Votes and Homes: Why Electoral Reform Matters to Housing Policy in British Columbia

This summer will be an interesting one in BC politics, especially for Attorney General David Eby.  His department is overseeing the development of the rules and question for BC’s upcoming referendum on electoral reform.  Both will play a role in whether the NDP and Green’s efforts to introduce proportional representation to BC will be successful.  At the same time, as the MLA for Vancouver Point Grey, Eby has become the target of protests over the NDP’s new levy on properties worth more than $3 million.  While these issues may seem separate, they are connected.  BC’s current first past the post electoral system makes it essential for the NDP and Liberals to compete over swing districts, including well-off ones like Vancouver Point Grey.  A move to a more proportional electoral system will reduce the importance of these districts, and as a result, the political cost of some of the housing and affordability policies the NDP are pursuing.

Electoral systems shape different voters’ influence over elections.  Under first past the post, where voters live will determine their influence over the election result.  Voters in ridings that one party dominates have limited influence over elections.  No matter who they vote for, it is very likely the dominant party will win the riding.  This is not the case for voters in competitive, or swing, ridings.  In these ridings, the increased competitiveness means a voters’ decision to switch their support from one party to another is more likely to affect which party wins the riding.  In proportional systems, the total number of seats in the legislature a party depends on the party’s vote share across the province, and so where voters live does not change their influence over election results.

The way that electoral systems shape the influence of different voters will affect the political consequences of the NDP’s housing policies.  The party made gains in the last few elections by winning seats in the west and south of Vancouver and in the suburbs.  These ridings include Vancouver Point Grey and Vancouver Fairview (though this riding also has a significant number of low income voters).  The NDP’s future success may depend on the party making gains in similar ridings such as Vancouver False Creek.  Several swing ridings will have significant numbers of home owners likely to be affected by increases in property taxes and other policies designed to bring down housing prices.  Meanwhile, lower housing prices and other programs that make BC’s cities more affordable will disproportionately benefit voters in low income ridings, such as those on the east side of Vancouver (one might think of Vancouver Mount Pleasant and Vancouver Kingsway here).  These are ridings that the NDP already wins by large margins.  Essentially, policies that impose costs on well-off homeowners are likely to hurt the NDP in the swing ridings they need to win power, while winning them votes in ridings they already win by large margins.  These may be good policies, but they are risky politics.

Electoral reform offers the NDP a way out of this problem by reducing the importance of votes in swing ridings relative to those in low income NDP strongholds.  Under such a proportional system, NDP losses in places with large numbers of wealthy home owners, such as Point Grey, could be offset by gains in low income areas of the province such as Mount Pleasant.  This would be the case even if those gains came in parts of the province that they already win by large margins.

This challenge is not unique to British Columbia.  Low income voters in many countries tend to be geographically concentrated in working class urban ridings, while middle and high-income voters tend to be more spread out.  Under first past the post electoral systems, this produces a dynamic where key swing ridings tend to be more well-off than the average and median individuals in a particular country or province*.  As left-wing electoral coalitions shift to include alliances of low-income and well-off cosmopolitan urban voters the extent to which left parties are reliant on urban upper middle-class swing ridings is likely to only increase.  In turn, this will increase the political costs faced by left parties that try to put in place policies that benefit low income voters at the expense of high income ones.

It is unlikely that the NDP are pursuing electoral reform specifically because of the political impacts of their housing and affordability policies.  There is too much uncertainty around the prospects of electoral reform, and the policies are too far apart on the government agenda for this to be the case.  At the same time, these policies highlight the ways in which electoral reform can matter to politics in ways that go beyond determining the numbers of seats each party has in the legislature.  They shape the incentives parties have to respond to different voters and the political risks parties take by implementing different policies.  As a result, it is important to think about the way that electoral reform has implications for policies that impact housing and affordability.

* For more on this it is worth looking at Rodden, Jonathan (2010). “The Geographic Distribution of Political Preferences.” Annual Review of Political Science. 13:321-340.

