The Right Frame? The Impact of the SNC Lavalin Scandal in Quebec will Depend on How it is Framed

The SNC Lavalin has certainly made the 2019 election more interesting.  With a weak NDP and poll numbers that had them in either in the high 30s or low 40s the Liberals looked like they were in reasonably good shape going into the election.  The SNC Lavalin scandal has put the party into a more difficult position as it faces potential losses to opposition parties criticizing it for corruption.  How the scandal is viewed in Quebec will be central to its impact on the election.  Part of the reason Trudeau was able to win a majority in 2015 was the Liberal’s revival in the province.  In 2015 they won more seats in Quebec than they had in any election since 1980.  How the scandal is framed in Quebec is central to the election.  The Liberals will try to frame the scandal as a case where the party has tried to stand up for Quebec protecting a major employer in province and thus, Quebecers’ jobs and economy.  The opposition parties will try to frame this as another case of Liberal corruption, tying it to the previous Liberal scandals in the province. Whichever party is best able to frame the issue will stand to make substantial gains in the province later this year.

Public opinion on issues is shaped by the way that issues are characterized.  Rarely do voters undergo a careful and dispassionate weighing of the different advantages and disadvantages of an issue or the different perspectives on any given scandal.  Rather, the broader ideas, or frames, that people immediately associate with an issue shape their response.  For example, those that read stories about pipeline development that talk about pipelines’ economic impacts on Canada are more likely to end up supporting pipeline development while those that read stories that focus on pipelines’ environmental impact are likely to oppose pipeline development.  In one case pipelines are framed in economic terms and can be linked to voters’ broader concerns about the economic well-being and jobs.  In the other, pipelines are framed in environmental terms and can be linked to voters’ concerns about climate change and oil spills.

Unlike in English Canada, in Quebec the Liberals have a frame that can help them navigate the SNC Lavalin scandal.  As a major employer they can highlight the importance of the company to employment on Quebec and try to cast them as a government standing up for the jobs of Quebecers.  This fits with other policies that the Trudeau government has pursued.  The government has provided support for another Quebec company, Bombardier, when it looked like financially difficulties in that company would lead to significant job losses in the province (though the company still ended up laying off workers).  As a party with substantial numbers of MPs and leaders, the Liberals can make the case that they are committed to ensuring the well-being of Quebecers and that the SNC Lavalin case is simply another instance of this.  With the Conservatives being led by an Anglophone MP from Saskatchewan, there is the potential that the Liberals could add a regional dimension to this framing.  They could cast themselves as the party with strong support in Quebec defending the province against a Conservative party that is hostile to Quebec’s interests.

The opposition parties will likely try to cast the SNC Lavalin scandal in a different frame.  In English Canada they will highlight this as a case of the Liberals doing their friends favours.  In Quebec, though, the opposition parties are likely to place the scandal in the context of a history of Liberal problems with corruption the party has had in the province.  The provincial Liberals were booted from office in 2018 in part because of concerns over corruption.  In Montreal, the Charbonneau commission has resulted in the conviction of the former mayor of Laval Gilles Vaillancourt and interim mayor of Montreal Michael Applebaum (while the Liberals do not have a municipal wing of the party, Applebaum has similar political leanings) and charges being laid against former Liberal deputy Premier Nathalie Normandeu.  Finally, opposition parties will likely highlight that it was a corruption scandal in Quebec, the Sponsorship scandal, that led to the defeat of the last Liberal federal government in 2006.  In Quebec, the opposition will likely try to cast the SNC Lavalin scandal as one more case of Liberal corruption.

Wilson-Raybould’s testimony does not help the Liberals in the province.  Wilson-Raybould revealed that electoral considerations, possibly both provincial and federal, were part of the motivations that the Prime Minister had for pressuring her to grant SNC Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement.  This suggests that the Trudeau government was not just trying to protect the jobs of Quebecers, but also that they were trying to protect their own position in power.  While voters generally appreciate governments that try to protect voters’ jobs, they generally do not like governments that try to buy their votes with corrupt practices.  If the opposition is able to recast the Liberals’ jobs and economy frame as a case where the party was simply trying to buy the votes of Quebecers, the scandal could be a major problem for the party in the province.

