Where Did PR do Well? A Look at the Kinds of Ridings that Supported PR

The result of the electoral reform referendum in BC was a disappointment to advocates for proportional representation (PR).  With 61% of voters voting for first past the post, the referendum produced a clear mandate to stick with the current electoral system.  This support was not only large, but it was spread across the province.  In my previous post, I note that first past the post had broad support everywhere except for the centre/east-side of Vancouver and Victoria.  In this post I look at some of the factors that led ridings to vote for PR.  Predictably, ridings that supported the NDP or Greens were more supportive, but there were also a substantial number of NDP ridings that voted for first past the post.  Ridings with a greater population density were also more likely to vote for PR, though not by very much.  Interestingly more ethnically diverse ridings were more likely to vote for first past the post and there was no strong relationship between the support for second and third place candidates and support for PR.

To look at some of the factors that influenced the outcome of the referendum I compared the success of PR to both 2017 election results and demographic data for different ridings.*  This is not ideal as a measure of whether PR did better with some voters than others.  Survey data looking at individual vote choice would be better, but to my knowledge, survey data for the referendum is limited.  In this post I walk through a number of individual variables that could predict referendum outcomes and then look at them together to compare the impacts of the different variables against each other.  I look at support for the NDP and Greens in the previous election, the percentage of voters in a riding that speak a non-official language (unfortunately BC stats does not have immigration or visible minority population data for different ridings), population density, and support for second and third place candidates.

NDP Vote Share

Because the referendum campaign was so partisan (with the NDP and Greens supporting PR and the Liberals approaching it) one would expect support for the NDP and Greens within ridings to match support for PR.  This turns out to be the case.  The upward sloping line in the graph below shows that the more likely a riding was to support the NDP in 2017, the more support in the riding there tended to be for PR.  The “x’s show each riding’s support for PR and for the NDP.  The fact that all but two of the ridings that voted in favour of PR were also ridings where the NDP won at least 40% of the vote highlights the extent to which support for the NDP tended to match support for PR.

NDP Support and Support for PR

At the same time, the graph shows a large number of outlier ridings where NDP support did not translate in to support for PR.  These ridings are shown by the “x”s below the trend line on the right side of the graph.  Further, the correlation between NDP support and support for PR was not strong enough to lead to majority support for proportional representation in most ridings in which the NDP did well.  While the trend line is upward sloping, it also shows a trend in which ridings need at least 60% support for the NDP for them to be expected to see majority support (marked by the red line in the graph) for PR.  Indeed, of the ridings in which the NDP won at least 40% of the vote in the last election, only 14 (32% of all ridings in which the NDP won more than 40%) saw majority support for PR.  The NDP were able to translate some of their support in 2017 into support for electoral reform, but not nearly enough to give it a chance of passing.

Green Vote Share

There is a stronger relationship between support for the Green party and support for PE.  This is expected.  The Green party would benefit the most from electoral reform and therefore had the strongest incentive to mobilize their supporters in favour of it.  Green voters also had a strong interest in supporting PR so that they could increase their party’s representation in the legislature.  The graph below shows this relationship, and that any riding where the Greens saw at least 30% of the vote saw either majority support for PR or close to majority support.

Green Support and Support for PR

Unfortunately for advocates of electoral reform, there simply are not enough ridings in which the Greens got a large share of the vote for the correlation between Green support and support for PR to make much of a difference in the referendum.  There were only 7 ridings in 2017 where the Greens got close to or more than 30% of the vote.  Winning majority support (or close to majority support) in these ridings was not enough to substantially affect the referendum result.

Minority Languages

Advocates for PR made the argument that electoral reform would benefit immigrant and ethnic minorities.  I am skeptical of this argument.  Geographic concentration under first past the post should make it easier for immigrants and minorities to get elected in diverse ridings and force parties to be responsive to their concerns.  Nonetheless, it is still worth looking at whether advocates’ argument gained traction with minorities.  Ideally, I would be able to measure this by looking at whether ridings with larger numbers of immigrants or visible minorities voted for proportional representation, but unfortunately BC Stats does not have data for the number of immigrants or visible minorities in particular ridings.  As a result, I use the percentage of individuals who report a mother tongue other than English, French, or an indigenous language as a proxy for the number of immigrants and minorities in a given riding.

