A Divided Electorate: Even though the Overall BC Result was Close, Few Ridings Were

The 2017 BC election was very close, so much so, that it is still unclear as to whether Liberals have won a majority or whether the province is in a minority situation. Absentee ballots from close ridings such as Courtney-Comox and Maple Ridge Mission will determine whether the Liberals will win the 44 seats needed for a majority. There is a paradox in this election’s results though. Despite the fact that the overall race was very close, few ridings were. This election had more uncompetitive ridings (where the margin victory was greater that 10 percentage points) than the 2013, 2009, or 2005 elections. This highlights a problem in BC politics as it gives politicians an incentive to narrow the focus of their campaigns to a small proportion of the electorate.

The graph below shows the percentage of all ridings that were competitive in each of the last four elections in BC. The blue bars show the percentage of ridings where the difference between the first and second place candidates was 5 percentage points or less and the red bars the percentage of ridings where it was 10 percentage points or less. It is remarkable, that if the current results hold, only 8 percent of ridings (7 total) were decided by a 5 percentage point margin. This was the case even though the rise of the Green party threatened to make several previously safe NDP seats on Vancouver Island competitive. Three of these ridings were very close. Coquitlam Burke Mountain, Courtney Comox, and Maple Ridge Mission have margins that are currently within 1 percentage point, and the winner in these ridings may change after absentee votes are counted or after a re-count. Richmond Queensborough, Vancouver False Creek, Fraser-Nicola, and Vancouver Fraserview were also had margins of five percentage points or less on election night. The margin of victory in most other ridings, however, was fairly substantial

BC Competitive Ridings

The large number of ridings that are uncompetitive is concerning. Parties have incentives to tailor both their campaigns and their policies to competitive ridings. A party has little incentive to be highly responsive to the interests of individuals in ridings it has no chance of winning. Similarly, a party has a reduced incentive to take into account the interests of those who live in ridings that it is almost certain to win. Increasing one’s margin of victory in a safe seat has no impact on a party’s strength in the legislature. As the number of competitive ridings becomes smaller, parties have an increasing incentive to narrow the focus of their campaigns and policies to the few ridings that will determine the outcome of the election. This leaves more and more voters’ interests unaccounted for. In particularly close elections like this one, where a few very close ridings can determine who forms government, parties’ campaigns can end up being highly targeted at swing ridings. This hurts the representation of voters who live in safe seats.

An examination of where competitive ridings are in the province highlights how this can be problematic. The graph below shows the percentage of races in each region that had margins of victory of 5 percentage points or less in different parts of the province*. It demonstrates that there is a great deal of variation in competitiveness across regions. In Burnaby and New Westminster half of the races between 2005 and 2017 had margins of victory of 5 percentage points or less. In Victoria proper (excluding suburbs such as Saanich or Oak Bay), no races in any of the past four elections have been that competitive.

Percent of Ridings With 5% (2005-2017)

When one looks at ridings that had margins of victory of 10 percentage points or less, there is still a great deal of regional imbalance. Suburbs around Vancouver (Burnaby and the area around Coquitlam- PoCoMo in the graph), Chilliwack and Fraser Valley, the ridings surrounding but not in Victoria (Saanich and Oak Bay), as well as the Southern ridings in Vancouver are all reasonably competitive. Other parts of the province such as Langley and Abbotsford, Victoria proper, and the North part of Surrey are almost completely uncompetitive.

Percent of Ridings With 10% (2005-2017)

The distribution of competitive ridings has implications for public debate and policy. Parties have little incentive to emphasize issues and to pass policy that speak to parts of the province that are not competitive. It can be a challenge, for example, to try to get parties to properly address something like the fentanyl crisis when it disproportionately affects uncompetitive seats in the Northeast of Vancouver. In contrast, policies on toll bridges that affect competitive ridings in and around Coquitlam and Maple Ridge can end up getting a great deal of attention. The fewer competitive ridings there are in the province, the more public discourse and public policy will be distorted in favour of those that live in competitive parts of the province.

The drop in the number competitive ridings in the 2017 BC election is concerning. This, coupled with how close the election was, increases the extent to which parties will target their policy commitments towards the interests of those that live in competitive seats. This can lead to problematic policy making that ignores important issues in the province.

* Election data and the ridings that are included in each region are taken from BC pundits guide.

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