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Did the BC Liberals Get the Right Leader? Comparing the BC Liberal Candidates’ Success in Ridings to Liberal Margins

The race to replace Christy Clark as BC Liberal leader concluded this month with Andrew Wilkinson defeating Dianne Watts on the final ballot.  Both Wilkinson and Watts have connections to the Lower Mainland, where a large number of swing ridings from the last election are located.  Wilkinson is the MLA for Vancouver Quilchena while Watts was the MP for South Surrey White Rock Cloverdale prior to being mayor of Surrey.  This suggests that both have an ability to build Liberal support in one of the more competitive areas of the province.  It is worth examining the relationship between these candidates, as well as the others, with the success of the Liberals in different ridings in the past two elections.  While success in swing ridings in a Liberal leadership race will not necessarily translate into success in a general election, it demonstrates that the leader has support amongst the partisans that will play a vital role in winning the ridings that the Liberals will need in the next election.  The three strongest leadership candidates, Watts, Wilikinson, and Michael Lee all did quite well in the ridings that were competitive in the last election, suggesting that all three will have an important role to play if the Liberals are to be successful in the next election.

Like the federal Conservatives, the BC Liberals use a riding based points system to determine their leader.  Each riding in the province is worth 100 points and each candidate wins 1 point for every 1% of the vote they win in each riding.  The party also uses a preferential ballot.  To win a candidate must have at least 50% of all available points.  If after one round of counting no candidate has a majority of points, the candidate with the fewest points is eliminated and their votes are moved to that candidates’ voters’ second choices.  This system allows me to compare each candidate’s level of support in a riding to the BC Liberal’s margin of victory of defeat in the past two elections (with winning margins counted as positive margins and losing margins counted as negative ones).  Redistricting between the 2017 and 2013 election makes this comparison more difficult for the 2013 election, but fortunately Pundit’s Guide BC has estimated 2013 vote shares for the 2017 riding boundaries.

On the first ballot Michael Lee and Dianne Watts had a significant advantage in close ridings.  The two graphs below show the average support for each candidate in ridings that the Liberals either won by 10% or less or lost by 10% or less.  The first graph looks at ridings which were close in 2017.  The second looks at ridings in which the average margin between the 2017 and 2013 elections was close.  Lee and Watts are more or less tied in ridings that were close in 2017 while Watts is the stronger candidate by two percentage points in the ridings that had a 2017/2013 average margin that was close.  This suggests that it will be important for the Liberals to keep both active in the party in the run up to the next election.  Both were able to mobilize substantial amounts of support in ridings the party will need to win to be competitive in the future.

Support in Ridings Close in 2017

Support in Close Ridings (2017, 2013 avg)

Though the first ballot demonstrates that Lee and Watts did well in Liberal swing ridings, the final ballot shows that Wilkinson also has support in these ridings.  On the final ballot Wilkinson averaged a 1 percentage point lead in ridings that were close in 2017 and almost a 2 percentage point lead in ridings that had a close average margin between 2017 and 2013.  While Wilkinson certainly needs to reach out to Lee and Watts supporters in order to win in competitive ridings, he is not completely dependent upon them.

A comparison of Wilkinson’s and Watts’ support across all ridings shows divergent trends.  The graph below shows Wilkinson’s support was higher in ridings in which the Liberals did better in 2017 compared to ridings in which they did worse.  By contrast, Watts did better in ridings that the Liberals did in worse in than she did in ridings where the Liberals did better.  However, Wilkinson tended to do better than Watts regardless of how well the Liberals did in a riding.  There is a substantial gap between Wilkinson’s and Watts’ vote share in the ridings clustered around the 0 Liberal margin in the graph.  This further demonstrates that Wilkinson has substantial support in competitive ridings.  Watts’ vote shares are also substantial, and so her supporters cannot be ignored, but Wilkinson will not be reliant on them to win close ridings either.  Both sides will have to work together in order to be competitive.

