Who Speaks For British Columbians? First Past the Post Leads to Poor Representation for Interior BC

I my last post I argued British Columbia’s regions are less different politically than they sometimes appear to be. The way that first past the post over-represents parties with a plurality of the vote in a particular region can overstate the extent to which the region backs a particular party. The Liberals, for example, appear stronger than they are in Interior BC, while the NDP appears to be stronger than it is on Vancouver Island. This creates problems with respect to representation in the legislature. The extent to which first past the post increases the regional seat share of a party with a plurality of the vote in a region leaves significant numbers of voters poorly represented. In this post, I look at which voters have been under-represented in BC elections. To do so I group ridings into the same regions as I did in my last post, and look at elections between 1991 and 2013.

A look at the 2013 election shows that parts of Interior BC, some of the suburbs around Vancouver, and Vancouver Island are poorly represented in the legislature. The graph below shows the difference between a party’s seat percentage and vote percentage across the different regions. A positive score means a party has a greater share of seats than its share of the vote and a negative score means the opposite is the case. The Liberal party is significantly over-represented in the Okanagan, Central BC, Langley/Abbotsford, Richmond/Delta, and the North Shore. In all of these regions, except for Richmond/Delta, the Liberals’ seat share is over 45 percentage points higher than their vote share. The NDP is over-represented in the Capital Region (in and around Victoria) and on the rest of Vancouver Island. In and around Victoria the NDP’s seat share was 40 percentage points higher than its vote share and on the rest of the Island it was 31 points higher.

2013 Disproportionality By Region

A look at average disproportionality across all elections between 1991-2013 shows a similar pattern. While the disproportionality is not as great as it was in 2013, the Liberals have significantly more seats than their vote share in the Okanagan, Langley/Abbotsford, Richmond/Delta, and the North Shore. The NDP, as in 2013, is over-represented in the Capital Region and on the rest of Vancouver Island. This suggests that the lack of representation that occurred in 2013 is persistent over time. It is not the case that in some years some voters lack legislative representation while in others different voters do. Rather, New Democrats in the Okanagan and some of the Vancouver suburbs are consistently under-represented. This is also the case for Liberals on Vancouver Island.

Average Disproportionality by Region

A look at 2013 NDP and Liberal vote and seat shares underscores how this regional over-representation can be problematic. In 2013, the NDP did not win a single seat in the Okanagan, Central BC, Langley/Abbotsford, Richmond/Delta, or the North Shore. This happened despite the fact that they won a quarter to a third of the vote in each of those regions. This meant that a quarter to a third of voters in each of those regions went un-represented in the last legislative session. The same is true for the same is true for the just over a quarter of voters in Capital Region that voted Liberal yet failed elect a single Liberal MLA.

2013 NDP Seat and Vote Percentage

2013 Liberal Seat and Vote Percentages

This has important implications for the way British Columbians are represented. A New Democrat in Vancouver or Victoria is not going to have the same political interests as a New Democrat in Interior British Columbia. Vancouverites and Victorians, for example, are likely to be more concerned about urban issues, such as transit policy, while Interior British Columbians are likely to more concerned with other issues, such as those surrounding resource extraction and logging. The same is true for Liberals. Liberals in Victoria are not going to be well represented by MLAs from the interior. At the same time, the fact that individuals are voting for a different party suggests that they will not be well represented by the MLAs elected in their constituencies. The result is a situation where significant numbers of British Columbians have no one to speak on their behalf in the legislature.

This is a fundamental problem with first past the post electoral systems. Because only one party can win a seat, there will always be groups of voters whose votes do not contribute to electing an MLA. In regions where a party is particular strong, there is always the danger that a party will be shut out and that voters backing that party will have no one in the legislature to represent their interests.

*Election data comes from BC Pundits Guide.

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