May 232013
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Clark won 59 percent of seats with 44 percent of vote.

by Adil Sayeed

BC’s May 2013 provincial election results show us yet again that Canada’s current first-past-the-post electoral system is still broken. Although British Columbians rejected the Single Transferable Vote option in a 2009 referendum, by 61 – 39 percent, other forms of voting reform may still be feasible. BC MPs Nathan Cullen (NDP) and Joyce Murray (Liberal) did much better than expected in recent national party leadership races, in part because they championed voting reform at the federal level.

So let’s take another look at why we need voting reform in Canada and which reform option might work best. 

BC Premier Christy Clark won a strong majority with 50 Liberal members elected against 35 opposition members — 33 from the New Democratic Party (NDP), one Green and one independent. Put another way, the Liberals dominate the BC Legislature with 59 percent of all seats even though they won just 44 percent of total votes.

In the 2011 federal election, the centre-right Conservatives won 54 percent of all seats with less than 40 percent of total votes even though 53 percent of Canadians voted for centre-left parties — NDP, Liberal and Green.

However, the composition of the incoming BC Legislature does not reflect the balance of political beliefs among BC voters.  BC has three parties on the centre-right to hard right side of the political spectrum — Liberal, Conservative and Libertarian. Together these three parties collected just under 51 percent of all votes cast for party-affiliated candidates (that is, excluding the total three percent of  votes cast for independents). The NDP and the Green Party on the centre-left captured just over 49 percent of total votes for party candidates.

Rough justice was done. The slight majority of BC voters supporting “right-wing” parties can be satisfied that a centre-right government was elected instead of a centre-left government.  But the size of the BC Liberal majority is disproportionate, especially given that “right-wing” voters just barely outweigh “left-wing” voters.

This sort of outcome is typical in the first-past-the-post (FPP) voting system that Canada inherited from Britain. The local candidate with a plurality (the most votes) is elected. With more than two parties running candidates, even majority governments are almost always elected with less than 50 percent of total votes.

Under FPP, a party representing the minority opinion can still win a majority mandate. For example, in the 2011 federal election, the centre-right Conservatives won 54 percent of all seats with less than 40 percent of total votes even though 53 percent of Canadians voted for centre-left parties — NDP, Liberal and Green.

One possible solution might be to switch to a proportional representation (PR) system used in most European countries. Under PR, a party’s share of the seats reflects its share of the total vote, provided the party captures a certain minimum threshold percentage of all votes cast. This threshold varies by country — two percent for Israel, four percent for Sweden and Norway, and five percent for Germany — and reflects a trade-off between wide representation and government stability.

The threshold itself can determine an election outcome. To illustrate, convert BC votes into a legislature elected under PR rules. Under the German five percent threshold rule, NDP leader Adrian Dix could be Premier, with Green support.

BC Conservatives’ 4.8 percent of the vote fell just short of the five percent threshold. Those voters would not be represented directly, even though the party doubled its vote this time. BC would have a centre-left government despite the fact that centre-right voters constituted a majority.

Conversely, if BC had Sweden’s four percent PR threshold, the Conservatives would have won enough seats to keep the Christy Clark Liberals in power.

Proponents tout PR as the fairest system. But when the electorate is finely balanced between right and left, the outcome can hinge on the seemingly arbitrary choice of where to set the minimum threshold. Even under PR, a government can be elected representing the minority opinion.

In any event, PR is on life support in Canada after decisive defeats in provincial referendums in Ontario (2007) and Prince Edward Island (2005). Fortunately, there is another alternative: Preferential Voting, which is used in Australia as well as San Francisco and a few other American cities.  New Liberal leader Justin Trudeau supports PV, which is also known as Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) or the Alternative Vote (AV).

If Canada adopted PV, a voter could choose just one candidate or list candidates in order of preference. If a candidate won 50 percent or more of first-choice ballots, he or she would be the winner.  

However, if no one won a majority of first-choice ballots, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes would be dropped from the next count. The second choices on the dropped candidate’s ballots would then be reallocated to the surviving contestants. This process of reassigning ballots would continue until someone won a majority.

