This week is the beginning of the mail voting period for the referendum on whether to reform the electoral system for provincial assembly elections in British Columbia. The ballot asks two questions: (1) Do you want to keep the current FPTP system or “a proportional representation voting system”: (2) If BC adopts PR, which of three types of PR do you prefer?
The second question offers three choices, which voter may rank: Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP); Dual-Member Proportional (DMP); Rural-Urban Proportional (RUP).
I have reviewed before what these options entails, and will not repeat in detail here. Besides, the official BC Elections site explains them better than I could. What I want to try to get it here is how we might expect BC’s provincial party system to change, were any of these options adopted. To answer that question, I turn, of course, to the Seat Product Model, including the extended form for two-tier systems developed in Votes from Seats.
The punch line is that the various scenarios I ran on the options all suggest the effective number of parties in the legislative assembly would be, on average, somewhere in the 2.46 to 2.94 range, the effective number of vote-earning parties would tend to be in the 2.83 to 3.32 range, and the size of the largest party would be somewhere between 45% and 51% of the seats. Again, these are all on average. The ranges just provided do not mean elections would not produce a largest party smaller than 45% or larger than 51%. Actual elections will vary around whatever is the point prediction of the Seat Product Model for any given design that is adopted. And fine, yet important, details of whichever system is adopted (if FPTP is not retained) will remain to be fleshed out later.
The ranges I am giving are formula-predicted averages, given the inputs implied by the various scenarios. I explain more below how I arrived at these values. The key point is that all proposals on the ballot are quite moderate forms of PR, and thus the party system would not be expected to inflate dramatically. However, coalition governments, or minority governments with support from other parties, would become common; nonetheless, single-party majority governments would not likely disappear from the province’s future election outcomes. As we shall see, one of the proposals would make single-party governments reman as the default mean expectation.
Before going to the scenarios, it is important to see whether the real BC has been in “compliance” with the Seat Product Model (SPM). If it has tended to deviate from expectations under its actual FPTP system, we might expect it to continue to deviate under a new, proportional one.
Fortunately, deviations have been miniscule. For all elections since 1960, the actual effective number of vote-earning parties has averaged 1.117 times greater than predicted. That is really minor. More important is whether it captures the actual size of the largest party well. This, after all, is what determines whether a single-party majority government can form after any given election. For all elections since 1960, the average ratio of actual largest-party seat share to the SPM prediction is 1.068. So it is even closer. For an assembly the size of BC’s in recent years (mean 80.7 since 1991), the SPM predicts the largest party will have around 57.8% of seats. The mean in actual elections since 1991 has been 62.7%. That is a mean error on the order of 4 seats. So, the SPM captures something real about the current BC electoral system.
Going a little deeper, and looking only at the period starting in 1996, when something like the current party system became established (due to the emergence of the Liberals and the collapse of Social Credit), we find ratios of actual to predicted as follows: 1.07 for effective number of vote-earning parties; 1.07 for largest parliamentary party seat share; 0.905 for effective number of seat-winning parties. If we omit the highly unusual 2001 election, which had an effective number of parties in the assembly of only 1.05 and largest party with 96.2%, we get ratios of 0.98 for effective number of seat-winning party and 0.954 for largest party size. The 2017 election was the first one since some time before 1960 not to result in a majority party, and it is this balanced parliament that is responsible for the current electoral reform process.
As for the proposed new systems, all options call for the assembly to have between 87 seats (its current size) and 95 seats. So I used 91, the mean; such small changes will not matter much to the estimates.
The MMP proposal calls for 60% of seats to remain in single-seat districts (ridings) and the rest to be in the compensatory tier (which would be itself be regionally based; more on that later). So my scenarios involved a basic tier consisting of 55 seats and a resulting 36 seats for compensation. Those 36/91 seats mean a “tier ratio” of 0.395 (and I used the rounded 0.4). The formula for expected effective number of seat-winning parties (Ns) is:
With t=.4, M=1 (in the basic tier) and S=91, this results in Ns=2.81. I will show the results for other outputs below.
For the DMP proposal, the calculations depend on how many districts we assume will continue to elect only one member of the legislative assembly (MLA). The proposal says “rural” districts will have just one, to avoid making them too large geographically, while all others will have two seats by combining existing adjacent districts (if the assembly size stays the same; as noted, the proposals all allow for a modest increase). In any case, the first seat in any district goes to the party with the plurality in the district, and the second is assigned based on province-wide proportionality. For my purposes, this is a two-tier PR system, in which the compensatory tier consists of a number of seats equivalent to the total number of districts that elect a second MLA to comprise this compensatory pool. Here is where the scenarios come in.
I did two scenarios, one with minimal districts classified as “rural” and one with more. The minimal scenario has 5 such districts–basically just the existing really large territorial ridings (see map). The other has 11 such districts, encompassing much more of the interior and north coast (including riding #72, which includes most of the northern part of Vancouver Island). I will demonstrate the effect with the minimal-rural scenario, because it turned out to the most substantial move to a more “permissive” (small-party-favoring) system of any that I looked at.