Last Ballot Spport Compared to Liberal Success

Of the three strongest candidates not to make it to the last ballot (I omitted Sam Sullivan because of his low vote share across all ridings), Michael Lee stands out as the strongest in close ridings.  Lee’s support goes up as the Liberal margin of victory decreases, and there is a bit of a gap between Lee and the other two candidates in the ridings that the Liberals either won by a narrow margin or lost.  Both Mike De Jong and Todd Stone did better in ridings where the Liberals were stronger than they did in ridings where the party was weaker.  Stone’s average support only passes Lee’s in ridings where the Liberal won by over 30 percentage points, while De Jong is stronger than the other two candidates in only a handful of ridings.  This highlights the particular need for Wilkinson to reach out to Lee’s supporters.  They make up substantial shares of Liberal supporters in close ridings, while Stone’s and De Jong’s supporters tend to be concentrated in ridings that Liberals already win by substantial margins.

First Ballot Support Compared to Liberal Margin

The BC Liberals were lucky in that all three of their top candidates posted good showing in the ridings that they were close in in 2017 and 2013.  As such, a victory by any of the three candidates would have put them in decent position to contest the next election.  Assuming that the election is contested under a first past the post electoral system (which may not be the case), the party will need supporters of all three to work together in order to ensure the party is competitive in swing ridings across the province.

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It’s Complicated: As British Columbia Embarks on a Debate Over Electoral Reform It Is Important to Pay Careful Attention to the Complexity of the Debate

This fall British Columbia will have a referendum on electoral reform.  The government is currently conducting consultations, and both advocates and opponents are making their voices heard on the matter.  Despite the subject’s complexity, nuanced viewpoints are disappointing rare in debates over electoral reform.  Advocates of proportional representation tend to suggest that it can fix all of democracies problems, from increasing voter turnout to increasing women’s and minorities’ representation, to making government’s more representative of the population.  Opponents suggest that proportional representation will ruin democracy, paving the way for the emergence of extremist parties and the creation of legislatures with so many parties that functional government becomes impossible.  Much of this debate misses the complexity that is involved with electoral reform.  No electoral system is perfect, all involve making trade-offs, and the extent to which an electoral system accomplishes any particular goals depends on the details regarding the way the system is designed.  British Columbians should pay careful attention to these trade-offs and details.

An essential thing to consider when debating electoral systems is the trade-offs that need to be made when deciding between systems.  Every electoral system has its costs and benefits.  Advocates of proportional representation often point to disproportionality as one of the central problems with first past the post, and are right to do so.  It is problematic that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals can win a majority government with 39% of the vote under a first past the post system.  The small proportion of the vote needed to win a majority creates further problems as it incentivizes parties to focus their campaigns disproportionately on a narrow groups of swing voters that live in swing ridings.  The fewer the number of voters needed to win a majority, the lower the incentive parties have to run broad-based campaigns that reach across the electorate.  By ensuring that a parties’ vote share equals its share of the national vote, proportional systems give parties incentives to reach out to swing voters across the electorate, not just to those that live in swing districts.

At the same time, first past the post electoral systems ensure voters have local representatives that they can vote out of office and increases the likelihood that majority governments will be elected.  Variations on proportional systems such as mixed member proportional or single transferable vote (STV) can create space for regional representation within proportional systems, but they either dilute regional representation by adding members of parliament (MPs) elected off of party lists or dramatically increase the complexity of the system making it harder for voters to understand.

Because it is rare that a party ever wins more than 50% of the popular vote, proportional systems inevitably reduce the likelihood of the election of a majority government.  There are merits to minority and coalition governments, as they force parties to work together in government.  At the same time, coalitions can be difficult to form if a large number of parties win election to a legislature (as has been the case in both Germany and the Netherlands after recent elections in both countries).  They can also be unstable, as Israeli coalitions often are.  In some cases, minority governments and coalitions work very well, reflecting the views of a broader range of voters better than majority governments do.  In others, they can be unwieldly and unstable.  It is hard to tell which will be the case until one sees how a particular set of parties works under a particular electoral system.

