Just How Conservative Is Alberta?

The NDP’s 2015 Alberta election win surprised many. The Social Credit and then the Progressive Conservatives had ensured that right wing parties had governed Alberta since 1935. Alberta’s politics have been complicated by vote splitting on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Through most of the 1990s and 2000s the Alberta Liberals and NDP split the non-conservative vote, making the left look weaker than it actually was. In 2015 the opposite was the case. The Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance split the right wing vote making the NDP look stronger than it was. With the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Alliance uniting to form the United Conservative Party, and a Liberal resurgence looking unlikely, it is probable that just two parties will dominate the 2019 Alberta election. This makes understanding exactly how many centre-right and non-conservative voters there are in Alberta particularly important. A break down of the vote for centre-right and centre-left parties going back to 1982 shows that Edmonton tends to lean towards non-conservative parties while the rest of the province votes for centre-right parties. This being said, centre-left parties have consistently won substantial shares of the vote outside of Edmonton.

To look at the break down of the non-conservative and right wing vote in Alberta I compared average vote shares across ridings for centre-left and centre-right parties in 5 regions of the province: Calgary, Edmonton, Northern Rural Alberta, Central Rural Alberta, and Southern Rural Alberta. A list of which ridings fit into which regions can be found here (Ridings and Regions). The Alberta Party, the Liberals, and the NDP vote shares were combined to create a left (or non-conservative) vote share for each riding. I take an inclusive approach to categorizing parties as left parties because of the extent to which Alberta politics has often pitted centrist and leftist non-conservative parties against dominant right parties. The Progressive Conservative, Wildrose Alliance, Alberta Alliance, Social Credit, and Western Canadian Concept parties were combined to calculate the centre-right votes (each of these parties won a significant vote share in at least one election between 1982 and 2015 though several have since become defunct).

The two graphs below show the average riding vote share of left and right parties in the five regions from 1982 to 2015 (the graph for right parties is essentially a mirror image of the graph for left parties). The most striking feature of the graphs is the strength of non-conservative parties in Edmonton. Non-conservative parties take an average of at least 50% of the vote in the city in every election except for 1982 and 2012 (and it is notable that in 2012 Allison Redford positioned the Progressive Conservatives as a centrist alternative to the more right wing Wildrose Alliance). When the Progressive Conservatives have been particularly unpopular, in elections in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the early 2000s, and 2015, the non-conservative vote share in Edmonton has broken 60%.

Combined Left Vote

Combined Right Vote

In contrast to Edmonton, the rest of the province has consistently voted for right wing parties. Only in 1989 in Calgary and 1993 in Northern Alberta do non-conservative parties average over 50% of the vote outside of Edmonton. The success of the conservative parties outside of the capital city fits with most people’s perceptions of Alberta politics as being particularly conservative.

The strength of the conservative vote outside of Edmonton should not be overstated, however. There are a substantial minority of non-conservative voters in every region outside of Edmonton (as there are a substantial number of conservative voters in Edmonton). With the exception of 1982 and 2012 the left vote outside of Edmonton tends to be either higher than or around 30%. In other words, in most elections in Alberta slightly fewer than 1/3 Albertans outside of Edmonton vote for a non-conservative party. Even though left parties have struggled to win seats in many of these regions, they are far from homogenously conservative.

These vote shares have important implications for the future of Albertan politics. They show that both the Progressive Conservative/Wildrose Alliance dominance outside of Edmonton and the NDP gains there in 2015 are, in part, artefacts of the way that first past the post electoral treats parties when they split the vote with a similar party. When the NDP and Liberals were splitting the non-conservative vote there was not enough non-conservative support to elect MPs outside of the centre of Calgary and the odd seat in Lethbridge. However, when the non-conservative vote unified behind the NDP and the conservative vote split between the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance, there was enough support to elect a substantial number of MPs. Though the left vote share outside of Edmonton went up in 2015, it was not any higher than it had been in the early 1990s. The NDP made historic gains outside of Edmonton because they were able to unify left voters and because conservative voters were divided, not because the NDP was able to dramatically increase the left vote share outside of Edmonton.*

