In a recent blog post (and submission to the House of Commons Committee on Electoral Reform) my colleague Stewart Prest highlights the presence of “yellow dog” ridings as one of the problems with first past the post electoral systems. Yellow dog ridings are ridings which are said to be so uncompetitive that a party could run a yellow dog and still win. One of the problems with first past the post is that there are significant numbers of ridings in which parties have little incentive to respond to voters. A seat won by 10 percentage points is worth as much as a seat won by 15 percentage points, so parties do not gain much from trying to appeal to voters in ridings they are very likely to win. Similarly, it makes no difference whether a party loses a riding by 10 percentage points or 15 points, so parties have no incentive to try to appeal to voters in ridings they have little chance of winning. As a result, voters in safe ridings are likely to find it difficult to get parties to care about their interests. The impact that this has on elections depends on exactly how many uncompetitive ridings there are. In 2015 just over a quarter of ridings were uncompetitive. 2015, however, was a relatively competitive election. Between 1997 and 2008 over half of ridings were uncompetitive. This is a serious problem for Canadian democracy.
I count a riding as uncompetitive if the same party won the riding by at least 10 percentage points in both the election being measured and the previous election. This suggests that the party could have gone into the election expecting that the riding was relatively safe, and that not much changed over the course of the campaign. For the 2004 election, which occurred immediately after the merger of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives, ridings are considered safe for the Conservatives if they won by at least 10 percentage points and either the Canadian Alliance or the Progressive Conservatives had a lead of over 10 percentage points over their closest non-conservative rival in 2000. In no cases are the Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance vote shares combined, because it is not clear that all Progressive Conservatives would have supported the then new Conservative party. Election data is taken from Pundits’ Guide. For years in which elections take place after redistricting the Pundits’ Guide estimates for the share of the vote a party would have won in the new riding in the previous election are used.
The graph below shows that the number of safe districts in most elections since 1997 is quite high. In 2015, an election that saw a substantial shift of voters from both the Conservatives and the NDP to the Liberals, a quarter of ridings remained uncompetitive. This meant that, even in an election that saw substantial shifts in voters’ preferences, close to a quarter of voters lived in ridings where their vote may little difference to the election outcome. The number of uncompetitive ridings is much larger in the elections between 1997 and 2011. In 2011 45.8% of seats were uncompetitive and in the elections prior to that more than half were. This is deeply concerning for Canadian democracy. In these elections most voters lived in ridings that parties had little incentive to appeal to. Instead parties were rewarded for concentrating on winning the support of the minority of voters that lived in competitive ridings.
This is further problematic when one looks at the share of competitive ridings in each province. Unsurprisingly, Albertan ridings are grossly over-represented amongst the uncompetitive ridings. Since 1997 an average of 85.8% of Alberta ridings have been uncompetitive, as shown in the first graph below. This is far higher than in any other province. The second graph below shows that this has meant that, while Alberta has had an average of 9.1% of seats in the House of Commons, it has averaged only 2.8% of competitive ridings. Parties’ incentives to appeal to Albertans, regardless of who has been in government, have been lower than they should be given the percentage of the Canadian population that lives in the province. This is because the number of uncompetitive ridings in Alberta makes it very unlikely that winning a vote in Alberta will contribute to changing the party that wins a seat and therefore effect the outcome of an election. The way that first past the post translates votes into seats allows pay very little attention to an entire province.
In various prior elections other provinces stick out as uncompetitive. The graph below shows that in 2015, the Conservatives’ dominance in Saskatchewan meant that it joined Alberta as a relatively uncompetitive province. In 2015 71.4% of Saskatchewan ridings were uncompetitive. The graph below that shows that in 2000 Liberal dominance in Ontario and Canadian Alliance dominance in British Columbia made those provinces largely uncompetitive. The fact that 82.5% of Ontario ridings were uncompetitive (and almost entirely Liberal) meant that the Liberals could focus on competing for votes in more competitive provinces such as Quebec, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan without having to make strong appeals to Ontario voters. Even though only Alberta sticks out as uncompetitive across all elections, each election has additional provinces which parties have little incentive to appeal to. Competitive ridings are almost never distributed evenly across provinces.
The way that first past the post divides Canadians into uncompetitive ridings, which parties have little incentive to appeal to, and competitive ridings, which parties have strong incentives to campaign in, is problematic. At many points over the last two decades it has meant that parties’ have had strong incentives to ignore more than half of the electorate. Because uncompetitive ridings tend to be concentrated in particular provinces, first past the post creates particularly problematic incentives when it comes to parties’ regional representation. Albertans have problems getting the federal government to respond to their issues because Alberta is a largely uncompetitive province. A move to a more proportional system would increase parties’ incentives to make more wide-ranging appeals. Because in proportional representation systems each additional vote contributes to the number of seats a party wins, regardless of where in the country that vote comes from, parties could no longer ignore voters who currently live in uncompetitive ridings. This would force parties to campaign to the entire electorate, including provinces such as Alberta that are largely dominated by one party.
* Data can be found on the data page.