Opponents of proportional representation will often to point the fact that such systems make it easier for extremist, particularly far-right, parties to enter a legislature.  These claims are generally true as proportional systems usually make it easier for small parties of all types to win seats by reducing the number of votes a party needs in order to win their first few seats.  At the same time, one should not over-state the extent to which first past the post guards against such extremism.  The Front National, UK Independence Party (UKIP), and Donald Trump have all demonstrated that far-right parties and candidates can be successful in first past the post or similar systems (France uses a run-off system that is different from first past the post, but is not a proportional system).  Extremist movements that end up forming their own parties in proportional systems often find their ways into mainstream parties in first past the post systems.  The Canadian Conservatives, for example, saw far-right leadership candidates in Kellie Leitch and Steven Blaney.  Significant numbers of Euroskeptic anti-immigrant voters in Britain that may have supported UKIP in a proportional system have found their way into the British Conservative party.  First past the post systems can make it harder for extremist movements to form their own parties and win seats in a legislature, but they cannot erase such views from society nor can they prevent them from having any influence on politics.

Finally, proponents of proportional representation often argue that such systems increase the representation of women and ethnic minorities in legislatures.  This is only partially true.  Whether a proportional system increases the representation of women often depends on the design of the system and the importance different political parties attach to women’s representation.  It is certainly true that countries with proportional systems such as Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands have some of the highest proportions of women in their national parliaments in the world.  At the same time though, proportional systems in Ireland, Israel, and Slovakia have not kept those countries from having lower levels of women’s representation that non-proportional systems in Canada, France, and the United Kingdom (here is a full ranking of countries with their electoral systems noted).  Ethnic minorities in British Columbia and Canada might have a more difficult time getting elected to parliament if either switches to a proportional system.  First past the post creates districts in places like suburban Vancouver with large numbers of immigrant and ethnic minority voters.  The need to win these seats gives parties strong incentives to be responsive to minorities’ interests and to run minority candidates.  Under a proportional system the number of these ridings would be reduced (in order to allow for the list seats needed to make parties’ seats proportional) or would disappear entirely.

The details regarding how electoral systems work are also important.  There is a tendency amongst both advocates and opponents of proportional representation to divide systems into proportional and non-proportional systems with little reference to how different proportional systems work.  This is problematic because some of the effects of proportional systems will depend greatly on the design of the system.  The extent to which voters will be able to remove MPs they do not like and the level of party discipline will change depending on whether British Columbia adopts an open or closed list system.  Open lists provide voters with the opportunity to choose which MPs will enter parliament for a party, closed lists allow the party to make such a determination.  The decision whether to adopt a party list, mixed member proportional, or single transferable vote system will also shape the incentives MPs have to represent constituents in local ridings.  In list proportional systems, all MPs are elected off of a party list, giving them limited incentives to respond to be concerned with local issues.  In mixed member proportional, around half of MPs come from ridings similar to first past the post ridings, giving some MPs some incentive to be responsive to local concerns.  In single transferable vote, all MPs come from ridings that elect multiple members.  To get elected, MPs must compete, not only with candidates from other parties, but with their own parties as well.  The need to differentiate themselves from other candidates from the same party gives MPs in STV systems particularly strong incentives to be responsive to local concerns and makes it easy for voters to remove MPs they do not like.  Indeed, MPs elected under an STV system may even be more responsive to local concerns than those elected under a first past the post one.

Public debates over electoral systems are challenging.  They are highly complicated, require voters to make careful trade-offs, and require that voters understand highly technical details regarding how different electoral systems work.  At the same time, they are essential.  It is problematic to allow politicians to choose the rules that they compete under with no public input. One of the challenges that British Columbians will face in the run up to the referendum will be carefully understanding how each system works and the trade-offs involved with each electoral system.  In the interests of having a productive debate advocates of different systems should be cognizant of the importance of trade-offs and the details of the different systems when making the case for different electoral systems.

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What We Don’t Know: Some Care Has to be Taken When Anticipating the Consequences of Electoral Reform

Electoral reform is on the political agenda again in British Columbia as the Green supported NDP government has committed to holding a referendum on proportional representation (PR) in 2018. As expected, this has produced contentious debate between advocates and opponents of PR.  The examples used by each side of this debate are predictable.  Advocates of PR point to Germany and sometimes Sweden as examples of how such systems can produce stable, effective, and inclusive governments.  Opponents point to countries such as the Netherlands and Israel as examples of how PR can produce large numbers of parties, unstable governments, and coalitions beholden to fringe parties.  There is some truth to both claims.  Debates over electoral reform require individuals to make guesses as to what will happen in future elections.  This, like much of politics, involves making decisions based on uncertain estimates as to what will happen in the future.