The implications for this for 2019 are that the NDP will struggle to hold in to many of its seats outside of Edmonton. A united Conservative party will end the vote splitting that handed the NDP a substantial number of rural and Calgary seats in 2015. This being said, the fact that the left vote (barring a sudden resurgence of the Liberals) is likely to remain unified behind the NDP should offer the party some protection. 30-40% of the vote outside of Edmonton, if it is distributed correctly, should allow the party to hold on to at least some seats outside of the capital. Conversely, even with the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Alliance unified, the strength of left support in Edmonton should allow the party to hold on to many of its seats there. Though the United Conservatives are well placed to challenge the NDP for government, the absence of a vote split on the left should prevent the party from dominating the province the way the Progressive Conservatives did through much of the 1990s and 2000s.

* It should be noted that one of the reasons there is a spike in the non-conservative vote in 2015 is because it was very low in 2012. It is important not to look just at the increase in the vote between 2012 and 2015 but also at where the non-conservative vote was in 2015 relative to elections prior to 2012.

 

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Tougher Than One Might Think: Trudeau May Have a Difficult Time Keeping His Majority in 2019

The election of Jagmeet Singh as leader of the NDP this past Sunday set the line-up for the 2019 election. Both of the major national opposition parties have selected new leaders, as has the Bloc Quebecois. To this point, it has often been assumed that the Liberals stand a good chance of maintaining their majority in the 2019 election. They have been doing well in the polls, the NDP has struggled to attract national media attention, and Andrew Scheer looks unlikely to be able to run the kind of charismatic campaign that Trudeau did in 2015. The Liberals’ path to a majority in 2019, however, is more difficult than it first appears. After a very poor result in 2015 that was in part a result fatigue with their time government, the Conservatives are due for a bounce-back election. At the same time, the selection of Jagmeet Singh as leader puts the NDP in a good position to compete for the support of many of the progressives that gave the Liberals their majority in 2015.

Winning back-to-back majority governments is a difficult task. Since 1953, only two Prime Ministers have done this, Jean Chretien in the mid-1990s and Brian Mulroney in the 1980s. Both successes came under fairly unique circumstances. Chretien was fortunate to face little in the form of national opposition. The split on the right between the Reform/Canadian Alliance combined with the historic weakness of the NDP allowed Chretien to take between 98-101 seats in Ontario between 1993 and 2000. Brian Mulroney swept to power in 1984 on half the popular vote and was able to hold on to power in 1988 by casting himself as the pro-free trade candidate against a anti-free trade opposition that was divided between the Liberals and the NDP. It is notable that while Mulroney held on to his majority, he saw his share of the popular vote decline from 50% in 1984 to 43% in 1988.

Justin Trudeau’s circumstances are not nearly as favourable. Unlike Mulroney, Trudeau does not have much of a cushion to work with. Trudeau won his majority with just 39% of the popular vote. Since 1900, only Chretien in 1997 has won a majority with a lower vote share. To add to this, it has been a century since a Prime Minister has been able to increase their vote share after winning a majority government for the first time (Robert Borden did so in 1917, largely because his support of conscription won him the overwhelming support of English Canadian voters).* Majority governments have trouble increasing their support because they will inevitably be unable to follow through on all of the promises they made during an election, and that is bound to alienate at least some of their supporters. Governing also requires making difficult decisions that will make at least some people unhappy. Indeed, after the post-election spike in Liberal support, current polls have them a little under 39%, slightly lower than where they ended up in the 2015 election. As the new Conservative and NDP leaders become more well-known, and as being in government forces the Liberals to make more controversial decisions, one might expect that it is more likely that Liberal support over the next two years will fall rather than rise. Given the Liberal vote share in 2015 and where they are in the polls now, any substantial drop in support is likely to put their majority in jeopardy.