Of our 91 seats, we take out five for “rural” districts, leaving us with 86. These 86 seats are thus split into 43 “dual-member” districts. The same formula as above applies. (Votes from Seats develops it for two-tier PR, of which MMP is a subset.) The total number of basic-tier seats is 48 (the five rural seats plus the 43 DM seats). There are 43 compensation seats, which gives us a tier ratio, t=43/91=0.473. Ah ha! That is why this is the most permissive system of the group: more compensation seats! Anyway, the result is Ns=2.94.
If we do the 11-rural seat scenario, we are down to 80 seats in the DM portion of the system and thus 40+11 basic-tier seats. The tier ratio (40/91) drops to 0.44. The resulting prediction is Ns=2.61. This does not sound like much, and it really is not. But these results imply a difference for largest seat size between the first scenario (45%) and the second (49%) that makes a difference for how close the resulting system would be to making majority parties likely.
Finally, we have RUP. This one is a little complex to calculate because it is really two different systems for different parts of the province: MMP for “rural” areas and STV for the rest. I am going to go with my 11 seats from my second DMP scenario as my “rural” area. Moreover, I understand the spirit of this proposal to be one that avoids making the districts in rural areas larger than they currently are. Yet we need compensation seats for rural areas, and like the full MMP proposal, RUP says that that “No more than 40% of the total seats in an MMP region may be List PR seats”, so this region needs about 18 seats (the 11 districts, plus 7 list seats, allowing 11/18=0.61, thereby keeping the list seats just under 40%.) That leaves us with 91-18=73 seats for the STV districts. The proposal says these will have magnitudes in the 2-7 range. I will take the geometric mean and assume 3.7 seats per district, on average. This gives us a seat product for the STV area of 3.7*73=270.
In Votes from Seats, we show that at least for Ireland, STV has functioned just like any “simple” PR system, and thus the SPM works fine. We expect Ns=(MS)^.167=2.54. However, this is only part of the RUP system. We have to do the MMP part of the province separately. With just 11 basic-tier seats and a tier ratio of 0.39, this region is expected to have Ns=2.13. A weighted average (based on the STV region comprising 80.2% of all seats) yields Ns=2.46.
The key point from the above exercise is that RUP could result in single-party majority governments remaining the norm. Above I focused mainly on Ns expectations. However, all of the predictive formulas link together, such that if we know what we expect Ns to be, we can determine the likely seat-share of the largest party (s1) will be, as well as the effective number of vote-earning parties (Nv). While that means lots of assumptions built in, we already saw that the expectations work pretty well on the existing FPTP system.
Here are the results of the scenarios for all three output variables:
“DMP1” refers to the minimal (5) seats considered “rural” and DMP2 to the one with 11 such seats. If we went with more such seats, a “DMP3” would have lower Ns and Nv and larger s1 than DMP2, and the same effect would be felt in RUP. I did a further scenario for RUP with the MMP region being 20 districts, and wound up with Ns=2.415, Nv=2.83, s1=.52; obviously these minor tweaks do not matter a lot, but it is clear which way the trend goes.And whether any given election is under or over s1=0.50 obviously makes a very large difference for how the province is governed for the following four years!
I would not really try to offer the above as a voter guide, because the differences across systems in the predicted outputs are not very large. However, if I wanted to maximize the chances that the leading party would need partners to govern the province, I’d probably be inclined to rank MMP first and RUP third. The latter proposal simply makes it harder to fit all the parameters together in a more than very marginally proportional system.
By the way, we might want to compare to the BC-STV proposal that was approved by 57% of voters in 2005 (but needed 60%, and came up for a second referendum in 2009, when no prevailed). That proposal could have been expected to yield averages of Ns=2.61, Nv=3.0, and s1=.49. By total coincidence, exactly the same as my DMP2 scenario.
Edit: The following paragraph is based on my own misreading of the proposal, which contrary to what I say here, calls for province-wide proportionality if MMP is chosen. What it says about Scotland still applies, so I will leave it here. [Then again, maybe not?]
A final note concerns the regional compensation in the MMP proposal vs. province-wide in DMP. In an on-line appendix to Votes from Seats, I explored whether regional compensation in the case of Scotland produces a less permissive system than if compensation were across all of Scotland. I concluded it made no difference to Ns or s1. (It did, however, result in lower proportionality.) Of course, if it made a difference, province-wide would have to be more favorable to small parties. Thus if this were a BC voter’s most important criterion, DMP might pull ahead of MMP. However, the benefit on this score of DMP is greater under a “low-rural” design. The benefit of DMP vanishes, relative to MMP, if the system adopted were to be one with a higher share of seats marked as rural. I certainly am unable to predict how the design details would play out, as this will be left up to Elections BC.
The bottom line is that all proposals are for very moderately proportional systems, with MMP likely the most permissive/proportional on offer.