Where the Liberal vote in Quebec goes if the opposition parties are successful in framing the scandal through a corruption lens is unclear.  As the largest opposition party, with a leader that has tried to reach out to Quebecers, the Conservatives can make a case that they are the natural alternative to the Liberals.  Though the NDP has struggled in the province since the 2015 election, they may be eager to reach out to Quebecers, arguing to more left leaning Quebecers that the scandal demonstrates the Liberals are more concerned about corporate friends than voters.  The wild card in all of this may be the Bloc Quebecois.  The Bloc saw their support increase in both the 2004 and 2006 elections as a result of the Sponsorship scandal, though the party was starting from a much stronger base in those elections than they are today.  If the party can simultaneously convince voters that the Liberals cannot be trusted to run a clean government and that the Conservatives and NDP are either hostile to Quebec’s interests or fail to understand the issues important to the province, they could see a revival in their support.

Quebec will be central to the 2019 Liberal election.  If the Liberals can hold on to their support there, they will have a good base with which they can build from to win government.  If their vote in the province collapses an opportunity could open for the Conservatives, the NDP, or even the Bloc Quebecois to improve their electoral fortunes.  The extent to which either happens depends on whether the Liberals are successfully able to frame the scandal as an instance where they were looking out for Quebecers’ jobs or whether the opposition parties are able to frame this as another in a long line of Liberal corruption scandals in Quebec.


Two Quebecs? (Part 2): Breaking Down the Vote in Quebec by Region

In the run up to the 2019 election I am looking at some of the voting patterns in Quebec over the past decade and a half.  Understanding the way that Quebec votes is essential to understanding Canadian elections.  Throughout the twentieth century Quebec served as the pivot in Canadian elections.  When a large majority of Quebecers voted Liberal, the Liberals won elections.  When a majority of Quebecers voted Conservatives, as was the case in 1984 and 1988, the Conservatives won elections.  This changed from 1993 to 2011.  As Quebecers voted for opposition parties, first the Bloc Quebecois and then the NDP in 2011, the Liberals and Conservatives needed to look elsewhere for the seats they needed to win government.  The large number of seats that the Liberals won in Quebec in 2015 raises questions as to whether Quebec will once again be the pivot, determining the outcome of Canadian elections.

In the aftermath of the 2015 election, I wrote a post noting that Quebecers have become progressively more divided over who to vote for in federal elections.  In my previous post, I look at how different parties’ success in Quebec breaks down along linguistic lines, with the Liberals being particularly strong in non-francophone ridings.  In this post I look at support for the major parties in different regions of Quebec.  From the 2004 to 2015 the trend is fairly similar across different regions.  The Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois go through a decline, with the Liberals recovering in 2015.  The Conservatives see their support climb in the 2006 election and then more or less plateau, while the NDP see a spike in 2011 followed by a substantial decline in 2015 that still leaves them above where they were prior to 2011.  The size of the declines and climbs are different for different parties in different regions though.  The Liberals are particularly strong in Montreal, the Conservatives in Quebec City, and the NDP in Northern Quebec.

To look at levels of support for different parties across regions I broke Quebec down into six different regions and looked at the average vote for each party in ridings in the region.  I take the two largest cities, Montreal and Quebec City as regions themselves.  I break the southern shore of the St. Lawrence river into two regions, in the east a region I refer to as Gaspésie-Beauce and in the west a region I refer to as the South Shore.  I refer to the southwestern part of the province between Montreal and the Ontario border (including Gatineau) as Southwestern Quebec.  I group the rest of the province’s ridings together as Northern Quebec.