Trudeau also cannot benefit from a split right vote, nor NDP weakness, both of which were instrumental in Chretien’s victories. A united Conservative party under Scheer should be able to regain some of its support. Since 1957, a united right party in Canada has won 31% of the vote or less in just three elections, 1968, 2004, and 2015. This suggests that there is plenty of room for the Conservatives to grow in 2019. While Scheer does not have the charisma of Trudeau, he has a policy profile and approach to politics that looks a lot like the one Harper used to consistently grown the Conservatives vote share between 2004 and 2011. In 2019 he will also be free of the some the baggage the Conservative accumulated over their time in government. While this may not be enough to put the party government, one should expect the Conservatives to take back a significant number of seats.

Trudeau also has to contend with a serious left wing threat in the NDP. Despite the disappointment with its performance in 2015, the party still managed almost 20% of the vote. This is a much stronger party than the one Chretien faced in the 1990s, when the NDP fluctuated between 7% and 11%. Even when Trudeau was polling at close to 50% in 2016, the NDP was closer to the 15% that it won under Jack Layton in 2004 then to the 11% that it won under Alexa McDonough in 1997. Barring a significant collapse, the NDP should be strong enough in 2019 to do at least one of two things. If Singh is able to get the party back to 20% (or higher), he should be able to push the Liberals to a minority by taking seats from them. If the NDP stays around where they are in the polls, the strength of the party should still draw enough non-Conservative votes from the Liberals to allow a resurgent Conservative party to take seats from the Liberals.

It is worth noting that Jagmeet Singh is particularly well positioned to challenge the Liberals. He is an Ontario politician with strong support in the Greater Toronto Area and a history of fighting for the rights of visible minorities. This is likely to make him a strong candidate in the suburban Toronto and suburban Vancouver ridings that the Liberal party needed in 2015 to win their majority. Throughout the 2000s the Liberals and NDP have been fighting over the support of urban progressive voters. This fight is likely to continue in 2019, and with Singh heading the NDP, it is far from clear that the Liberal can win it to the same degree that they did in 2019. This makes it particularly likely the NDP will draw enough votes from the Liberals to reduce them to a minority.

In 2019 the Liberals will have to fight a two front election. On one hand they will have to contend with a resurgent Conservative party led by a Harper-like politician that does not have all of the baggage of the near decade of Harper government. On the other, they will face a progressive NDP well-positioned to challenge the Liberals in many of the urban and suburban ridings the Liberals need to win in order to maintain their majority. When one combines this with the likely decline in support that comes to most parties after a leader’s first majority government, it is hard to see anything but a difficult road to a majority for the Liberals in 2019.

* Jean Chretien increased in vote share in 2000 after winning a majority government in 1997. His vote share, however fell in between his first majority win in 1993 and his second in 1997.

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The Moderates, the Social Conservative, and the Far-Right Candidate: A Look at How the Different Conservative Leadership Candidates did in Different Ridings (Part 2)

The Conservative party’s leadership race produced two significant candidates whose extreme views are likely to concern progressives. On one hand, Kellie Leitch’s anti-immigrant rhetoric scared many into believing that the far-right anti-immigrant movements that have been on the rise in Europe and North America were making their way to Canada. On the other hand, Brad Trost raised concerns about the potential for the strong social conservatives that had a great deal of influence over the Reform party and Canadian Alliance would start to influence the Conservatives. In contrast, Michael Chong’s centrist campaign attracted the support of many progressives seeking to influence the race, while Erin O’Toole ran a campaign that was more conservative than Chong, but less extreme than Leitch or Trost.

In my last post I looked at how the two strongest candidates, Andrew Scheer and Maxime Bernier, fared in the swing ridings the Conservatives will need to win if they want to get back into government. In the post I will compare Leitch, Trost, Chong, and O’Toole’s results in these ridings. This comparison can provide some indication of which of the weaker candidates Scheer should make a special effort to include within the party leadership. Like with the last post, it is important to remember that the general electorate will be very different than the electorate that voted in the leadership race. At the same time, the leadership race results can give some indication of which candidates are better organized and in a better place to deliver votes in the ridings that are likely to determine the next election results. A look at the different candidates’ success suggest that O’Toole and, to a lesser extent, Trost, are the stronger candidates in swing ridings.