The graph below shows no relationship between how ethnically diverse a riding is and support for PR.  The trend line is slightly downward sloping.  This indicates, if anything, a negative relationship (though the shallow slope of the line suggests one should not read too much into this negative relationship).  Later in this piece, I will show that when one controls for party support, density, and a number of other factors, this negative relationship gets stronger.  There is no evidence here that advocates for electoral reform were able to convince immigrants and ethnic minorities to support PR.  If anything, ridings with more immigrants and ethnic minorities were more likely to support first past the post.

Language and Support for PR

Population Density

There was a substantial amount of concern expressed during the referendum about what would happen to local representation under PR.  The different systems in the referendum were designed to provide some degree of local representation, but this was easier to do in more densely populated parts of the provinces.  Any proportional system would require combining some ridings together.  This is less of a problem in densely populated urban areas where ridings are quite small, but is a problem in rural areas with ridings already cover a large area.  Thus, one would expect that smaller, more densely populated ridings, would be more likely to support PR.

The graph below shows that this is indeed the case.  While there is a substantial degree of variation and a large number of outliers, the general trend suggests that the more densely populated a riding is, the more voters in the riding backed electoral reform.  Like with support for the NDP though, support in even the more densely populated ridings tended to be below 50%.  This suggests that advocates of proportional representation needed to do a better job of winning over the easier voters to convince, those for whom enlarged ridings and less fine-grained local representation would have been less of a concern.

Support for PR and Pop Density

Votes for Losing Candidates

One of the major concerns often noted with first past the post is the potential for voters to end up “wasting” votes.  Votes that do not go to one of the top two candidates in a riding have no impact on who wins the riding.  Further, voters that vote for a candidate that finishes second may feel unrepresented in the legislature because their vote did not go towards the election of an MLA.  The number of people who feel this way will not be equal across ridings.  In ridings where a candidate wins with a large vote share most voters may feel satisfied with their representative and therefore with the electoral system that led that representative to be elected.  In ridings where a large number of voters voted for a losing candidate a large number of voters may be unsatisfied with the electoral system that led to election of a candidate they did not like.

The graph below shows that proportional representation did not tend to receive more support in ridings with more voters that supported a candidate that finished second or third.  There is a positive trend line, but it is largely driven by three ridings in which few voters voted for a losing candidate and few voters supported proportional representation.  If one looks at ridings where 40%-60% of voters voted for a second or third place candidate one sees a range of levels of support for proportional representation.  This, coupled with a lack of statistical significance in the tests that combine different variables shown later in this post, suggest that PR did not do particularly well in ridings where large numbers of voters supported losing candidates.  Advocates of PR often argue that such systems are better than first past the post systems because they ensure every vote goes towards electing a representative.  The results from the referendum suggests that these arguments failed to gain traction in the ridings where they would have been most relevant,

Support for 2nd and 3rd Parties and PR

Combined Analysis

It is worth looking at the impacts of these different variables in relation to each other.  To do this I run four multivariate regression analyses that include a couple of variations of the variables discussed above.  To get at whether combined NDP/Green support affected support for proportional representation I ran two models that look at combined support instead of support for each party.  To look at whether support for a third-place candidate had a stronger impact than support for a losing candidate I ran a test that looked only at support for the third-place candidate.  The results for all of these models are shown in the table below.  Ultimately, I found that the model using the variables discussed above, coupled with a measure for the margin of victory of the winning candidate, best explained variation in support for PR across ridings and so used that model as a basis for comparison.  This is listed in the table as model 4.