As expected, the graph below shows Montreal to be a Liberal stronghold.  The Liberals average just over 45% of the vote in ridings in the city in 2004.  Like in the rest of the province they go through a decline between the 2004 and 2011 elections, bottoming out in 2011 with under 30% of the vote.  They rebound again in 2015, returning to their 2004 levels of strength.  The Liberals are consistently the strongest party in the city.  They fail to win a plurality of votes only once, in 2011, when the NDP made a major breakthrough across the province.  The Bloc Quebecois has experienced a steady decline in the city, and while the Conservatives saw a small rise in support in 2006, they never averaged more than 20% of the vote in ridings in the city.

montreal average vote shares

Montreal stands out as the centre of support for the Liberals in Quebec.  Even when the party was relatively weak in the province they won substantial shares of the vote there.  This matches the demographics of the city.  As the party that has most consistently defended official language minorities (English Canadians in Quebec and French Canadians in English Canada) the Liberals can speak well to the interests of Montreal’s substantial anglophone population.  As a party that has consistently advocated for and defended multiculturalism, the Liberals are well positioned to win a city as culturally diverse as Montreal.  It is hard to see any party mounting a strong challenge to the Liberals in the city 2019, unless Liberal support collapses across the country, as it did in 2011.

The graphs for Southwest Quebec and the South Shore (shown below) are very similar.  In both regions the Liberals average around 30% of the vote in 2004, drop down to 20% or below for the period between 2006 and 2011, and then recover to over 30% in 2015.  In both regions the Bloc Quebecois starts as a dominant party, averaging over 50% of the vote, but declines to well under 30% by 2015.  The Conservatives initially looked like a possibility to replace the Liberals as the regions’ strongest federalist party in 2006, but saw modest declines in support in subsequent elections.  In both regions the NDP decline in 2015 still left them reasonably competitive with the Liberals as the regions’ second strongest party.

sw quebec average vote share

south shore average vote

These two regions will be very interesting to watch in the 2019 election.  If the NDP maintains its levels of support, the vote in Southwest Quebec and South Shore ridings could be split across three or four parties.  This will lead to some close races.  If the Liberals are able to win these close races, they could end up taking a large seat share on a modest share of the vote.  If, by contrast, NDP support declines than it will be interesting to watch to see where that support goes.  Even though the NDP lost a substantial amount of support between 2011 and 2015, they won enough votes that a further shift away from the party in 2019 could have a quite substantial impact on the election outcome.  If NDP voters shift to the Liberals they could make a lot of Liberal seats in the region very safe.  If, in contrast, NDP voters shift to the Bloc Quebecois or the Conservatives (perhaps in search of a party friendlier to Quebecois nationalism than the Liberals), either party could end up posing a serious challenge to the Liberals in the two regions.

The two graphs below show that the Conservatives are strongest in the Quebec City and Gaspésie-Beauce regions.  In Quebec City, the Conservatives averaged the highest share of the vote in 2006, 2008, and 2015.  They have not faced close competition from the Liberals in the city since 2006.  The decline of the Bloc Quebecois in 2011 and 2015 and of the NDP in 2015 have made the Conservatives the strongest party in Quebec City.  In Gaspésie-Beauce the Conservatives have faced closer competition.  Prior to 2011 this competition came from the Bloc Quebecois and after 2011 it came from both the Liberals and NDP.  If the Conservatives are going to build a base of support in Quebec, these are the two regions where one expect to find it.

quebec city average vote

gaspesie-beauce average vote shares

Quebec City and Gaspésie-Beauce will be interesting to watch as places to look for Conservative success.  Strong Conservative support in the region could suggest that Conservatives are a threat to win a substantial share of seats in the province.  If the Conservatives look like they are struggling in these regions, they are likely to be in trouble in the province.  Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party adds an additional interesting dynamic to the politics in these regions.  Bernier represents Beauce but, as I have written about in the past, he may have difficulty extending that support to the ridings surrounding his.  In Quebec City Bernier may have more success.  A strong People’s Party could split the vote in the city and make the Liberals, Bloc Quebecois, and perhaps even the NDP more competitive.

