Update: In a comment (#7), I compare the result to the seat-vote equation estimate.
Three Canadian provinces have elections this week. Voting has already been completed in Prince Edward Island (PEI) and Manitoba, and is taking place today in Ontario, the largest province. Each elections shows–or is likely to show–the vagaries of FPTP.
(Newfoundland & Labrador votes next week, 11 October)
First, the election in PEI produced a lopsided majority–again. The incumbent Liberal party returned to office with 22 of the 27 seats, on a slightly reduced vote percentage (51.4% compared to 52.9% in 2007). This was a loss of one seat, with the Conservatives winning 5 (+1). For the second straight election, the Greens supplanted the NDP as the (distant) third party, with 4.3% (up from 3%).
The province has a history of lopsided results (as I have shown in graphs); the 2003 Liberal victory marked an alternation from a Conservative government, which itself had 23 seats. In the election before that, the Conservatives had 26 of the 27 seats. In 1996, the last time no party won a majority of the vote, the Conservatives, with 47.4% could manage “only” 18 seats (a 2/3 majority).
The seat-vote equation, which estimates seats under FPTP systems, based on jurisdiction-wide votes for the top three parties, the size of the assembly, and the number of voters, says that a party with around 51% of the votes, where the second party has around 40%, “should” be expected to win around 65% of the seats, rather than the 85% it won in this election.
One key reason why PEI has such lopsided results is that its assembly is about half the size that the cube root rule says it “should be,” for its electorate. With around 80,000 voters turning out in recent elections, an assembly of 55 seats would be more appropriate than 27. The undersized assembly is why the seat-vote equation sees as “normal” for FPTP even a a party with just over 50% of the votes potentially getting almost two thirds of the seats. The geographic distribution of the vote in PEI, and its tendency towards big island-wide vote swings, only exacerbate an inherent tendency for big seat bonuses for the largest party.
Of course, the Island could also get less distorted results with even a modestly proportional mixed-member system, such as the one resoundingly turned down in a referendum in 2005.
In Manitoba‘s election, the incumbent NDP was returned to office with 37 of the 57 seats (64.9%) on just 46% of the votes. The NDP had won 36 seats in 2007 on 48% of the votes. So the party’s votes declined, but it seats increased. The second-place Conservatives substantially increased their votes, from 37.9% to 43.7%, yet saw their seats remain steady on 19. Such are the vagaries of FPTP. Liberals saw their votes fall from 12.4% to 7.5%, and dropped from 2 seats to 1.
The seat-vote equation would expect such a close race between the top two parties to have resulted in a seat split of about 30-27, instead of the actual 37-19.
Manitoba has no record of particularly odd results, although in both 1990 and 1995 the second largest party won many more seats than it “should have” won. This is a pattern that can result in a plurality reversal (higher seat total for the second largest party in votes), if the election is close enough. In both of those elections, the Conservatives won narrow seat majorities on less than 43% of the votes, while the second-place NDP in 1995 had 40% of the seats despite only 33% of the votes. Evidently, in several recent elections the NDP’s geographic distribution of its votes has been such that it can translate them into many more seats than expected, whether it is the largest or runner-up party. I point this out simply because this week’s election was quite close in votes (46%-44%) yet produced an unexpectedly large seat bonus for the NDP. A plurality reversal may have been barely more than a couple of percentage points of the provincial vote from happening.
In today’s Ontario election, we see real three-party competition, with the third largest party, the NDP, polling at around a quarter of the votes. The incumbent Liberal party won 71 seats in the 2007 election, or 66.4% on just 42.2% of the vote. For most of this year, it was expected to lose, possibly by a wide margin, to the Conservatives. Yet as the official campaign got underway, the Liberals and NDP made gains in polls. For a while the Liberals and Conservatives looked headed for a near tie in seats, with neither winning a majority, and a potential plurality reversal. Now the Liberals could retain a majority of seats, depending on how some key ridings (districts) turn out.
