Third Party voting in New Brunswick

The 2010 Election was the first for two parties in New Brunswick politics: The Green Party and the People’s Alliance. Their introduction onto the NB political scene represented more options for the New Brunswick voter to consider and opened up the political landscape to a more grassroots, a more under-the-radar approach, and more options away from the Big 2 Parties in the province: the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives.

The Liberals and the PCs have dominated New Brunswick’s provincial political landscape. Both parties have won every election in New Brunswick’s history and have rarely, if ever, been challenged by a third party in most ridings. Third parties typically have difficulty even getting elected members into the Legislature – David Coon’s election in Fredericton South as a member of a third party in 2014 was the first election victory for a candidate not in the main two parties since Elizabeth Weir won Saint John Harbour for the NDP in 2003.

However, third party presence in provincial politics is about more than simply winning seats. Third parties can split votes in many different ways and lead to many unusual and different circumstances which would not normally occur with only two parties running candidates. Indeed, with more third parties running candidates, New Brunswick elections have become much closer and far more volatile.

With the introduction of the Greens and People’s Alliance, NB elections saw five official parties entering candidates, three of whom (PCs, Lib, NDP) running full slates of candidates while the Greens ran a near-full slate with PANB running a very abbreviated slate of 14 candidates in 55 ridings.

Although none of the third parties won seats in the 2010 Election their results provided a sort of warning shot across the bows of the Big 2 parties. The NDP amassed 10.41% of total votes, the Greens 4.56%, and the PANB a small 1.17%. Altogether, third parties in NB combined for 16.75% of the total provincial vote, or 62,267 total votes. These totals were the highest for third parties since 1991 when the confederation of Regions made a breakthrough winning eight seats after the splitting of the PCs following 1987’s election.

16.75% for third parties was an 11.5% increase over the 2006 election in which the NDP were the only third party option. In 2010 NDP leader Roger Duguay scored 32% in Tracadie-Sheila, good for 2nd place. The Greens scored eight 3rd-place finishes, mostly centered around Moncton and southest New Brunswick. PANB scored two 3rd-place finishes, with leader Kris Austin acheiving 20% of the vote in Grand Lake-Gagetown.

The 2014 election would continue the trend of increased third party votes. In this election the Greens increased their vote share to 6.61% (and won a seat), the NDP increased to 12.98%, and the PANB increased to 2.14% with a still abbreviated slate of candidates.

In total, 84,096 New Brunswickers voted for third parties in 2014 – an increase of just under twenty two thousand over 2010. This meant nearly 6% more voters chose third parties in 2014 compared to four years earlier. In 2014, 22.62% of voters choose parties that were not the PCs or the Liberals.

new-brunswick-share-of-votes-third-parties-1970-2014

share-of-vote-by-party-nb-1970-2014

 

 

Coon’s victory for the Greens is a testament to this increased presence of third parties in New Brunswick. He’s the first ever Green Party candidate elected in the province’s history. However, his win was due to his own votes as well as some very fortunate vote splits along the way.

Fredericton South split nearly four ways, with rounded percentages as follows:
GRN 30% [COON]
PC 26%
LIB 22%
NDP 20%
IND 2%

Can Coon repeat this in 2018? Perhaps. It will take a lot of ground work and Get-Out-The-Vote to ensure one of the other three parties in contention don’t leapfrog him. With a riding this close it is the absolute definition of a tossup.

NDP Leader Dominic Cardy saw similar circumstances in his riding, although more of a three-way race than a four-way race. Cardy unfortunately did not benefit from the vote-split that Coon did, and it will be interesting to see if he chooses this riding again (see my previous article on this subject)

Fredericton West-Hanwell split three ways, with rounded percentages as follows:
PC 35%
NDP 30% [CARDY]
LIB 28%
GRN 7%

The closest third party race undoubtedly was in another Fredericton-area riding, this time the riding of PANB’s leader Kris Austin in Fredericton-Grand Lake. We’ll call this a three-and-a-half way race:

Fredericton-Grand Lake split three-and-a-half ways, with percentages as follows:
PC 28.79%
PANB 28.48% [AUSTIN]
LIB 27.91%
NDP 10.53%
GRN 4.29%

Austin came within 26 votes of winning his riding and being a bigger surprise winner than Coon. Austin’s win would have been the first time in 23 years that four parties had been represented in the Legislature with the most votes spread throughout those four parties provincially.

From 1999 to 2006 roughly 90%-95% of New Brunswickers voted for either the Progressive Conservatives or the Liberals. In 2010, with the introduction of the Greens and People’s Alliance, that number shrank to 83%. In 2014, with increased growth for the new parties and larger growth for the NDP, the percentage of voters voting for the PCs or Liberals shrank even further to 77%. In other words, the two big parties had 15% less voters to count on than just a decade earlier.

winning-candidate-vote-share-2003-2014

The introduction of third parties in this first-past-the-post voting system also leads to difference in outcomes. Prior to the introduction of the Greens and People’s Alliance a winning MLA averaged between 52% and 56% of the vote in their riding. With the two new parties that number has shrank to 48% in 2014. This means that to win a seat in the legislature the average vote of the winning candidate has decreased by 5% with more parties gaining more votes.