Screen Shot 2018-12-24 at 9.33.16 AM

The table shows that support for the Green party had the strongest impact on whether a riding voted for electoral reform.  For every percentage point of support the Green party won in a riding the riding’s support for proportional representation increased by an average of 0.97 percentage points.  Support for the NDP had the next strongest impact on support for PR, with a percentage point increase in support for the NDP increasing support for PR by 0.73 percentage points.  Finally, density had a small, but statistically significant, impact on support for PR.  For every 100 people per km2 increase in density in a riding support for PR increased by 0.16 percentage points.  Ethnic diversity decreased support for proportional representation.  For every one percentage point increase in the number of people in the riding that speak a non-official language as their mother tongue support for PR dropped by 0.23 percentage points.  When support for the NDP and Greens are controlled for, votes for losing parties actually has a negative impact on support for PR, with ridings with a larger number of voters for second and third place candidates seeing lower support for proportional representation.  This result is only statistically significant at the 90% confidence level in the final model, so I do not have much confidence in it.

The graph below shows the predicted impacts of the four most important variables for different values of each variable.  The dotted lines show the margins of error for the impact of each variable for a 95% confidence level.  The strongest impacts are for the two partisan variables with the Green party having a stronger impact on support than the NDP (though the differences between the two parties is within the margin of error for a 95% confidence level).  In contrast to the support for the NDP and Greens, the impact of population density is quite small.  Finally, the impact of minority language speakers on a riding is substantial but also smaller than that for support for parties.

Marginal Effects on Support for PR


An analysis of where PR won a substantial number of votes suggests that partisanship played an important role in the referendum.  Ridings with more Green and NDP supporters generally saw higher levels of support for proportional representation.  At the same time, the NDP did not convert their supporters into PR supporters at a high enough rate to lead to a pro-proportional representation vote in the referendum.  The analysis also shows that, while population density did play some role in determining support for PR, that advocates could have done more to win over voters in high density ridings where local representation would have been less of an impediment to support for electoral reform.  These results further show evidence that two arguments that advocates for electoral reform made failed to get traction.  Most notably the less well supported claim that immigrants and ethnic minorities benefit from PR failed to lead more diverse ridings to vote for PR.  Second, the argument that PR ensures more people elect a representative they prefer, while true, failed to get lead ridings with larger numbers of people that voted for a losing candidate to vote for PR.  When examining what worked and what did not in their campaign, advocates for electoral reform should pay careful attention to a number of these areas where they could have made more gains or where their arguments failed to gain traction.

*Demographic data comes from BC stats.


Not Just the Interior: A Quick Regional Breakdown of BC Electoral Reform Results

The results for the BC electoral reform results are in and it is a decisive win for first past the post.  61% of British Columbians voted to keep first past the post while just 39% voted for proportional representation.  I will do a more in depth analysis on this over the next couple of days, but thought it would be worth posting a very quick regional breakdown of the results.  The results show majority support for first past the post in most of the province and strong support outside of Vancouver and Vancouver Island.

I grouped ridings into 5 regions, the Northern Interior, Southern Interior, Lower Mainland surrounding Vancouver, Vancouver/Burnaby, and Vancouver Island.  Results in the region are shown in the graph below.  In the Interior and Lower Mainland two thirds of voters backed first past the post.  In Vancouver/Burnaby and Vancouver Island a narrow majority of voters backed first past the post.

Support for PR by Region

It is interesting that there is no distinguishable difference between support for proportional representation in the Interior and the non-Vancouver/Burnaby Lower Mainland ridings.  It was certainly to be expected that the large ridings in the Interior would see low support for PR given the negative effects that PR can have on local representation in places with low population density.  The Lower Mainland ridings in and around Vancouver are more densely populated, though, and still would have had reasonable local representation under a proportional system.  This suggests that PR advocates had to do more to reach the Vancouver suburban voters who may have been more persuadable than Interior voters in more rural parts of the province.

It is also interesting that Vancouver Island voted in favour of first past the post despite a strong pro-PR campaign in the Victoria areas.  Indeed, each Victoria area riding except Saanich South voted in favour of PR.  This suggests that PR advocates needed to do more to reach out to Islanders outside of Victoria.  It is a problem for PR supporters that first past the post won majority support ridings like Nanaimo, Nanaimo North Cowichan, and Cowichan Valley.

