Just How Divided is BC: Differences Between Regions are not as Large as they Sometimes Appear

With an election in British Columbia provincial election taking place this May, it is worth looking at some of the historic voting patterns in the province. There is a tendency in BC politics to assume that Vancouver Island is largely New Democrat, the interior of the province is Liberal, and the Vancouver region is split between the two parties. The geographic distribution of the parties’ seats generally supports this. BC’s first past the post electoral system, however, tends to produce seat shares that exaggerate regional divides in the province. An examination of the vote shares parties win across the province suggests that different regions are more similar than it sometimes appears. It also demonstrates that the Liberals are strongest not in the Interior, but rather in the municipalities surrounding Vancouver such as Langley, Richmond, and North Vancouver.

To get at the vote support for the Liberals and NDP in different parts of the province, I divided it into 12 regions. In the Interior there is North BC, South East BC, the Okanagan, and Central BC. The Greater Vancouver area is split into Langley/Abbotsford, Surrey, Richmond/Delta, Burnaby/Coquitlam, Vancouver proper, and the North Shore. Finally, Vancouver Island is divided into the Capital Region, including Victoria and the surrounding municipalities, and the Mid/North Island. A list of which ridings are placed in which region is provided in the document below. In my analysis, I look at the results from elections between 1991-2013.

Ridings in Each Region

A look at the vote distribution of the 2013 election shows that, while there are regional discrepancies in parties’ vote shares, there are substantial numbers of Liberals and New Democrats in every part of the province. In no region did the Liberals take much more than half of the vote. The parties’ largest vote share was in the North Shore (including North Vancouver and West Vancouver), where it won just under 54%. The Liberals won over a quarter of the vote in every region of the province, and over a third in every region except for the capital region. Similarly, the NDP vote is reasonably evenly distributed across the province. The party won at least a quarter of the vote in every region and did not win more than half of the vote in any region.

2013 Vote by Region

If one looks at parties’ average vote shares in all elections between 1991 and 2013, a similar trend comes through. In only Langley Abbotsford, Richmond Delta, and the North Shore do the Liberals average more than half of the vote. In their weakest regions in the Capital Region and on the rest of Vancouver Island the party still averages just under 40% of the vote. The NDP has more weak regions than the Liberals, in part because its average vote share is lower across the province. Still, in its weakest regions, Langley Abbotsford and the North Shore, it still averages a quarter of the vote. In its strongest regions, (Burnaby, Vancouver, and the two Vancouver Island regions) the party averages around just 44%.

Average Vote Share by Region

A comparison of the Liberal’s and NDP’s vote share in regions to their overall provincial vote share can demonstrate where parties are particularly strong and weak. The two graphs below show these differences for the 2013 election. Positive scores show regions where a party is disproportionately strong while negative scores show regions where it is weak. The 2013 scores for the Liberals show a party that is strong in parts of the Interior, Langley/Abbotsford, and the North Shore. The Liberals’ success in the Interior, however, was less universal than is sometimes assumed. While the party was disproportionately successful in Northern BC and the Okanagan, it only outperformed its provincial vote share by slightly over one percentage point in South Eastern BC, and by only three percentage points in Central BC.

2013 Difference Between Liberal Regional and Popular Vote

In 2013, the NDP did not underperform in the Interior as much as one might think. Outside of the Okanagan, its Interior vote share was within 4 percentage points of its overall vote share. Where the party struggled was in some of the suburbs outside of Vancouver. The NDP significantly underperformed in Langley/Abbotsford, Richmond/Delta, and on the North Shore. As expected, the party exceeded their vote share in Vancouver (the fact that both the Liberals and NDP over-performed in Vancouver suggests that the Conservatives and possibly the Greens underperformed) and on Vancouver Island.

2013 Difference Between NDP Regional and Popular Vote

The two graphs below show the Liberals’ and NDP’s average performance relative to their total provincial vote share for the 1991-2013 period. The graphs show similar results to the ones that look just at the 2013 election. The exception to this is the Liberal’s scores for interior BC. Outside of the Okanagan, the Liberals have typically equalled or underperformed in the Interior relative to the rest of the province. Some of this underperformance is the result of the presence of Social Credit and Reform candidates in the Interior during the early and mid 1990s. These candidates would have taken support from the Liberals. Like in 2013, the Liberals’ strongest regions are just outside of Vancouver in Langley/Abbotsford, Richmond/Delta, and the North Shore. As in 2013, the NDP does particularly well in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island and particularly poorly in several of the suburban regions surrounding Vancouver.

Average Relative Liberal Success in Regions

Average Relative NDP Success in Regions

A look at the vote share of the Liberals and NDP demonstrates two important things. First, that there are substantial groups of Liberal and NDP supporters in almost every region in the province. Neither party is so dominant that it makes up more than slightly over half the voters in a particular region, and nor is either party so weak that it makes up less than a quarter of voters in any particular region. To a large degree, the way that the first past the post system turns votes into seats overstates the political differences across different regions. Second, it shows that the Liberals’ strongest region is not the Interior, but rather he municipalities just outside of Vancouver. It is in Langley/Abbotsford, Richmond/Delta, and on the North Shore that Liberal most outperforms its provincial vote share.

*Election data comes from BC Pundits Guide.

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One thought on “Just How Divided is BC: Differences Between Regions are not as Large as they Sometimes Appear

  1. Pingback: Who Speaks For British Columbians? First Past the Post Leads to Poor Representation for Interior BC | Somewhere Left of Ottawa

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