A common argument against proportional representation systems is that they lead to the creation of large numbers of parties, unstable coalitions, and governments that can only hold power if they satisfy the wishes of extremist fringe parties.  The Netherlands and Israel are often pointed to as examples of this.  The last Dutch election saw 13 parties win seats in parliament, the largest of which won just 22% of seats.  It then took 225 days to form a coalition government that included four different parties.  Israel’s last election saw 10 parties enter parliament, the largest of which has just 25% of seats, and features a coalition government with 6 parties.  The coalition includes a nationalist pro-settler party (Jewish Home), a secular nationalist party (Yisrael Beiteinu), two moderate right parties (Likud and Kulanu), and two religious parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism).

It is not clear whether proportional representation in BC or federally would create a party system like the Dutch or Israeli ones.  Proponents of PR point out that a threshold can be used to keep out the weakest of small parties.  A threshold of 4%, however, has not prevented Sweden’s last election from producing a parliament with 8 parties and a weak centre-left minority government coalition that is reliant on support from the centre-right to stay in power.  Indeed, coalition instability in PR systems is not as much a result of the entrance of really small parties as it is the weakness of the largest two parties.  The 5 or 6 parties that win between 5% and 15% of the vote are the parties that create the instability in both Dutch and Israeli coalitions.

The emergence of a large number of parties in PR systems is often driven by the extent to which there are a large number of political cleavages in the country.  This is particularly the case in Israel where divisions over left/right politics, security, ethnicity (both between Arabs and Jews and between Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and Sephardi Jews), and degree of religious observance create space for a wide-range of parties that can all claim to represent different groups of Israelis.

It is hard to imagine that BC and Canadian federal politics would become as divided as Israel, but there may be enough divisions to substantially increase the number of parties competing in elections.  It is plausible that the BC Liberals breaking into a more centrist and fiscally conservative party and a more socially conservative, rural party.  One can also imagine a rural/urban split threatening the NDP’s cohesiveness.  At the federal level regional as well as ideological divides could threaten the stability of Canada’s parties.  The Conservative party could break into more fiscally conservative and socially conservative wings, similar to what was seen with the split between the Progressive Conservatives and Reform in the 1990s.  This could be exacerbated by divides between Western and Ontario/Quebec Conservatives, particularly over issues related to the accommodation of Quebec.  The NDP may also have problems holding together Quebec supporters that might have different views on multiculturalism than the rest of the country and voters that differ on the extent to which they want the NDP to move to the centre in order to win votes.  In both British Columbia and in federal politics it is not hard to imagine the emergence of a far-right party in a PR system given that almost every European country has seen the emergence of such a party.

On the other hand, advocates of PR often point to Germany as a case where PR has produced quite stable governments.  Germany is not an isolated case.  Indeed, many of the countries that are now used as examples of how PR can create unstable governments and party systems have had stable governments under such systems in the past.  Israel was governed by relatively stable Labour led coalitions from its creation in 1948 to 1977.  Italy, which now has so-called “pizza parliaments” with large numbers of parties, was governed by Christian Democrats from the end of WWII to the early 1980s.

There are good reasons to believe that both BC and Canada could end up like Germany.  Canadian parties have a long history of brokering regional and ideological differences.  They are also likely to have a strategic incentive to continue to do this.  Larger parties are more likely to be able to form government.  Even in a PR system, a group of left or right parties that are too fractured may end up conceding government to parties on the other side of the political spectrum.  It is entirely possible that even if regional break-away parties do form that they could be incorporated into permanent alliances with one of the major parties.  This has happened in Germany where the Christian Democratic Union is in a permanent alliance with the Christian Social Union (a party that only runs in Bavaria).  The two parties do not run candidates against each other and always work together in parliament and in government.  Similar arrangements might develop if the NDP breaks into Quebec and rest of Canada factions or if a Western faction were to break away from the Conservatives.