The graphs below show the relationship between the support each of the four candidates won in the leadership race and the Conservative margin of victory or defeat in 2015 (the first graph) or average margin between the 2015 and 2011 elections (the second graph). While Chong and Leitch do the best in ridings that Conservatives did the worst in, their support drops quite quickly as the Conservatives get closer to winning a riding. In both the graph that looks at the 2015 margin and the graph that looks at the average margin O’Toole is the strongest candidate by the point at which Conservatives are within at least 25 percentage points of winning a riding. Brad Trost moves to being the second strongest of the four shortly after. Both Chong and Leitch are especially weak in the ridings in which the Conservatives had the largest margins of victory.

Relationship Between 2015 Margin and First Ballot Vote

Relationship Between Average Margin and First Ballot Vote

That Chong and Leitch did so poorly in both competitive ridings and Conservative strongholds suggests that, while they were able to generate a lot of news coverage, they were not able to build strong bases of support in the ridings that the Conservatives need to win elections. This suggests that the inclusion of both O’Toole and Trost in key leadership positions is more important to success than the inclusion of Chong and Leitch. Chong’s moderate campaign, while it caught on with progressives, failed to win over many Conservatives in swing ridings or strong holds. Leitch’s anti-immigrant rhetoric also failed to gain traction with these voters.

It is particularly worth looking at the different levels of support the Leitch and Trost were able to win. As an anti-immigrant candidate, Leitch represents the nationalist conservativism that is rapidly growing in much Europe and the United States, while Trost represents a more traditional social conservativism, which has been common in past conservative parties in Canada such as the Reform party or Canadian Alliance.

The two graphs below show that Trost’s social conservativism is more popular in swing ridings and conservative strong holds that Leitch’s anti-immigrant conservativism. Each red x represents Trost’s support in a riding in the first leadership ballot while each green x represents Leitch’s support. In both the graph that looks at 2015 margins and the graph the looks at the average 2015 and 2011 margin, there are far more red xs in the top middle of the graphs than green xs. This indicates that there are a large number of close ridings in which Trost did well in the leadership race than ridings in which Leitch did well.

Support for Leitch and Trost on the First Ballot (2015 Margins)

Support for Leitch and Trost on the First Ballot (Avg Margins)

In my last post I wrote about how, despite the close race for leadership, Andrew Scheer, had been stronger than Maxime Bernier in the swing ridings that the Conservatives need to win in order win future elections. Of the next four candidates, it appears that O’Toole and Trost are the strongest candidates in swing ridings. Both of these results bode well for moderate and traditional Conservatives in Canada. Compared to Bernier’s libertarian candidacy, Scheer’s looked very similar to Stephen Harper’s. Amongst the other four candidates, the more moderately conservative O’Toole and socially conservative Trost did significantly better than the very centrist Chong or the anti-immigrant Leitch. These results suggest that in swing ridings and Conservative strongholds the next Conservative campaign will look a lot like previous campaigns and that the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of Leitch’s campaign and the centrism of Chong’s will have a less prominent role in Conservative politics.

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The Right Leader? A Look at How the Different Conservative Leadership Candidates Did in Different Ridings (Part One)

A couple of months ago the Conservatives chose Andrew Scheer as their new leader. They did so using an electoral system that gave equal weight to Conservative members across all ridings. In the leadership race, candidates received points based on the percentage of vote that they won in each riding. Candidates were eliminated until one, Scheer, had won at least 50% of the available points. This system is designed to ensure that the leader the party chooses has support across the country, not just in Conservative strong-holds. An examination of where Scheer won votes shows that he did better in ridings that were more Conservative than in ridings that were less Conservative. At the same time, he was still more popular than his closes rival, Maxime Bernier, in the ridings that were swing ridings for the Conservatives in the last two elections.