The NDP’s strongest region in 2015 was Northern Quebec.  This was the only region of the 6 where the NDP averaged the highest vote share in 2015.  This region also saw a sharp Liberal decline and recovery as well a substantial jump in Conservative support followed by a less steep decline.  Under normal circumstances one might expect this to be a region to watch to see if the NDP can keep a foothold in Quebec despite declining support.  It is important to note, however, that one of the NDP’s highest profile MPs from Northern Quebec, Romeo Saganash, will not be running again in 2019.  Another NDP MP from the region, Christine Moore, is unsure of whether she will run again.  A further decline in NDP support in the region may present an opening for the Liberals to increase their Quebec seat share.  Conservative success in a by-election in Chicoutimi Le Fjord also suggests that the Conservatives may also be able to make some gains in Northern Quebec should NDP support decline.

north quebec vote shares

The 2019 election promises to be an interesting one in Quebec.  The increasing extent to which support in Quebec has become divided between parties leads to some interesting questions about where the four major parties in Quebec might stand to pick up votes.  In particular it will be interesting to see at how competitive the Southwest Quebec and the South Shore will be, and which parties will win substantial vote shares in the region.  Whether the Conservatives can build  a strong base of support in Quebec City and Gaspésie-Beauce and whether and where the NDP can hold on to support will also shape the results in Quebec.  In so far as a large share of seats in Quebec can give a party a significant advantage in federal elections, the way that Quebec votes will be important to understanding the 2019 election.


Two Quebecs (Part 1): Distinguishing Between Trends in Francophone and Anglophone Quebec

Quebec has been one of the more interesting provinces in recent elections.  In 2011 the NDP became the official opposition in part because of a surge in support in the province.  In 2015 a Liberal resurgence (albeit one that more pronounced in seat share than vote share) helped the party to win its first majority government in a decade.  Quebec is often seen as a province that votes as a block, with the province backing the Bloc Quebecois, NDP, and Liberals in succession.  Breaking down results by the size of the francophone population in ridings, however, reveals that two different dynamics have been at play in the province.  In non-francophone ridings, the Liberals have maintained a consistent advantage with the exception of the 2011 election where the party struggled to compete with the NDP.  In francophone ridings, the Liberals have been relatively weak.  In such ridings the party finished higher than third in only two elections, 2004 and 2015, and averaged a plurality of the vote only in 2015.

To look at different trends in francophone and non-francophone ridings I sort ridings in two different ways.  First, I use census data to split ridings into those above the median francophone population over the 2004-2015 period and those below.  Ridings above the media have a francophone population of above 73.67% and those below the median have a francophone population of 73.67% or below.  To get a more fine-grained break-down of ridings I created a second categorization where I broke ridings into those that had a francophone population of 75% or more, those that were between 55% and 74% francophone, and those under 55% francophone.

The graph below shows that those ridings with lower francophone populations were reasonably strongly Liberal throughout the 2004-2015 period.  The Liberals averaged around 40% of the vote in these ridings between 2004 and 2008, and then came close to winning 40% of the vote in 2015.  The one blip for the party is the 2011 election, where the NDP averaged 40% in non-francophone ridings and the Liberals fell to third behind the Bloc Quebecois.  By contrast Bloc Quebecois and Conservative support in these ridings is consistently relatively weak.  This is expected with the Bloc Quebecois given that francophones tend to be more nationalist than the anglophones and immigrants that make up much of Quebec’s non-francophone population.  It is notable, however, that the Conservatives also struggled to win support in these ridings as well.

average vote in below median francophone ridings

Liberal success in non-francophone success is not particularly surprising.  The Liberals have historically had strong support with anglophone and immigrant voters in Quebec.  Their history as the largest party opposed to separatism in the 1980 and 1995 referendums, support for bilingualism, and support for multiculturalism and immigration gives the party a strong basis on which to appeal to non-francophone Quebecers.  It is interesting that the party ceded some ground in these ridings in 2011, though they recovered much of it in 2015.  The breakthrough the NDP had in 2011 suggests that the Liberal advantage in francophone ridings is not insurmountable, though there is little to suggest that the Conservatives have the same chance of a breakthrough in such ridings.