The ThreeHundredEight final projection sees the Liberals winning 58 seats (54.2%) on 36.6% of the vote (to 33.3% for Conservatives). No party in Ontario has won a majority of seats on less than 40% of the votes since the NDP won 74 of a then 130-seat parliament on 37.6% of the vote in 1990–the only time the NDP has been the governing party. For the record, the seat-vote equation agrees that this projected vote split would produce a majority (about 56 seats); what it does not expect is the mere 29 seats the Liberals are expected to win, according to the ThreeHundredEight projection. The seat-vote equation expects such a close second place to be good for 44 or 45 seats, which would leave only 7 for the NDP. That the NDP could be projected to win 20 seats by ThreeHundredEight–which takes into account district-level information unlike the seat-vote equation –only shows how much the existing FPTP electoral system favors the NDP. Their huge manufactured majority in 1990 shows this pro-NDP bias is not new.
Ontario’s three-party competition suggests it would be well served by a proportional system, such as the mixed-member system proposed by a citizens assembly, but turned down in a referendum the same day as the provincial parliamentary election in 2007.
Finally, both Manitoba and Ontario, like PEI, have undersized assemblies. For their population sizes, the cube root rule expects around 100 seats in Manitoba (instead of 57) and 200 in Ontario (instead of 107). Small assembly sizes only exacerbate the chances of anomalous results, although if one wanted seats distributions more reflective of votes distributions, a proportional electoral system would do the trick without needing to increase assembly size.
For more on the seat-vote equation and estimating the seats in first-past-the-post systems, see:
Matthew S. Shugart, “Inherent and Contingent Factors in Reform Initiation in Plurality Systems,” in To Keep or Change First Past the Post, ed. By André Blais. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Past election data and estimates of seats come from the data set originally prepared in conjunction with the chapter, and updated since.
Error on year of NDP majority in original entry corrected.
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Planted in: Canada
In a province with a history of lopsided majorities, Prince Edward Island’s FPTP electoral system has again produced a grossly exaggerated seat bonus for the leading party. The opposition Liberals have defeated the governing Conservatives, 23 seats to 4. That’s a governing party with more than 85% of the seats and an opposition hardly able to function as such. This just so happens to be an exact reversal of the seat balance from the 2003 election.
The votes breakdown was as follows (with that of 2003 in parentheses):
Liberal 52.9 (42.7)
Cons. 41.3 (54.3)
NDP 2.0 (3.1)
Green 3.0 (0)
This graph from my FPTP analysis files shows the tendency of this electoral system to exaggerate vote pluralities. (The graph ends with 2003.)
The upper reddish line shows the vote difference over time between the two leading parties. Elections have only sporadically been close in votes (this one was expected to be, but again was not). The lower green-colored line shows the deviation from the expected seat share of the second party (based on the seat-vote equation), with zero deviation represented by the grey horizontal line. That the second party tends to be so under-represented–even relative to the normal expectation for parties with these actual votes ratios and with such a small assembly–shows that today’s result is by no means unusual for the province. Nor does it matter which party is the second party: the effect is systemic.
PEI certainly would be a good candidate for reform, but colorful though the Island’s political culture is, reformist it is not. In fact, the voters rejected an independent commission’s proposal for a rather modest form of mixed-member proportional (MMP) system in November, 2005.
29 November 2005
The proposal to adopt MMP in Prince Edward Island went down to crushing defeat in a very low-turnout referendum on Monday. As I had noted a few days ago, PEI was not a jurisdiction where any form of PR could be expected to sell well. The province lacks the multiparty competition in the electorate that almost always precedes serious movements towards PR; moreover, while colorful, its electoral history is hardly reformist. It does, however, have a history of ridiculously lopsided votes-to-seats conversions, so some form of electoral reform would seem to be a good idea. Whether any other reform discussion will ensue before the next time an opposition party is nearly or totally wiped out of parliament will be something to keep an eye on.
The official results, still being counted, show about 36% yes to 64% no. Aproval only in two of Charlottetown’s three ridings.