In 2014, the average winning candidate in Central New Brunswick (Fredericton-area ridings) needed only 37% of the votes on average to win their riding. This is due in part to three party leaders running in this region but also to the competitive nature of all five parties in this region as well.

In fact, Central New Brunswick (Fredericton and environs) is becoming increasingly tighter and tighter as we progress with more third parties:

central-nb-vote-share-2003-2014-elections

In Eastern New Brunswick (Kent-Moncton-Tantramar areas) a similar trend is forming:

eastern-nb-vote-share-2003-2014-elections

Will this trend continue for 2018? Possibly. The NDP did well in some regions of the province and will need a similar showing to continue that trend. The 12% of votes they received in 2014 is roughly 4% more than their current provincial polling, and even then that 12% total didn’t give them a seat in the Legislature. Focusing their efforts on a single area or region may glean less votes overall but a better chance at winning a riding.

The Greens, with Coon, will almost certainly focus on his re-election campaign in Fredericton South and may increase focus on adjoining ridings in the area. The Greens did well in Kent County due to the fracking debate and may not see similar numbers in the next election.

The People’s Alliance, as i’ve written on before, are likely poised for continued growth. With continued trending Austin should win his Fredericton-Grand Lake riding in 2018, unless there’s a big PC increase in vote share, and other candidates may see similar strong showings if their trending continues. Running more candidates in more rural Anglophone areas will only serve to increase their vote total. This is a party which has still not yet run a full-slate of candidates and averages somewhere around 4% or 5% in the ridings they do run in.

Whenever I bring up third parties in New Brunswick improving their vote totals I always have one or two people say something like: “Yeah but they’ll never run government“. You’re right, they won’t, but even if they’re not winning ridings they’re having an effect on the outcome, and when they are winning ridings they’re having an effect in the legislature and in committee. Just by existing and fielding candidates these third parties are applying pressure to the larger two parties to keep up. A decade or two ago it was very common to win a riding with over 50% of the total vote in a riding because there were only effectively two choices. In 2018 there will be five choices, and every single percentage point can be the difference between sitting at home and sitting in the legislature.

In 2014 the third parties combined for 23% of total votes and ended up with 2% of the seats in the legislature. In 2018 they can still combine for 23% of total votes and end up with 6% or 8% of total seats. It remains to be seen. There’s no denying the impact that third parties are having on campaign races, though, and it’s going to make for an interesting election in 2018 with the currently-governing Liberals only two or three ridings away from minority status.

 

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On Electoral Reform

Yesterday the New Brunswick government announced potential reforms to the electoral system in the province. These changes are wide and deep, looking at potential changes to the voting age, changes to donation limits, and how New Brunswickers vote; either online or changing the entire electoral voting procedure as a whole.

Electoral reform has been a sticky subject in Canada as of late with the Federal Government proposing similar changes at the national level. The opposition Conservatives feel that a referendum is needed to provide enough public support to implement these changes. The argument, at least from the ruling Liberals, is that because they ran in the 2015 election on the promise of changing the electoral system, and subsequently gained a majority government, that this is support enough for the government to enact these changes.

The Federal Liberals have also had to jump through hoops regarding how the electoral reform committee is composed and also are facing difficulties regarding their timelines for implementing a full range of changes in time for the next federal election in 2019.

The New Brunswick proposal faces similar issues. No committee has been struck as of yet and this committee is supposed to be publishing a final report on these proposals in January 2017. For anyone who has had any experience working with government at any level should know this is an ambitious target and it seems doubtoful it will be met accordingly. Even if it is met it would still have to be put through the legislature and all of the due diligence that comes with that.

In the event the Liberals are able to pass the electoral reform legislation in the Spring of 2017 it leaves the government and Elections NB with roughly 12 months to implement changes in time for the next provincial election in the fall of 2018.

What’s more important than timelines of course is what these proposed changes are! So let’s take a look:

The Good:

Changing donation limits
The most important of these reforms is the possibility of reform or (hopefully) complete removal of corporate and union donations to political parties or independent candidates. Nova Scotia, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, and the Federal government have restricted and removed corporations and unions from donating and thus holding influence over candidates. It’s a smart move for a province as unique as New Brunswick with such large industry for such a small population. Removing these donations removes possible foul play and undemocratic practices that generally floats around with private and union forces affecting politics and really forces parties to look for donations from citizens – the people actually voting for them.

Allowing for permanent residents to vote
Permanent residents are people who live in the province much the same as anyone else. There have been calls recently for permanent residents to gain the vote in municipal campaigns which was not mentioned in this discussion paper. Still, it looks like progress.

Fixed election dates
This proposal is pretty straightforward and has already been implemented at the federal level. A fixed date for an election every four years provides for stability and reliability, particularly for organizations such as Elections NB which needs to make preparations for elections. This does not mean elections cannot be held more frequently than four years (no confidence votes, snap elections) but does mean that they’re set in stone and must be held within a four-year time frame.