The graph below shows that the trend in francophone ridings is very different.  2004 sees the Bloc Quebecois well ahead in these ridings, averaging more than 50% of the vote.  The Liberals are in second, but a distant second with an average under 30%.  The Conservatives and NDP are well below the Liberals with quite small shares of the vote.  From 2004-2015 the Bloc Quebecois vote share consistently declines, but it is notable, that the Liberals are not the ones that benefit from this.  Rather, the Conservatives make significant gains in francophone Quebec in 2006 and then manage to hold them.  The party consistently averages between 20% and 30% of the vote in francophone ridings between 2006 and 2015.  The NDP sees small gains in 2006 and 2008, and then a quite dramatic gain in 2011 before a moderate decline in 2015.  The only election in which the Liberal make large gains in francophone Quebec is the 2015 election.

average vote in above median francophone ridings

The trends suggest that, at least between 2004 and 2011, the Bloc Quebecois, Conservatives, and NDP were largely fighting over the francophone vote in Quebec.  The Liberals were consistently the weaker party in these parts of the province, and not just when they were competing with the Bloc.  As the Bloc declined, francophones appeared to look more for alternatives in parties with a weaker history in Quebec, the Conservatives and the NDP.  When the Liberals did manage the highest average vote share in francophone ridings, in 2015, it was by a narrow margin in an election that saw the francophone vote split four ways.  This suggests opportunities for the Conservatives and NDP to make significant gains in Quebec (though they will have to be wary of issues that divide their anglophone voters in the rest of Canada and francophone voters in Quebec).

These trends are slightly more pronounced when one breaks Quebec ridings into three groups.  The graph below looks at ridings with a francophone population of at least 75%.  It shows the same trend as the above median graph.  The Bloc decline is matched first by a rise in Conservative party support and then a rise in NDP support.  The Liberals make gains in 2015, but only end up as the largest party by a narrow margin and only really recover to the point where they have the same level of support as they had in 2004.

mean support in 75%+ francophone ridings

The trend, shown in the graph below, in ridings with between 55% and 74% francophone populations is more or less the same trend as in the ridings with francophone populations above 75%.  The difference is that the Bloc Quebecois starts from a lower level of support and the Liberals start from a higher level of support.  The Liberals are also the second strongest party in these ridings through the 2006 and 2008 elections.  The Conservatives and NDP make gains in these ridings, but with the exception of 2011, the Liberals are consistently the second strongest or strongest party in these ridings.  Still, 2015 sees a fairly competitive split between all four parties in these ridings, with the Liberals averaging just a narrow advantage over the NDP.

mean support if francophone pop between 55% and 74%

Finally, the graph below shows that ridings with a francophone population under 55% are Liberal strongholds.  In these ridings, the NDP in 2011 and 2015 is the only party other than the Liberals to average more than 25% of the vote.  Unsurprisingly the Bloc Quebecois is consistently weak in these ridings.  Somewhat more surprising is that the Conservatives remains quite weak as well.  This underlines the extent to which Conservative gains in Quebec came within the francophone population in the province.  It is also notable that in 2015 the Liberals restored much of their advantage in Quebec in 2015 by winning over voters in non-francophone ridings.  While Trudeau certainly made gains amongst francophone voters, his more pronounced gains were in non-francophone ridings.

mean support in ridings under 55% francophone

These graphs suggest that the Liberals are most vulnerable in Quebec in the more francophone parts of the province.  If Andrew Scheer is to make inroads into Quebec, one might expect him to look to francophone voters to supply the support that he will need to challenge the Liberals in the province.  The 2008 election further suggests that Scheer can do this despite not being a francophone himself (though he can speak French).  Despite the fact that the Conservatives were running an anglophone Stephen Harper against a francophone Stephane Dion, they still managed to outperform the Liberals in ridings that were at least 75% francophone in 2008.  This being said, Scheer will have to be sure not to strike a balance between winning support in francophone Quebec and his prairie base which is often hostile to Quebec.  While Scheer can likely avoid the constitutional issues that ripped apart the West + Quebec coalition Mulroney built, it may be best for the Conservatives to steer well clear of fights between Westerners and Quebecers over such issues as equalization payments.