26 November 2005
As previously noted, Prince Edward Island will hold its referendum on adopting mixed-member proportional representation for its provincial legislative assembly on Monday, under rules changed late in the game by the premier in order to put roadblocks into a reform path that he himself had initiated. PEI could be the first province to go to a PR system, BC having narrowly missed the chance some months ago.
In the provincial general election of May, 2005, 57% of British Columbia voters favored a change of their electoral system from plurality (FPTP) to STV. Only 46% of voters favored the incumbent Liberal government. Yet STV was “defeated” while the Liberals “won” another four-year term as a majority government.
The referendum and its anomalous outcome was a result of a previous decision by the Liberal government to set up a Citizens Assembly to consider an alternative way to elect the provincial parliament, but to mandate that the Assembly’s proposal would require a 60% vote (and also majorities in 60% of the provincial ridings, or electoral districts). Similar rules will be in place in PEI.
Rather embarrassed by being returned to unchecked power despite being less popular than an electoral system that would have forced them to share power had it already been in effect, the BC Liberals announced that they would allow a second referendum (under the same rules).
Norman Specter, in the Globe and Mail, is not too happy about the whole situation–or the referendum on proportional representation Monday in PEI. As he notes, the second BC referendum will be at the same time as the next BC municipal elections, when turnout tends to be low.
In fact, based on the turnout in the last provincial election, only about a third of voting-age British Columbians approved STV. And, with the normally lower turnout of voters in municipal elections, an even lower percentage of voters will have the power in 2008 to change the most fundamental rule of our democratic system.
Of course, if only a third of voting age British Columbians approved STV, then less than thirty percent approved the current government. That would seem to make STV (or any form of PR) more, not less appropriate, in the sense of preventing full authority being lodged in the hands of a party with such a thin mandate.
Turning to PEI, Specter says:
Looking at that situation, one has to wonder exactly what problem is being addressed. In the last PEI provincial election, 26 of the 27 MLAs were elected with more than 50 per cent of the vote.
He has a point. Proportional representation is usually adopted only where three or more parties are splitting the vote, resulting in governments that are clearly majority-opposed rather than (nearly) majority-supported. For the record, the problem electoral reform in PEI seeks to address is super-lopsided parliaments. The PEI Conservatives won 96% of the seats on 57% of the votes in 2000, two elections after the Liberals had won 98% (i.e. all but on seat) on 55%. In between, in 1996, the Conservatives won two thirds of the seats on just 47% of the vote. Reform of some type is clearly needed, though the absence of multipartism in the electorate makes PR a tougher sell.
But Specter thinks that FPTP can accommodate three parties fairly well, and points to the last BC election. It was indeed a classic Westminster-style election,with Liberals winning their comfortable majority with 46 (of 79) seats on 46% of the vote, the NDP 13 seats behind despite trailing by only around four percentage points of the vote, and no seats were won by the Greens (9% of the vote) and other parties. While this is an outcome that PR advocates would argue is unrepresentative, it is nonetheless certainly the case that PR would never have come on to the the agenda if all BC elections turned out like 2005. But of course they do not.
PR got on the agenda in the first place because of the 1996 BC election in which the NDP won a majority of seats on only 39% of the vote while the Liberals actually had nearly 42% of the vote. Then in 2001 BC had an election like the two mentioned above in PEI, when the Liberals won all but three seats on 57% of the vote. That’s why nearly 58% of voters wanted a new electoral system, even if the rules were set up to make that insufficient.
Propagation: Seeds & scions (2)
Fruits and Votes grafted Entrench MMP?
