How people elect parliaments
Yesterday’s provincial election for the Ontario Legislative Assembly raises some alarming questions about how Canadian electoral systems are functioning to provide representative and responsible government.
The most dramatic outcome of the Ontario election is a massive crash in voter turnout. At just 43% of registered voters taking part in the vote, it is easily the lowest in the legislature’s century and a half of existence, and only the second time it has fallen below 50%. The trend in recent decades is definitely downwards.
Canada has a national parliament and 10 provincial legislative assemblies, all elected by first past the post plurality voting in single-member electoral divisions. The provincial Legislative Assembly of Ontario has 124 seats.
At this Ontario provincial election all the major three Canadian political parties saw voter support fall compared to the previous election in 2018. But not at all evenly.
The electorate of registered voters had gone up in the intervening 4 years, from 10.2 million to over 10.7 million electors, a growth of about 5%. But old or new, the voters clearly did not all turn out to vote.
Canadian elections are counted entirely on election night, so available results are, for all purposes of analysis, complete, with 100% of polling places now fully reporting.
Non-participation of registered voters has leapt from 44% in 2018 to 56% in 2022.
Between them, the three major political parties could claim the aggregate support of 54% of registered voters in 2018. That fell to just 38% on Thursday. (What follows below is expressed in terms of proportion of registered voters, not absolute vote numbers, to more meaningfully compare the two elections 4 years apart.)
The once-dominant Liberal Party saw the mildest drop, from just 11.4% of registered voters in 2018 (which election saw the party lose its hold on the provincial government and drop to a humiliating third place among the major parties) to an even weaker 10.3% of registered voters.
The governing Progressive Conservative Party of Premier Doug Ford also shed support, falling sharply from 23.5% to 17.8% of registered voters. Yet the conservatives have retained their governing majority and even picked up a net 7 seats – because their rivals overall did worse.
The most remarkable loss of support was for the official opposition New Democrat Party (NDP), which fell from 19.5% registered voter support to just 10.3%, equal with the Liberal Party’s result.
Overall, these anaemic voter support outcomes are an embarrassment to all three major parties. Each of the three results are likely the lowest levels of community support for each party in living memory.
Even the minor Green Party lost a sliver of support, falling from 2.7% of registered voters to 2.6%. Two seperate new minor ‘populist-right’ parties between them contested the election for the first time, rounding up just under 2% of registered voters.
The election results take on the appearance of a major victory for the Progressive Conservatives, which picked up a net 9 seats that had been held by the New Democrat Party. Yet the conservatives only actually gained registered voter support in just 7 out of the 124 seats (one of which is the very low-population regional division of Timmins, where the Liberals had no candidate). In the other 117 seats they lost overall voter support, with more than 70 seats seeing support drops of over 5% of registered voters.
The New Democrats had an entirely shocking election. In all 124 seats their support as a proportion of registered voters dropped, as their overall voter support nearly halved. In 45 seats their support fell by more than 10% of registered voters, against their 2018 result of a province-wide support of 19.5%. In 121 of 124 seats their support drop was more than 5% of registered voters.
The seat outcome for the third-placed Liberals is historically disastrous, as it was in 2018. Even though their seat tally rose from 7 to 8, they will lack official party status in the Assembly. Yet curiously their support difference from the 2018 result shows very little shift anywhere. In over 80 of the 124 electoral districts their vote shifted within +/- just 2% of registered voters. In barely a dozen (mostly urban) ridings did the Liberal Party lost more than 5% support. Three seats changed hands between the Liberals and New Democrats, with the Liberals gaining two to the NDP’s one.
In short, at this election the governing conservatives lost a significant measure of the support that won them government in 2018, but have held on office with an increased majority. The opposition New Democrats were devastated, with nearly half their 2018 support staying home, and their seat tally dropping from 40 to 31 seats. The Liberals have more or less stood still in voter support, in a weak third place.
Immediate commentary on the election focuses on the party vote shares of those voters who did turn out to vote: 40% for the Progressive Conservatives, and an almost identical 23% vote share for each of the NDP and the Liberals.
The vote share disproportionality of results in terms of single-member seats won is as clear is it typically is in first past the post elections: a massive bonus for the conservatives, winning nearly 70% of seats from 40% of votes, while the near-equal vote share for the other two major parties bizarrely yields them 31 and 8 seats respectively. The poor Green Party, despite winning 6% of those who voted, yields just a single seat. One seat has been won by a conservative independent.
These statistical perversities result from basing the election system on single-member electoral districts, further exaggerated by using plurality / first past the post voting. There will be more than the usual outcry about the need for reform to bring in some form of proportional representation.
And there will be broad concern that a while clearly over 50% of participating voters supported politically progressive parties, and jointly did not want the conservative Ford administration to remain in office, that administration continues, now with a two-thirds majority of assembly seats. Clearly this will not be a representative assembly holding the ministry responsible in policy terms.
But the overall collapse of turnout is arguably the more striking story here – and certainly a particularly worrying development. The make-up of the new Assembly is alarming not only for its party-seat share disproportion, but for its painfully slim voter legitimacy.
The 2022-26 Legislative Assembly of Ontario will feature the lowest level of voter support in the province’s democratic history, and the province’s government likewise will be the least voter-supported Ontario administration ever to hold office. The Government’s massive majority of 83 MPPs will directly represent the actual votes cast of barely 14% of the whole registered electorate. The 31 NDP opposition members will represent about 4.5% of the electorate, and the 9 other members another 1.5%.
Efforts to bring in PR voting systems have been going on across Canada for decades, without success. The call for electoral reform will go on – though it will clearly go nowhere in Ontario during the term of the newly elected the Legislative Assembly.
Achieving legitimate parliamentary representation, and through it representative responsible government, will certainly need a better voting system than single-member-district first past the post. But now there is a second challenge, of rebuilding voter participation from the uniquely low level seen at this election.