On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Cliffhanger vote in British Columbia

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.

image - Coutenay and BC mtns

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)

2 comments on “Cliffhanger vote in British Columbia

  1. russellmcormond
    May 11, 2017

    I live in Ontario, but watch BC closely.

    The BC Liberals are a coalition of federal Liberal party supporters and federal Conservative party voters. They created the coalition party under the Liberal name as under plurality the NDP would always win majority governments provincially (vote splitting between the “not the NDP” parties).

    It was frustrating that the BC Liberals rigged the referendum against BC STV as it would have allowed that coalition to dissolve and people to vote for the candidates they actually want to support rather than be forced to vote for the “not the NDP” nominated candidate. Plurality is good for the Liberal leadership, but bad for everyone else in the province including actual conservatives of any type.

    The Greens are different in BC than other parts of Canada. The Greens don’t fit neatly into the liberal-conservative spectrum as they take different approaches to solve problems. My experience in Ontario has been that when the NDP is strong, the Greens are center-right and only shift left when the NDP was weak (I’ve personally been a member of the Greens, federal Progressive Conservatives and currently a member of the federal Conservative party to support a progressive conservative). The NDP is strong in BC, suggesting that the Greens will tend towards center-right (as the center exists in that province) and might work as well with a not-NDP government as they would with an NDP government.

    Note: As a progressive conservative (fiscally conservative, socially liberal) I disagree with your use of the term “progressive” to be synonymous with “left leaning”. While there are individual NDP MPs I’ve met that I’d consider progressive, many are not and the party isn’t progressive as I (or the dictionary) would define the term. But that is a longer discussion for another day 🙂

    • Malcolm Baalman
      May 11, 2017

      Russell, indeed, the adjectives can be troublesome in translation. In Australia ‘progressive’ means something akin to left/liberal in North American parlance, and ‘progressive conservative’ would seem like a contradiction in terms. Our ‘Liberal’ party is essentially conservative now, and we started resorting to the term ‘small-l-liberal’ many years ago. We use the saying ‘economically-dry-socially-wet’ a lot, in particular to describe Liberal politicians/supporters who might resemble yourself.
      Interesting how you comment on differences among Canadian Green parties. In Australia the Greens party has been essentially a unified national party for many years, though there are slight state branch differences in philosophy.
      Certainly I agree that coalitions that are forced into existence by plurality voting systems, which is what you suggest about the BC Liberals, are entirely regrettable, and distort both legislative representation of the people and the development of candidate parties for executive government. STV would solve this problem (as would party proportional systems, although the direct accountability to voters would be lost using party lists). The underlying issue is: at what point does ‘opinion aggregation’ occur: (1) only inside the formation of two dominant major parties, one of which is then eliminated from any share in power by the voters every four-five years, or (2) on the floor of parliament, with multiple movements accountable to public opinion in an ongoing manner which can react, evolve and respond to public outrage at malpractice. Seems pretty obvious to me that the latter is a better vision of democracy.

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