11 November 2005
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Planted in: Canada
I had noted before how the premier of Prince Edward Island appeared to be getting cold feet as the referendum on MMP nears, doing such things as implying turnout would have to reach a certain unspecified threshold at the same time as he takes measures that are sure to discourage turnout. Well, it must be hard to backpedal so fast when your feet are frozen, but that’s what he keeps on doing. (more…)
05 November 2005
Prince Edward Island will soon hold its referendum on adopting a form of mixed-member proportional representation for its provincial legislative assembly. (I previously wrote about this referendum and the provincial premier’s concerns about the clarity of the result if there is a low turnout and his actions to make a low turnout more likely.) If PEI were the first North American jurisdiction above the municipal level to take this significant reformist step towards better governance, it would be somewhat ironic, because, as Ron Ryder notes on November 5 in the Guardian of Charlottetown, PEI does not exactly have a history of reformist politics. Colorful, but not reformist. (more…)
21 October 2005
Should a referendum on a fundamental policy or institutional change require more than 50%+1 of the votes cast? Should it require some minimal voter turnout in addition to a majority? These are important questions regarding direct democracy, and different jurisdictions have different rules on this question of referendum approval thresholds (as I alluded to in my discussion of the odd Iraqi rule.)
The question just came up (again) this week in Canada in connection with an upcoming referendum. On November 28, the Atlantic Canadian province of Prince Edward Island will vote on a proposal of an independent commission on electoral reform to adopt a form of mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation for that province. The vote will be the second Canadian referendum on adopting proportional representation, following that of British Columbia in May. (Other provinces will be following suit soon.)
According to the Guardian of Charlottetown, the PEI premier, Pat Binns, may be having cold feet. Despite the fact that this same premier appointed the Commission on P.E.I.’s Electoral Future after a campaign promise to that effect, and despite the fact that the Commission recommended that a majority of votes cast be sufficient to adopt MMP, the premier on October 20 said:
Government is not comfortable with 50 per cent plus one in a low turnout situation. If we were to have a very low turnout for some reason, and only 50 per cent plus one supported change, I would hardly think that that would be enough cause to change the system.
I think Binns has a fair point here (though I would note that one of the purposes of direct democracy is presumably not to make governments comfortable). Major changes to law, especially laws under which future lawmakers will be elected, arguably ought to receive widespread endorsement. (The possibility that major changes in California, such as the law on political spending of union dues or our electoral re-districting process, might be passed in a low-turnout special election disturbs me–more about that in some future posts.) That said, it is troubling that just over a month before the referendum, the premier is changing rules that supposedly had already been set.
What is worse is that he also is taking other actions that appear calculated to keep the turnout low, as noted in the Guardian article:
One of the factors that may affect voter turnout is the number of polls that will be set up across the province on plebiscite day. The Plebiscite Act says the vote should be conducted â€œas nearly as may be possibleâ€ to a provincial general election. But Binns said he has instructed Elections P.E.I. to cut the number of polls across the Island to cut costs. Binns said he expects the number of polls where Islanders can vote in the plebiscite to be cut to two-to-three per district. In a provincial election, there could be as many as 14 polls. [my emphasis]
In a previous referendum (in 1988, on constructing a bridge to the island from New Brunswick), the same number of polling places were provided as for a regular general election.
It seems like the premier is “shifting in the goal posts”, as Fairvote Canada put it (in a press release I received via e-mail).
In the BC referendum in May on adopting single transferable vote for provincial legislative elections, the requirement was 60% and majorities in 60% of the ridings (districts) and everyone knew that well before the vote. (The proposal itself was crafted by an independent Citizens Commission, chosen more or less at random, sort of like a grand jury.)
While the approval threshold for the BC electoral-reform referendum established the principle that such a fundamental change should only be made by consensus, it led to an embarrassing result: The BC-STV proposal won 57.7%, meaning the proposal was narrowly defeated. Yet the governing Liberal party that was re-elected on the same day received a manufactured parliamentary majority on only 45.8% of the vote. (And turnout was high, in part because the referendum was combined with a general election.)
In other words, the BC Liberals received less voter support than did an alternative electoral system that would have deprived the party of a governing majority had it already been in effect. Not surprisingly, the BC government announced in the Throne Speech in September that it will allow a second vote, in November, 2008, on electoral reform. In other words, they recognize that nearly 58% “yes” does not mean “no.”
That is precisely the problem with imposing thresholds on referenda, which supposedly are devices for discerning the “popular will”: When you get more than 50%, but less than the threshold (either in yes votes or in voters showing up), the legitimacy of the thus-expressed “popular will” is ambiguous.