As noted earlier there will be more analysis in the days to follow.  This regional breakdown suggests that pro-PR campaign had significant problems reaching beyond Victoria and the centre of Vancouver.


Beyond the Leader: Issues May be A Larger Problem for the NDP in 2019 than Leadership

It has not been a good year for Jagmeet Singh.  Singh was chosen leader in the hopes that he had the kind of charisma that could challenge the Trudeau Liberals.  Instead, he has seen incumbents retire, filings that showed the party deep in debt at the end of 2017, a by-election in Leeds Grenville Thousand Islands Rideau Lakes that saw the party at the level of support they had in the 1990s, and poll numbers under 15%.  If that is not enough, Conservative criticisms of the Liberals are taking public focus away from the kinds of issues that the NDP can use to differentiate themselves from the Liberals.  A 2019 election that is fought over a carbon tax and immigration will be bad for the NDP.  Such an election will allow the Liberals to set themselves as the progressive fighting centre-right Conservatives, and will leave the NDP struggling to remain relevant.

Scholars of Canadian and comparative politics have often pointed to the success of the Liberal party as a puzzle.  Across the industrialized world centre parties tend to struggle, getting squeezed between centre-right parties that steal their centre-right voters and centre-left parties that steal their centre-left voters.  The Liberal party has always stood out, not only for its ability to resist these pressures, but for dominating Canadian electoral politics through much of the post-war era.  The Liberals have been able to do this by finding issues that do not fit neatly into the left/right spectrum.  Be it national unity, national identity, multiculturalism and immigration, or regional brokerage, the Liberals were able to win elections by finding ways to appeal to voters on issues that did not fit neatly with the left/right spectrum.

What was good for the Liberals was bad for the NDP.  As a centre-left party trying to represent voters along class lines, the NDP was consistently frustrated by the relatively low profile of left/right issues.  While the NDP could claim to represent working class voters looking for larger social programs, it never found a way to gain the kind of credibility on national unity or regional politics in the way that the Liberals had.  The result was that the NDP struggled to demonstrate that they could speak to the issues most important to voters in the way that the Liberals could.  This was demonstrated most strikingly in 1988 when the party was on the verge of its first breakthrough.  At the outset of the election it looked possible that the party might pass the Liberals to become the official opposition.  When the election became a debate over free trade this opportunity disappeared.  The Liberals cast themselves as the opponents of Mulroney’s free trade agreement with the United States.  This left the NDP as the other party against free trade.  Anti-free trade voters moved from the NDP to the Liberals leaving the NDP in third place.

These dynamics appeared to be coming to an end in the 2000s.  As the referendum on Quebec’s independence faded from voters’ memories and national unity became less important to Canadian federal elections the Liberals started to struggle.  In elections that were largely about left/right politics the Conservatives pulled centre-right voters away from the Liberals while the NDP pulled away centre-left voters.  This culminated in the 2011 election where the Liberals fell to third place for the first time in Canadian history.  The Liberal revival in 2015 is a bit of a puzzle, though it could be attributed to a mix of the Liberals recasting themselves as a centre-left party, the inability of the NDP to respond to a proposed niqab ban in a way that held their soft-nationalist Quebecois/pro-multicultural English Canadian coalition together, and strategic voting.

Two issues that were prominent this year have the potential to prevent the 2019 election from being about left/right class politics.  The first is the carbon tax.  Both leaders of provincial conservative parties and the federal Conservative party have attacked Trudeau’s carbon tax plan, making it a major issue a federal-provincial meetings, and in the case of Saskatchewan, an issue that has been taken the courts.  This should benefit the Liberals, at least in so far as it gives them an issue which they can use to pull the election away from the class politics that benefit the NDP.  As the party that first proposed the carbon tax in 2008 and is now putting it into practice, the Liberals have earned a great deal of credibility on the issue.  This leaves the NDP in a difficult spot.  They can also propose a carbon tax, but that does nothing to distinguish them from the Liberals.  Given a choice between two parties favouring a carbon tax, environmentalist voters are likely to go with the party that got there first and that has the power to implement it.  The NDP could opt for more radical environmentalist positions, but that risks alienating the more moderate voters they need to grow their party.  It also may take them towards positions that are similar to the Green party.  Outside of the pacific coast of BC, where Liberal support for the Trans Mountain pipeline may move some environmentalists to the NDP, a debate between the Conservatives and Liberals over a carbon tax leaves the NDP with little ability to differentiate themselves from the Liberals.