The Unlikely:

Online/Internet voting
Internet voting poses a number of difficulties which were previously found in Quebec when the Chief Electoral Officer in 2005 found issues with online voting mechanisms. A lack of transparency, accountability, ability to verify voters, and costs are among many of the issues surrounding online voting or the creation of online voting kiosks. As of yet, none of the costs for this have been outlined, so it remains to be seen what the financial implications would be.

“The technical audits and tests helped to determine that electronic voting systems are exposed to many risks since they have limited or no formal protection and security measures, thus making them vulnerable to technological attacks. In addition, the systems are thus exposed to major service or network defects and breakdowns.” – Elections Quebec, 2006

I see no issue in making things easier for voters to cast their vote but I have seen nothing proposed by the government in terms of a serious plan on this to offer any reasonable yea or nay at this point. Perhaps the January Report will glean some light on this.

Anything > FPTP Voting
There’s no doubt that first-past-the-post is a wildly inefficient system of voting. It’s the simplest, and it works, and that’s about it. The major issue revolves around convincing an electorate that it would be wise to tinker with it, and so far four of those votes have been rejected in various provinces across the country in the past twenty years. As of yet there hasn’t been much support or momentum for a change in voting system in New Brunswick despite reports developed over a decade ago recommending them.

Is FPTP a flawed voting system? Sure. Is it the easiest to understand? Absolutely. Do I think New Brunswickers would support a change in the way they vote if it was put to a referendum? Not a chance.

The proposed alternatives are outlined very well in the discussion paper and it provides good graphics and explanations of how they work. I am supportive of the current one-member-per-riding system with a ranked ballot with the victor requiring 50% of the vote to be elected. Other alternatives, like party lists, get into the murky waters of party officials not tied by area or region ending up in the legislature and opens up the door to fiddling…and not the kind on the roof.

[I’m also supportive of the province further cutting down on the number of ridings in the province from the current 49 to a more reasonable 45 or 41, but that recommendation is nowhere to be found]

The Bad:

Lowering voting age
Although an admirable and understandable goal I don’t see much from a policy perspective to support this. The negatives, such as allowing those to vote who may not have a full understanding of what their vote is going towards, far outweigh the positives on this file. It would be wiser for the government to provide for more education on civics and allow interest to swell from that.

It’s clear that lowering the voter age is an attempt to increase voter turnout in elections but lowering it may very well have the opposite effect. Allowing a whole new segment of the electorate to vote is great but if they vote at levels below the average they’ll only serve to drag down turnout further. There’s nothing that I can find that shows that 16 and 17 year olds are kicking down the door to be heard….the discussion paper mentions that there will be fewer and fewer of them in the coming years. No growth in this demographic.

What government should be aware of is that turnout in elections, although important, isn’t the be-all, end-all measuring stick of how interested an electorate is in the political process. Turnouts rise and fall based on elections and can swing for many different reasons. Elections with higher turnouts generally have a specific issue or decisions revolving around them that leads to more people heading to the polls. An example of this would be the 2010 election which reversed a trend in NB of successive falling turnouts. Why did turnout rise in this election? It likely had to do with the incumbent Graham Liberals seeking to sell NB Power. Big ticket issues like this generally drive turnout up. NB either doesn’t have these issues come up during elections or political parties are too afraid to step on toes to bring them up in the first place.

The idea that government can create a more “effective” legislature by making it easier for underrepresented groups to become elected to the legislature is laughable at best. Having elected members from more diverse backgrounds doesn’t provide for a more effective legislature –  it simply provides for a more representative legislature (and that is always up for interpretation). The issues surrounding the legislature would still persist whether the entire legislature was made up of women or visible minorities or not. Many issues remain, like the lack of sitting days, overall lack of decorum, and many others.

There are many ingrained issues surrounding the legislature and political culture in New Brunswick as a whole. Creating reforms for electoral reform with the goal of fixing these issues points the finger at the electorate as the cause for these issues – this is simply untrue. New Brunswick’s voters haven’t driven the province to economic stagnation. New Brunswick’s voters haven’t restricted legislature sitting hours this session. These issues rest with the elected members of the legislature and the ministers and premier of the province. Surely efficiencies can be found within the political system rather than pointing the finger at voters.

New Brunswick voters do, and can, have the power to change who sits in the legislature after all.

It remains to be seen if all of these proposed changes will make it to the (presumably very rushed) final report in January but from what I can see I would be particularly surprised if all of them were implemented in time for 2018. Why is the government deciding now to push this issue? The Liberals did mention some parts of this in their 2014 Election Campaign [“Investigating means to improve participation in democracy, such as preferential ballots and online voting.”, pg. 37] but made no mention of changing the entire electoral process.

If that’s the goal why not tie a referendum vote onto the general election vote in 2018? It would be simple, a good election platform for them to build off, and would negate the negative press of a government trying to force reforms on an electorate that didn’t really ask for them. Perhaps they think they would lose such a vote.

A referendum tied to the general election in 2018 would almost certainly raise voter turnout – isn’t that what’s being sought for in the end?