In northern Cascadia, BC voters will soon vote on a referendum to use Proportional Representation to help ensure Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) better reflect the will of the voters. BC’s current electoral method—single-winner ridings with first-past-the-post ballots—has been distorting the will of the voters for decades. BC’s election history highlights the well-known flaws of archaic first-past-the-post voting. In the past five decades, BC elections often put power in the hands of a party the voters didn’t want, and elections always give extra seats to a party that didn’t earn enough votes to warrant those seats.
Most BC elections since the 1990s have produced perverse results
British Columbia (and almost all Canadian provinces and American states) use an outdated electoral method that is sometimes called a “majoritarian” method that is known to allow two parties to dominate elections, even when voters prefer other parties. Proponents argue that while majoritarian systems fall short in full representation, they make up for it by ensuring a party with majority support will win control of the government. But even this supposed saving grace of archaic majoritarian systems is often not true, and certainly has not been the case in British Columbia.
BC’s current electoral method—single-winner ridings with first-past-the-post ballots—has been distorting the will of the voters for decades.
In BC, the ruling party or coalition has only won a majority of the popular vote in 2 of the past 12 elections! In 2017, the NDP and Greens jointly won 57 percent of the votes and control of the government. In 2001 the Liberals won 58 percent of the vote and control. In the other 10 elections, one party won control of the government with only a minority of the votes.
In five of the past seven elections in BC, not only did the ruling party win less than a majority of the popular vote, the ideological side that controlled the government was less popular with voters than the side that lost. Voters went progressive, but the government went conservative, or vice versa. Can we even call it representative democracy when the government leans in the opposite direction from what people voted for?
In 2013, 2009, and 2005, the conservative Liberal Party (sorry Americans, I know that is confusing, but the BC Liberals are the center-right party) won control of government, while the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) and Green Party together won more votes. In 1999 and 1991 the pattern was reversed, with the more progressive NDP winning control of the government even though a majority of voters chose the right-leaning Liberals.
The graph below shows five of the past seven elections in BC (every one other than 2001 and 2017). The bars show the percentage of votes the Liberal Party or NDP Party or NDP plus Green Party won. The star indicates the party that controlled the government. As you can see, in these five elections, the controlling party’s votes fall short of a majority. In four elections the opposing party or coalition won a majority of the votes. BC government is often controlled by a party the voters didn’t pick.
All BC elections give one party extra seats at the expense of other parties
BC’s single-winner, first-past-the-post voting systematically advantages one large party in each election at the expense of others. The particular party that benefits has changed over time—throughout the 1970s and 1980s it was the Social Credit Party, in the early 1990s it was the NDP, and throughout the 2000s it has been the Liberal Party. But the dynamic is always the same—voters turn in their ballots, but single-winner ridings and first-past-the-post counting translate their votes into one party getting more seats than the votes warranted.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the right-wing Social Credit Party benefited from this dynamic, winning an additional 4 to 16 seats each year. These unearned seats helped the party win decisive control of the government—occupying 54 to 69 percent of seats—while winning less than a majority of votes. In those years though, the Social Credit Party and the right-leaning Liberal Party together won a majority of the votes, so at least the government was pointed in the same direction as the voters.
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The early 1990s saw a shift, and the NDP won the seat advantage for two elections. Throughout the 2000s, the NDP and Greens have split the left-leaning vote, allowing the Liberals to win the seat advantage. In 2001, the Liberals won a whopping 31 unwarranted seats. In a legislature of 79, the Liberals won 39 percent more seats than they deserved based on votes. In other years, the Liberals won an additional unearned 8 to 11 seats per year, earning decisive control of the legislature—around 58 percent of the seats—despite winning only around 45 percent of the popular vote.
In recent decades, voters for the Green Party have been the big losers, being denied 6 to 12 seats that voter support should have won in each election.
In the gif below, the bars show the difference between the number of seats each party should have won based on their share of the popular vote and the number of seats they actually won due to first-past-the-post voting. Bars above the line mean the party won more seats than they had votes to justify, and bards below the line mean the party won fewer seats than they had votes. The star indicates the party that won control of the government.
Liberals view PR as existential threat based on recent history, but they could take longer view
Single-winner ridings and first-past-the-post voting means parties don’t have to win the hearts and minds of most BC voters to win control of the BC government. In the past two decades, the Liberal Party has benefited from this dynamic at the expense of the Green Party. But looking a a few decades further back, the Social Credit Party benefited at the expense of the Liberal Party.
The tides could change again in the future. If BC voters choose to move to Proportional Representation, voters’ preferences will determine which party or coalition takes control. If voters lean left, the NDP and Greens will be in charge; if voters lean right, the Liberals will take the reigns. Parties will be rewarded for winning over voters, not for the luck of benefiting from a distorted system.