The carbon tax also has the potential to split NDP voters.  While the NDP has lots of urban progressive voters who favour a carbon tax, it also has significant numbers of working-class voters and Northern rural voters who may be hurt by such a proposal.  While a carbon tax probably is not the main thing responsible for auto-plant closures in Southern Ontario, it probably does not help them.  Unionized auto-workers who traditionally vote NDP in such places may be legitimately concerned about what a carbon tax means for their future employment.  The potential for this split is likely why the NDP has been more reluctant to support a carbon tax than the Liberals.  At the federal level the NDP opposed such a policy in 2008 when the Liberals proposed it, and in BC the NDP campaigned against the carbon tax in 2009 (before supporting its increase in subsequent elections).  The NDP is probably better off supporting the tax than they are opposing it, but they still stand to lose some support by backing a carbon tax.  An election where the carbon tax is a central issue is probably not good for the party.

The second issue that can hurt the NDP in 2019 is immigration.  Andrew Scheer has recently (with significant factual errors) been criticizing the Liberals for Trudeau’s commitment to the UN Compact on Migration.  This, coupled with the increasing amount of public discourse over border crossings and the rise of far-right anti-immigrant populists across the industrialized world, suggests that immigration could be a major point of contention between the Liberals and Conservatives in 2019.  This is serious problem for the NDP.  The Liberals have a long legacy as the pro-immigration, pro-multicultural party in Canada.  Liberal governments de-racialized Canada’s immigration policy and introduced Canada’s first multiculturalism policies.  In most elections the Liberals have had a significant advantage over the other parties when it comes to winning the support of immigrant, visible minority, and ethnic minority voters.  More recently, the Liberals’ commitment to accept refugees in 2015 was a major policy promise in that election.  While the NDP also has a history of support for multiculturalism and immigration, the Liberal governments’ past actions on the issue and their historically deep support amongst immigrant voters will make it very difficult for the NDP to out-multicultural the Liberals.  If 2019 is about immigration and multiculturalism, the NDP will struggle to differentiate themselves from the more competitive Liberal party.

To add to this, multiculturalism and immigration has the potential to split the NDP voter coalition.  Across the industrialized world centre-left parties are struggling to find a way to find a balance between their socially progressive pro-multicultural supporters and less anti-multicultural voters many of whom are working class.  The NDP may have similar problems.  On top of this, the NDP needs soft-nationalists in Quebec to support them in order to be competitive in the province (and the NDP needs to competitive in Quebec to be competitive in federal elections).  Ideas around secularism and prohibitions on religious symbols worn by government employees that are often popular amongst these soft-nationalist voters tend to be opposed English Canadian social progressives who tend to support the NDP.  It is hard for the NDP to find a position on multiculturalism that does not either hurt their support in Quebec or hurt their support in English Canada.  Not only do immigration and multiculturalism issues give the NDP little ability to differentiate themselves from the Liberals, these issues may also divide the voter coalition that NDP needs in order to be successful.

Much has been made this year of Jagmeet Singh and his struggles to appeal to voters.  Singh still has time, though, to build a national profile.  It is also hard to judge the charisma and campaigning ability of leaders until they have had a chance to campaign.  The bigger challenge for the NDP may be the issues that are important in the 2019 election.  An election about environmentalism and immigration allows the Liberals to play to their strengths as a socially progressive, economically centrist, party.  Such an election would see the class issues on which the NDP can more easily differentiate themselves from the Liberals downplayed and may leave the party struggling to gain traction.  In the worst-case scenario, both environmentalism and multiculturalism could split the NDP’s voters separating urban progressives from some working-class voters and from soft Quebecois nationalists.  The issues that are important in the 2019 election could be one of the major barriers to NDP success in 2019.