It is finally worth noting that this uncertainty over the future of Canadian parties and government is not limited to proportional representation systems.  Electoral systems do not have to change for party systems to.  Canada saw its party system fracture as a result of regional tensions in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  It is entirely possible that debates over multiculturalism and religious accommodation could create divides between parties in Quebec and the rest of Canada that fracture the Liberal party or NDP, lead to the emergence of a new nationalist party in Quebec, or lead to the revival of the Bloc Quebecois.  The emergence of the Bloc Quebecois and the Reform party in 1993 demonstrates that the first past the post electoral system does not completely protect a party system from insurgent parties (even if it can often make life more difficult for them).  The ability that far-right Republicans such as Donald Trump to gain Republican nominations demonstrates that first past the post systems are not immune to far-right politics.  As much as one should be uncertain about how BC or Canadian politics might change if either adopted a proportional representation electoral system, there is also some uncertainty that would exist if either decides to keep a first past the post electoral system in place.

Uncertainty is a necessary part of politics.  It is impossible to know for certain what the effects of a change in electoral system will be, nor is it possible to say for certain that a first past the post electoral system will ensure stable governments and keep far-right parties out of politics.  With respect to proportional representation there are plausible cases to be made that the adoption of such a system will lead to a stable party system and stable governments similar to Germany (as PR advocates argue), or that such system will lead to more fractured government and party system similar to the Netherlands or Israel (as opponents of PR argue).

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How Much of the Election Could Green Voters Have Changed?

In the wake of a very close election in BC it is worth considering the effect that strategic voting might have had. The rise of the Green party had many leftists in the province concerned that the Greens and NDP might split the vote and allow the Liberals to win several ridings. After the election, it is possible to check to see which ridings might have changed parties had there been more or less strategic voting. A look at the results shows that, because the election was so close, strategic voting could have changed the result. It is important, however, not to overstate strategic voting’s impact. Had the seat difference between the Liberals and NDP been in the range of 5-10 seats, it is unlikely that such voting would have mattered.

The first question that arises with respect to strategic voting, is whether the NDP could have taken more seats from the Liberals had more Green supporters switched their support to the NDP. To test this, I looked at the percentage of Green voters that would have needed to move to the NDP in order for the NDP to match the Liberals’ vote percentage in any particular riding. When doing this I assume that the remaining Green voters stick with the Green party.

The graph below shows that a large number of Green voters would have had to move to the NDP in order to have anything more than a minimal impact on the number of seats that Liberals won. The NDP would have added only two seats to their total had 20% of Green voters switched to them, and only 3 more seats had 40% switched. In addition to this, Green switching to the NDP would have increased the safety of two ridings, Coutney Comox and Mission Maple Ridge, that the NDP barely won and which could switch to the Liberals after absentee ballots are counted or after a re-count. The NDP would have had to win 80% of the Green vote in order to flip 10 seats. For this to happen, the overwhelming majority of Green voters would have had to both prefer the NDP to the Liberals and would have had to decided to vote strategically.

Green Vote Needed to Increase NDP Seats

It is also worth considering the impact that individuals who strategically voted in this election might have had. To do this I looked at the number of NDP seats that the party would have lost had various percentages of NDP voters chosen to vote for the Greens instead.

This analysis also shows that strategic voting had a limited impact on the result. If the NDP lost 5% of its vote, it would only lose two seats. These are the two extremely close seats that may still change hands when absentee votes are counted, Courtney Comox and Mission Maple Ridge. If the NDP lost 10% of its vote, it would lose 3 seats, and if it lost 20% of its vote it would lose 8 seats. If 20%-30% of the NDP vote came from Greens voting strategically, strategic voting affected a large number of seats in this election. Otherwise, Green strategic voting only affected the outcome in couple of seats.

Seats the NDP Would Lose if Their Voters Switched

Because this election was so close, even things that had a small effect on election results mattered. When one or two seats that are decided by less than 1 percentage point make the difference between a majority and a minority government there are a large number of things that affect an election. In such a close race, strategic voting in close ridings matters. In Courtney Comox, Mission Maple Ridge, Coquitlam Burke Mountain, Richmond Queensborough, Vancouver False Creek, and Fraser Nicola the decision over whether to strategic vote mattered. In most other ridings, however, it likely did not.