It is interesting the NDP gains in 2011 were rather uniform across francophone and non-francophone Quebec.  Unlike other parties, the NDP managed to reach across language divides in 2011.  This may suggest an ability for the NDP to unite Quebecers on different sides of linguistic and sovereigntists debates.  As a party focused on left-wing class politics, they may have a set of positions that fits the interests of both left-wing francophones and left-wing non-francophones quite nicely.  This, however, requires that those class issues be most salient amongst voters.  The fact that NDP support in Quebec bridges a national identity divide leaves the NDP in danger of being pulled in opposite directions should national identity become an important issue in an election.  This may well have happened in 2015 with the religious symbols debate and with multiculturalism.  Not only might the NDP have difficulty finding a way to navigate the issue in a way that satisfies both their pro-multicultural voters in English Canada and more nationalist voters Quebec, they may also be caught between the different views of nationalist francophone voters and anglophone and immigrant voters within Quebec.  It may be very hard for the NDP to find a way to navigate these competing pressures.

Finally, Trudeau can both take comfort in his support amongst non-francophone Quebecers but should be wary of how weak the Liberals are amongst francophones.  While Trudeau was the first Liberal since 1980 to win a majority of seats in Quebec, he did so on an average share of the vote that was only marginally higher than his competitors.  2019 will likely see multiple parties challenge the Liberals in francophone Quebec.  If Trudeau is not careful, he could see significant losses in francophone parts of the province.


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.


Disciplined? Whether Proportional Representation Increases or Decreases Party Discipline Depends on the System

How proportional representation will affect parties’ control over their MLAs has been a significant issue in the BC referendum on electoral reform.  Opponents of proportional representation have suggested that that proportional systems increase the extent to which MLAs are beholden to parties.  Proponents argue that proportional systems may have the opposite effect, increasing the ability of voters to get rid of MLAs that they may not like but whom a party might.  The extent to which proportional systems strengthen or weaken party discipline depends on the system’s design.  Closed list mixed member proportional systems will lead to higher levels of party discipline, dual member proportional systems will likely not change the level of party discipline, and open list mixed member proportional and rural urban proportional systems will weaken party discipline.

There are two mechanisms through which electoral systems can affect party discipline.  First, electoral systems can affect how much control parties have over which candidates are likely to get elected.  The more parties determine who is most competitive from their party, the more disciplined parties will be.  In such cases MLAs that toe the party line are likely to be rewarded with a higher likelihood of re-election.  MLAs that break with the party leadership can be punished with a lower likelihood of re-election.  Second, electoral systems affect the ability of voters to choose between candidates in the same party.  When voters have a choice between multiple candidates from the same party they can punish candidates they do not think are responsive enough to their interests without having to defect to a party they dislike.  This gives MLAs more of an incentive to represent their constituents even if doing so leads them to break with the party leadership from time to time.

First past the post offers some, but limited, ability for MLAs to resist party discipline on the first mechanism, and no incentive to resist party discipline on the second.  Under first past the post, parties’ candidates in particular constituencies are chosen by local party members in the riding.  At this stage, parties are limited in their ability to decide who runs for office and, in particular, who runs in competitive ridings.  This being said, there are ways in which parties can exert significant control over who wins nominations.  Parties vet candidates and can decline to allow candidates with problematic pasts or viewpoints that party opposes to run for the nomination in a particular riding.  Party leaders can also refuse to sign the nomination papers of candidates that break with the party on too many issues.  Regardless of the electoral system, parties have relatively broad leeway to remove MLAs who break with the party too much from the party caucus (these MLAs remain in the legislature, but as independents).  Under first past the post parties relinquish some control over candidate choice to local party membership, but retain an ability to veto candidates leadership does not like.

On the second mechanism, first past the post offers very little to voters looking to punish MLAs for being too responsive to party discipline.  Because only one candidate runs for any given party in any riding, voters cannot vote against an MLA from the party they prefer without also having to change the party they support.  Under first past the post if you like a particular party but do not like their candidate you are out of luck.  You either have to vote against the party you like to get a local candidate you prefer or for a local candidate you dislike to get the party you prefer.

Dual member proportional does little to change the incentives that MLAs face.  Under this system individual candidates would still run in ridings, though most ridings would have two candidates from each party.  Parties would choose a primary and secondary candidate for each riding, likely using processes that are very similar to the ones used under first past the post.  They would likely retain the ability to vet candidates and to refuse candidates that do not fit with the party leadership’s beliefs.  Voters would not be able to rank different candidates from the same party against each other.  They would have to accept whichever candidate is listed as the primary candidate.  As a result, voters would still face a difficult decision if their preferred party nominated a candidate they do not like as their primary candidate.