The two graphs below show the percentage of the vote that Andrew Scheer won in each riding on the final ballot count (which included just Scheer and Bernier) compared to the margin of Conservative victory or defeat in 2015 and to the average Conservative margin in 2015 and 2011. Both graphs show that as the Conservative margin of victory increases, so does support for Scheer. Initially one might see this as concerning for the Conservatives. To win an election, the party needs to reach beyond their base of support and win votes in ridings that they lost in 2015. Electing a leader with support primarily in safe seats could limit their ability to do that.

Support for Scheer on the Second Ballot (2015)

Support for Scheer on the Second Ballot (2015:2011 Average)

The upward sloping relationship between Scheer support and Conservative margin of victory is less of a concern if one looks just at the ridings that have a Conservative margin of victory around 0. These are the crucial swing ridings that Conservative have to win if they are to get back into government in 2019. In these ridings Scheer performs remarkably well. The trend line in his support crosses the 50% mark very close to the point at which the Conservative margin of victory goes from positive to negative, suggesting that round half of voters in such ridings preferred Scheer to Bernier.   The large number of ridings in and around 0 with respect to the Conservative margin of victory in which Scheer had more than 50% of support on the last ballot also suggests there are a substantial number of close ridings in which Scheer had a great deal of support. While the graphs show that Scheer is more popular in Conservative strongholds than in the rest of the country, they also suggest that he is reasonably popular amongst Conservatives in swing ridings as well.

Bernier’s support follows the opposite trend. The larger the Conservative margin of victory, the worse Bernier did on the final ballot. The trends in both the graph that looks at 2015 and the graph that averages 2015 and 2011 show that Bernier did the best in ridings where the Conservatives did the worst. This may not, however, suggest, that Bernier has a better ability to expand Conservative support to new ridings than Scheer. The ridings in which Bernier did the best are ridings where the Conservatives lost in 2015 and in 2011 by quite large margins. He does ok in the swing ridings clustered around a margin of victory of 0, but there is no indication that he did any better than Scheer. While Bernier is unlikely to alienate Conservatives in swing ridings, it does not appear that he is particularly popular amongst them either.

Support for Bernier on the Second Ballot (2015 Average)

Support for Bernier on the Second Ballot (2015:2011 Average)

The strength of Scheer in safe Conservative ridings and swing ridings is confirmed when one looks at average support in both sets of ridings. The two graphs below show the average support for Bernier, Scheer, and a few of the other stronger candidates in ridings where the Conservatives won by at least 10 percentage points in 2015 and in ridings where the Conservatives averaged a 10% percentage point win between the 2015 and 2011 elections. While Bernier led after the first ballot count in both groups of ridings, when he was competing against only Scheer on the final ballot, he lost by an average of just over 10 percentage points.

Support in Ridings Won by 10% or More (2015)

Support in Ridings Won by 10% or More (2015:2011 Average)

Bernier did better in swing ridings (defined here as ridings where the margin of victory for the Conservatives was between -10% and 10%), but still lost to Scheer by a substantial margin on the final count. Rather than the gap between the two candidates in these ridings being 10 percentage points, it was 5. These graphs make clear that Bernier was able to make the race for leadership close because of his strong support in ridings that Conservatives lost by substantial margins in 2015 and 2011. In ridings where the Conservatives have strong support, or where the Conservatives where competitive, Scheer was the preferred candidate.

Average Support in Close Ridings (2015)

Average Support in Close Ridings (2011:2015 Average)

One should take these analyses with a grain of salt. Having strong support amongst Conservatives in a riding does not necessarily mean that a candidate will be able to win over non-Conservative voters in the riding. It will be interesting to see whether Scheer will be able to turn his support in the leadership race in close ridings into support for the Conservatives in the next election. Support in the leadership race, however, should matter to the 2019 election. Leadership candidates have to build organizations in ridings to win votes, sign up new members who they hope will not only support them in the leadership race but in the general election as well, and motivate Conservative supporters to volunteer and to vote in the general election. The results of the leadership race suggest, that when it comes to swing ridings, Scheer is in a slightly better position to do these things than Bernier is.

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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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