How people elect parliaments
British Columbia is witnessing one its closest ever elections, and the first-past-the-post voting system has for once failed to yield an election result on the night.
The Canadian west coast province’s 3 million voters have been electing their provincial Legislative Assembly.
Voting took place on Tuesday, but the outcome is so close – one candidate has nominally won a seat by just 9 votes – that the election will take another fortnight to resolve.
After 16 consecutive years of government the incumbent Liberal party – actually the province’s conservative political party – has apparently fallen one seat short of governing, winning 43 of the 87 Assembly seats.
The progressive New Democratic Party (NDP), winning 41 seats, would be able to form a new minority government with the support of the Greens, which won a record 3 seats.
The NDP won 40% of yesterday’s vote, and the Greens nearly 17%, while the conservative Liberals won 41%.
But the NDP have nominally won the riding (the Canadian term for electoral divisions) of Courtenay-Comax, north of the provincial capital city of Victoria on Vancouver Island – by a mere 9 votes, which on its own would trigger an official recount.
The spectacular view over the town of Courtenay, where the 2017 British Columbian election will be decided (image: Wikipedia)
Another riding – Maple Ridge-Mission, in the Fraser Valley inland from Vancouver – has also been provisionally won by the NDP by only 120 votes.
The count conducted on the night of Tuesday is technically known as the ‘initial count’. The provincial electoral authority must now wait for the arrival of absentee and other ballots over several days, before conducting the ‘final count’ from May 22 to 24. Only then will the election be resolved.
If the Liberals gain votes in either of the close ridings and reach 44 seats, they will cling to government.
If the Liberals remain at 43 seats there will not be a minority Liberal province government, as the Greens will certainly prefer the NDP to take over government.
The morning after the election the provincial Lieutenant-Governor asked the incumbent Premier, Liberal leader Christy Clark, to remain in office for the time being.
Canada’s electoral system, heavily based on first-past-the-post (or plurality) voting, it struggling to provide Canadians with proper parliamentary representation, because either three or four major political parties are now well established in every province, and at the national level.
Nationally, and in most provinces, the Conservative party faces the centre-left Liberal party and the more progressive New Democrats.
In the province of Quebec the regionalist Bloc Québécois provides a fourth distinct well-established political party.
There are variations on the conservative party structure in the western provinces, and in British Columbia the Liberals and Conservatives actually merged decades ago, adopting the nationally confusing name of the Liberal Party.
The Green party is also growing steadily, most notably in British Columbia.
Across Canada conservative parties normally win up to around 40% of the vote, but under plurality voting they often win parliamentary majorities because the larger left-of-centre vote is divided among two or more parties.
Various moves towards electoral system reform have been attempted in Canada over the past few decades, always staunchly opposed by the conservatives.
Current Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected to majority government 2015 with the clear promise that first-past-the-post voting would end at the national level, but earlier this year he dumped his commitment.
In British Columbia both the NDP and the Greens have platform commitments to move the province’s electoral system to some form of proportional representation.
Changing the voting method used in the electoral system does not require referendum approval, but only ordinary legislation.
The NDP platform
is ambiguous on whether concedes the the party would follow the standard conservative blocking tactic of only agreeing to legislate for electoral system change after a public referendum. The platform states that “the BC NDP would hold a referendum on changing our voting system to a proportional system. We’ll ensure BC’s regions are all represented fairly and we will campaign for the “yes” side.”
The Greens appear to have no such qualms about the referendum tactic, and may demand that a new NDP provincial government moves directly to electoral reform legislation.
During the campaign electoral reform group FairVoteVancouver also interviewed the leaders of both the NDP, John Horgan, and the Greens, Dr Andrew Weaver.
But to get the chance to make such reforms, the progressive parties first need the NDP to cling on to the Courtenay-Comax riding over the next fortnight.
The Green vote yesterday was a record high result for them in Canada, and may well have brought about the first instance in a state or national parliament anywhere in North America where a Green party will hold the balance of power.
There are probably even more British Columbians who actually support the Greens. During the campaign there were well-publicised recommendations that Green supporters should engage in ‘strategic voting’, supporting the NDP at this election in ridings where the Greens could not win to help oust the conservative government. (The same idea is getting an airing in the UK in the lead-up to next month’s House of Commons election.)
In fact, at this level of public support yesterday’s close election is probably the best possible outcome for the Greens under the provinces’ single-member riding system.
Had the voting system been preferential, but still in single-member ridings (as happens in Australia), the preferences of Green voters would probably have helped the NDP win four more ridings scattered across the province (Coquitlam-Burke Mountain, Richmond-Queensborough, Vancouver-False Creek, and Fraser-Nicola) from the Liberals, taking them to 45 seats and allowing them to form a majority government not beholden to the Greens.
Alternatively, had the electoral system used the single transferable vote (STV), or been party-proportional, the result would probably have been somewhere around 36 Liberal seats, 35 NDP and 15 Greens, leaving the two progressive parties the option of forming a coalition with a healthy parliamentary majority.
The current provincial electoral system has favoured the Liberals in one other way. Ridings in the thinly populated northern part of the province are allowed to have much lower registered voter populations than average – barely half the provincial average.
The effect of this distortion on popular representation is – roughly – to shift about four Assembly seats from the Vancouver Island and Greater Victoria regions to the northern regions of the province, probably generating a net result of two free Assembly seats for the conservative side of politics. Other areas in the province have similar but less significant deviations from fair representation.
In an election this close, if the Liberals do reach a one-seat majority this riding malapportionment will have made all the difference.
(Post revised 12 May)