Making Majorities: How First Past the Post Distorts Majority Governments’ Incentives to Appeal to Different Regions

One of the often-touted advantages of first past the post electoral systems is their ability to ensure different regions are represented in parliament. Parties’, and in particular governments’, incentives to respond to the interests of different regions depends on whether the party is competing to win seats in the region. Parties have little incentive to respond to the interests of voters in regions where they are completely uncompetitive or in regions where they are so dominant that they face little likelihood of losing seats. In a previous post I argued that the lack of competitiveness of many ridings gives parties an incentive to pay only limited attention to large segments of the electorate. In this post I will examine the impact that lack of competitiveness has had on the incentives of the five most recent Canadian majority governments to appeal to voters in different regions. The concentration of competitive districts in either Ontario or Quebec (depending on the election year), coupled with the small proportion of competitive seats a party often needs to win to obtain a majority, distorts governments incentives to appeal to different regions. While the first past the post system ensures that all regions are well represented in parliament, it also decreases parties’ incentives to make efforts to appeal to voters in uncompetitive regions such as Western Canada.

In order to examine the way that first past the post affects majority governments’ incentives I divided ridings into those that were competitive for the party that won a majority government and ridings that were uncompetitive for that party. Drawing on the same method I used for the post linked to above, I classified ridings as safe for the party if it won at least 10% of the vote in both the election in which it was elected to a majority and in the previous election. A riding was classified as competitive if it was not safe and won by the party that won a majority or if the party finished second in the riding and was less than 10 percentage points behind the party that won the riding. This categorization can be used to create both a rough estimate of the distribution of competitive seats across regions, and the number of competitive seats that a party needed in order to secure a majority.

The graph below shows that the 2015 Trudeau Liberals and the 1993 Chretien Liberals needed a large number of competitive seats to win a majority, while the 2008 Harper Conservatives, 2000 Chretien Liberals, and 1997 Chretien Liberals were quite close to a majority on the strength of their safe seats. The Trudeau Liberals needed to add 157 seats (46.45% of the 338 seats in parliament) to their total number of safe seats in order to win a majority. The 1993 Chretien Liberals needed to add 108 seats (36.61 of all seats in parliament) to their total number of safe seats in order to win a majority. That these parties stood out as needing a large number of seats is not surprising. Both Trudeau and Chretien first took office as a result of significant shifts in the Canadian electorate towards the Liberals. The 2015 election saw the Liberals go from third place to a majority government while the 1993 election saw one of the largest shifts in voter choice (as compared to 1988) in Canadian political history as the Progressive Conservatives went from a majority government to two seats.


When majorities were formed without dramatic shifts in the electorate, the number seats needed by parties to win a majority is quite small. In 1997 and 2000 the Chretien Liberals needed to add 39 (12.96%) and 28 (9.3%) seats respectively to their number of safe seats in order to maintain their majority. In 2008 the Harper government needed to add 45 (14.61%) seats to their number of seats in order go from a minority to a majority government. When there is no dramatic shift in the electorates’ preferences, the large number of safe seats that are created by first past the post systems means that parties can focus on winning just a small proportion of seats when seeking to obtain or maintain a majority government. The number of seats that the 1997 Chretien Liberals and 2008 Harper Conservatives had to focus on in order to win a majority government amounted to less than 15% of the total seats in parliament. The 2000 Chretien Liberals had to focus on winning a number of competitive seats that amounted to less than 10% of all seats in parliament.

This would not be problematic for regional representation if competitive seats were distributed evenly across different regions. The two graphs below show, however, that this is not the case. These graphs show the percentage to total seats in the country in a region subtracted from the percentage of competitive seats in a region. A positive score means that a region is over-represented amongst competitive ridings and a negative score means that it is under-represented. The first graph, showing the Trudeau and Harper majorities, highlights the particular importance of the 905 (suburbs just outside of Toronto) Greater Toronto Area to both Harper and Trudeau. For both, these regions are over-represented amongst competitive ridings to a greater extent than ridings in any other region. Unsurprisingly, Western Canada, outside of Vancouver and Vancouver Island are disproportionately under-represented amongst competitive ridings, as is Quebec for Harper.


The arrangement of competitive ridings for Chretien differs from election to election. In 1993, when the Liberals were building their Ontario base, all regions in that province were over-represented amongst competitive ridings. That changed in 1997 and 2000 when the Liberals’ success in the province made it largely uncompetitive. Instead Southern Quebec, Quebec City, and Atlantic Canada became disproportionately competitive in these elections. Throughout the Chretien era much of the West, with the exception of rural Saskatchewan and Vancouver in 1997, was disproportionately uncompetitive.


Parties, however, need to consider the overall number seats in a region in addition to how disproportionately competitive it is when deciding how to approach elections. If a region has a large number of seats, there may be a strong incentive to compete in the region even if it is disproportionately uncompetitive. The next two graphs show the number of competitive seats in a region as a percentage of the number seats that a party needs to add to its safe seats in order to win a majority. This shows the incentive that a party has to campaign to a particular region.

For both Trudeau and Harper, the greatest gains could be made by campaigning in the 905 region, Greater Toronto Area, and Vancouver. For Trudeau, these regions had 43% of the number of seats he needed to get a majority. For Harper, the incentive to campaign in the 905, Greater Toronto Area, and Vancouver were even greater. These regions had 71% of the number of the number seats that he needed for a majority. For Trudeau there were additional incentives to campaign heavily in Quebec outside of Quebec City. For Harper there were additional incentives to campaign in Southern Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Notably, the Harper government, despite its large number of MPs from the West had nothing to gain from campaigning in Rural Manitoba, Calgary, Rural Alberta, or Interior BC.


The Chretien Liberals started out with incentives to campaign in Ontario, though those diminished substantially after 1993. After that, Chretien had the strongest incentives to campaign to Quebec, Atlantic Canada, and Vancouver. Unsurprisingly, there was little for the Chretien Liberals to gain in Western Canada.


Over the past two decades Canada’s first past the post electoral system has made Greater Toronto Area and the 905 region the focal point of elections. Because of the large number of competitive seats in those regions, it is very difficult for a majority government to be formed without a substantial effort to win votes in either region. Vancouver is also well represented amongst competitive ridings as is Quebec, though less so for the Harper Conservatives. By contrast, parties have very limited incentives to try to appeal to voters in Western Canada, though at times Manitoba and Saskatchewan have been competitive. It is therefore unsurprising that these regions often feel ignored by the federal government. The parties that run the federal government, both Liberal and Conservative rarely have any incentive to try to appeal to interests of Western Canadians.

The way that first past the post affects regional representation is paradoxical. While it ensures there are Members of Parliament from regions across the country, it also significantly skews parties’ incentives to try to appeal to different regions, especially when those parties are seeking majority governments. Parties have little incentive to campaign to regions where they are either very weak or very strong, and as a result have limited incentives to propose or try to enact policies that speak to those regions’ interests.  Better regional representation would be provided by an electoral system that does produces fewer uncompetitive regions in the country.