This summer will be an interesting one in BC politics, especially for Attorney General David Eby. His department is overseeing the development of the rules and question for BC’s upcoming referendum on electoral reform. Both will play a role in whether the NDP and Green’s efforts to introduce proportional representation to BC will be successful. At the same time, as the MLA for Vancouver Point Grey, Eby has become the target of protests over the NDP’s new levy on properties worth more than $3 million. While these issues may seem separate, they are connected. BC’s current first past the post electoral system makes it essential for the NDP and Liberals to compete over swing districts, including well-off ones like Vancouver Point Grey. A move to a more proportional electoral system will reduce the importance of these districts, and as a result, the political cost of some of the housing and affordability policies the NDP are pursuing.
Electoral systems shape different voters’ influence over elections. Under first past the post, where voters live will determine their influence over the election result. Voters in ridings that one party dominates have limited influence over elections. No matter who they vote for, it is very likely the dominant party will win the riding. This is not the case for voters in competitive, or swing, ridings. In these ridings, the increased competitiveness means a voters’ decision to switch their support from one party to another is more likely to affect which party wins the riding. In proportional systems, the total number of seats in the legislature a party depends on the party’s vote share across the province, and so where voters live does not change their influence over election results.
The way that electoral systems shape the influence of different voters will affect the political consequences of the NDP’s housing policies. The party made gains in the last few elections by winning seats in the west and south of Vancouver and in the suburbs. These ridings include Vancouver Point Grey and Vancouver Fairview (though this riding also has a significant number of low income voters). The NDP’s future success may depend on the party making gains in similar ridings such as Vancouver False Creek. Several swing ridings will have significant numbers of home owners likely to be affected by increases in property taxes and other policies designed to bring down housing prices. Meanwhile, lower housing prices and other programs that make BC’s cities more affordable will disproportionately benefit voters in low income ridings, such as those on the east side of Vancouver (one might think of Vancouver Mount Pleasant and Vancouver Kingsway here). These are ridings that the NDP already wins by large margins. Essentially, policies that impose costs on well-off homeowners are likely to hurt the NDP in the swing ridings they need to win power, while winning them votes in ridings they already win by large margins. These may be good policies, but they are risky politics.
Electoral reform offers the NDP a way out of this problem by reducing the importance of votes in swing ridings relative to those in low income NDP strongholds. Under such a proportional system, NDP losses in places with large numbers of wealthy home owners, such as Point Grey, could be offset by gains in low income areas of the province such as Mount Pleasant. This would be the case even if those gains came in parts of the province that they already win by large margins.
This challenge is not unique to British Columbia. Low income voters in many countries tend to be geographically concentrated in working class urban ridings, while middle and high-income voters tend to be more spread out. Under first past the post electoral systems, this produces a dynamic where key swing ridings tend to be more well-off than the average and median individuals in a particular country or province*. As left-wing electoral coalitions shift to include alliances of low-income and well-off cosmopolitan urban voters the extent to which left parties are reliant on urban upper middle-class swing ridings is likely to only increase. In turn, this will increase the political costs faced by left parties that try to put in place policies that benefit low income voters at the expense of high income ones.
It is unlikely that the NDP are pursuing electoral reform specifically because of the political impacts of their housing and affordability policies. There is too much uncertainty around the prospects of electoral reform, and the policies are too far apart on the government agenda for this to be the case. At the same time, these policies highlight the ways in which electoral reform can matter to politics in ways that go beyond determining the numbers of seats each party has in the legislature. They shape the incentives parties have to respond to different voters and the political risks parties take by implementing different policies. As a result, it is important to think about the way that electoral reform has implications for policies that impact housing and affordability.
* For more on this it is worth looking at Rodden, Jonathan (2010). “The Geographic Distribution of Political Preferences.” Annual Review of Political Science. 13:321-340.