Mixed member proportional (MMP) could see some change in the level of party discipline in the legislature, though whether party discipline would increase or decrease depends on the design of the system.  MMP compensates parties that receive fewer seats than their share of the vote by giving them extra MLAs off of a party list.  The higher up a candidate is on the party list, the greater the chance they have of being elected.  If parties decide on the order of the list, as is the case in closed list systems, list MLAs have a strong incentive to toe the party line.  This is because parties are likely to reward well-disciplined MLAs with high positions on the party list and punish candidates that break with the party with low positions on the party list.

MMP systems can also be designed in a way that allows voters to determine the order of the party list.  These types of systems are referred to as open list systems.  In these systems voters cast an additional vote for a candidate on their preferred party’s list.  The more votes a candidate gets, the higher they end up on the list and the more likely they are to get one of the extra seats the party needs to be proportionally represented.  Where closed list MMP systems give MLAs a strong incentive to fall in line with their parties, open list systems give them an incentive to break with their party if doing so will lead voters to push them higher up the party list.  For example, an MLA who breaks with their party to support an issue important to women may win over large numbers of feminist voters in the party, and as a result end up higher up on the party’s list.

Additionally, open list MMP allows voters an opportunity to vote against candidates they dislike without defecting from their preferred party.  If one does not like a candidate on the party list one can simply vote for someone else on the list.  If a disliked MLA does not get enough votes from their parties’ supporters they fall to the bottom of the party’s list and have a lower likelihood of being elected.  This gives MLAs another incentive to be responsive to their party’s voters even if doing so leads them to break with party leadership at times.  This is only the case, however, for MLAs elected off party lists.  MLAs elected in ridings would face the same incentives and party discipline that MLAs face under first past the post.

John Horgan has indicated a strong preference for open list systems making it likely that this type of system will be used if voters vote for MMP.  The referendum question and Elections BC information on the options on the ballot do not commit the government to either an open or closed list system.

Rural urban proportional systems offer the greatest opportunity for voters to reward MLAs that push back against party discipline.  Under this system rural parts of the province would use MMP, and as a result, rural MLAs would face the same incentives discussed above.  Urban areas, however, would use a single transferable vote (STV) system that allows voters to rank order candidates from different parties against each other.  This weakens party discipline through two mechanisms.  First, by rank ordering candidates from the same party, voters would exert control over which candidate from a party stands the best chance of getting elected.  The more first place votes a candidate receives, the more likely they are to win election regardless of what the party leadership thinks of them.  As a result, MLAs would have an incentive to break with their party if doing so means getting more first place votes.

STV systems also allow voters to rank candidates from different parties.  This gives voters a great deal of control over how they weigh the pros and cons of voting for candidates they like from parties they dislike and candidates they dislike from parties they like.  A voter who dislikes a candidate from their preferred party may choose to rank all of the candidates from their preferred party above the disliked candidate.  The voter, if they choose, could go further and start ranking candidates from less preferred parties above their disliked candidate.  This is something that the voter would not be able to do under an open list MMP system.  This gives MLAs strong incentives to be responsive to voters, even if it means breaking with party discipline.  Voters have plenty of other options to choose from should an MLA disregard their interests in order to toe the party line.

It is important not to overstate the influence that electoral systems have over party discipline.  Parties control a significant number of MLAs’ opportunities for career advancement.  Control over cabinet and committee appointments, speaking time, and the ability to vet who runs for a party offer party leadership a number of levers through which to punish MLAs that break with party discipline regardless of the electoral system.  None of this would change under a different electoral system.  At the same time, by influencing which MLAs are more likely to be elected, electoral systems will affect party discipline.  Closed-list MMP systems will likely have the strongest levels of party discipline, followed by both first past the post and dual member proportional systems.  Open list MMP systems will likely have lower levels of party discipline than first past the post systems and rural urban proportional systems will likely have the lowest level of party discipline of all of the systems on offer in the BC referendum.