to be, it will be hard pressed to keep itself together even that long.

In fact, I think Declan said it best:

Something about Martin’s tone when he said that ‘the people of Canada have chosen Harper to lead a minority government’ made me feel that he was trying to hide his glee about how Harper would suffer trying to do just that.

Declan also notes, in his running commentary from election night: “Is Stephen Harper still speaking?” I saw it on C-SPAN and I have to admit, I stayed up past my usual bedtime to hear what Harper had to say, and I thought it was the worst victory speech I had ever heard any politician give. I am not sure how I stayed awake.


*The data therefore do not include India, where a very large share of the seats and votes are won by state-specific parties. In India coalition governments have been the norm in recent decades because the largest party usually has under 30% of the votes and seats. I also did not include cases that hardly have a party system at all, such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

**Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago.

***In this election, the second largest party in parliament (which had obtained a higher votes percentage) formed the government with the support of a third party.