Thanks to a survey of British Columbians’ second choices, I can simulate how the election might have turned out under Preferential Voting. The Greens finished third across the province and in most constituencies. According to the survey, the bulk of Green supporters viewed the NDP as their second preference. Three narrow wins for the BC Liberals under FPP might have switched to the NDP under PV.

Notes: Simulations based on May 14, 2013 BC election votes plus, in the case of PV, a CBC Vote Compass survey of 2nd  choices. No one can predict precisely the result of voting reform. Different election rules would change both how parties campaign and how citizens vote. The purpose of these simulations is simply to use the BC election results to illustrate the potential differences between our current FPP system and the PR and PV options.








Party Percent of vote Actual seat (FPP) PR simulation (German system) PR simulation (Swedish system) PV simulation
Liberal 44.4 50 41 39 47
NDP 39.5 33 36 34 36
Green 8.0 1 7 7 1
Conservative 4.8 0 0 4 0
Libertarian 0.1 0 0 0 0


3.2 1 1 1 1


In PR systems, the winner of a constituency enters the legislature even if the winner’s party does not meet the national or provincial threshold. I  presume that independent BC MLA Vicki Huntington would win her seat in a PR election. The STV system used in Ireland and presented to BC voters in 2005 and 2009 referendums is too complex to be simulated based on FPP votes.

The Liberals would still have a majority of Preferential Voting seats. But, with 47 Liberals out of 85 total members, the BC legislature would be a closer reflection of the narrow preponderance of centre-right voters over centre-left in BC.

Although vote reform may be off the BC agenda, Justin Trudeau has a chance to put electoral reform on the federal agenda. One problem Trudeau faces as leader is how to satisfy BC MP Joyce Murray with a role befitting her status as runner-up in the leadership race.

Trudeau has rejected Murray’s idea that the federal Liberals and NDP work together to nominate joint candidates in the 2015 election. But the Liberals and NDP may need to co-operate after some future federal election if they hope to supplant the Stephen Harper Conservatives. Why not take a small first step? Trudeau could ask Murray to work on a voting reform program that the NDP could support if the day ever comes that the two parties have a working majority in the federal House of Commons.

About Adil Sayeed

Adil Sayeed is a public policy consultant as well as a supporting member of the Liberal Party of Canada.

© Copyright 2013 Adil Sayeed, All rights Reserved. Written For:

  3 Responses to “BC Liberals’ win out of proportion”

  1. Preferential voting in single-member ridings is no solution. It is just a more efficient method of letting the winner take all. If you want every vote to count, you need a proportional voting system.

    •    I agree.
         But, if AV is instituted it would help get people accustomed to the idea of preferential voting. That would then make people more favourably inclined to preferential voting generally, whether it be for city councillors or members of legislatures and parliaments.

  2. While a seat imbalance is an important problem, a less noticed, but likely equally important, problem is the intense regionalization that our Single Member Plurality voting system creates.  At the federal level, this has been obvious in the old Reform and Alliance party sweeps of the Prairies and the Bloc Quebecois sweeps of Quebec, not to mention the Liberals once taking 102 of the 103 Ontario seats.  Here in BC, almost all of Vancouver Island went to the NDP, despite the Liberals winning at least 3/4 as many votes as the NDP.  Similarly, the Okanagan's 7 seats all went to the Liberals, even though the NDP won 60% as many votes as the Liberals.  All the voters who did not vote for the winning party in these regions are denied representation under our current system – since they have no right of access to their preferred party's MLAs from other regions, their concerns have no direct expression in the legislature, even if their preferred party has formed government.  How, for example, does a Liberal supporter from up-island ensure that the government is paying attention to (or even aware of) a local situation?
    The Alternative Vote does nothing to address this – as you rightly demonstrate, it only affects a handful of ridings (3, in this case, out of 85) and so has no significant effect on the outcome.  This is why most democratic reformers feel that it is largely a distraction.  Under either SMP or AV, barely half the voters will be represented by an MLA they have voted for.  With almost any form of more proportional representation, 90% or more of voters in all regions of the province will have an MLA they can call their own.  We citizens have to recognize the importance of this kind of change and demand it from the politicians.

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