This has two major implications. First, voters should be very careful to check the competitiveness of their ridings before strategically voting. In a close election, a strategic vote in a close riding can have a critical impact on the election result. In most ridings, however, a strategic voter may not be getting much out of such a vote. Second, moving to an electoral system such as a ranked ballot or run-off that allows voters to, in effect, cast a sincere and a strategic vote (by expressing multiple preferences on her ballot) are unlikely to change election results all that much. Unless 30% of NDP voters are actually Green supporters strategically voting for the NDP, there are few ridings where the Greens would be competitive under a ranked ballot or run-off system. Strategic voting is not a magic bullet that can fix the disproportionality of first past the post electoral system, nor is it a powerful force denying smaller parties like the Greens seats.

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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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Strategic Dilemmas: The Anti-Liberal Vote in the BC Election

Polls in the final two weeks of the BC election show a close race, with the difference between the Liberals and NDP within the margin of error. These polls also show a strong Green vote, at between 14% and 24%. The fact that this is a close race with a strong third party raises questions about whether anti-Liberal voters should vote strategically. In some ridings, strategic voting can indeed play an important role in preventing vote splitting and keeping the Liberals from winning seats. There are, however, many ridings in which strategic voting is not likely to affect the election result.

Strategic voting comes at a cost. Voting has both an instrumental and an expressive value. In addition to determining the strength of the different parties in the legislatures, elections provide an indication of parties’ public support. Elections are an opportunity for voters to send a message to politicians about the types of policies they prefer. When individuals vote strategically that message becomes less clear. New Democrat leaders that see large numbers of Green voters switch to their party may take that as an indication that many Greens prefer the NDP platform. As a result, the NDP may feel its policies on issues like the environment are sufficient to capture views of a large number of BC voters.

This has real implications for the policies that parties pursue. A strong Green party sends a signal to both the NDP and the Liberals that the two party’s policies on issues like the environment are insufficient to win the support of a substantial number of voters. The threat that a strong Green party can take votes from a party like the NDP can force the NDP to adopt some of the Green’s policies. If too many Greens vote strategically, the party will look weaker than it actually is and like less of an electoral threat. This reduces the likelihood that the NDP will try to co-opt Green policies. Thus, strategic voting costs voters the ability to send a clear message to the politicians they elect. This is not to say that individuals should never strategic vote, but rather that they should only do so when the impact such a vote has on election results outweighs the costs of such a vote.

Whether a strategic vote is worth the cost, depends on the kind of riding a voter lives in. It makes little sense to vote strategically in a safe riding where the gap between the two largest parties is too big for a shift in Green votes to one party to affect the election result. A large number of ridings in BC fit this description. In 2013, 61 seats (72% of all ridings) were won by a margin of over 10 percentage points. In 2009, which was a closer election, 64 seats (75%) were won by that margin. In these ridings, there are usually not enough strategic voters to change the result, and voters should be wary of casting such a vote.

It also makes little sense to strategically vote in a riding in which the Greens and NDP are competing with each other. In these ridings a vote for the Green party is more likely to lead to the Greens winning a seat than the Liberals winning one. A strategic vote in such a riding does a lot of harm because it could deny the Greens a seat and the ability to influence policy in the legislature. In ridings in the area around Victoria, where the Greens are particularly strong, anti-Liberal strategic voting makes little sense.

Where strategic voting can matter is in ridings that are close races between the Liberals and NDP. These are the cases where a vote for the Greens has a real chance of leading to the election of the Liberals, and where Greens that prefer the NDP to Liberals should consider voting for the NDP. There may be fewer of these ridings that people sometimes believe. In 2013, there were 15 ridings (18%) in which the two strongest parties were separated by 5 percentage points or less (and in one of these ridings all three parties were competitive).  In 2009, there were 19 ridings (22%) that were won by less 5 percentage points or less.

The decision over whether to strategic vote is complicated. Strategic voting can only have an impact on election results in close races, and most ridings are not close races. Individuals considering strategic voting should pay careful attention to the competitiveness of their ridings. Such voting in a safe seat is likely to cost voters their ability to express their views on policy in exchange for little influence over election results.

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