Electoral system dishes the right in Alberta

Electoral systems matter. That’s the lesson from many stories on this blog, including my analysis just yesterday of the British electoral system. And electoral unfairness is bipartisan; although it tends more often to be the left that complains about it (due to having, at least in theory, some commitment to democracy), the right is just as likely to get shafted.

For confirmation, look at Tuesday’s provincial election in Alberta, in western Canada. The BBC report calls the result a “shock” and a “surprise”, but it was no surprise to anyone who had been reading the opinion polls. The results were completely in line with the poll projections made by Éric Grenier at ThreeHundredEight.com.

Admittedly, they were dramatic. The left-wing New Democratic Party quadrupled its vote to finish first with 40.6%. The governing Progressive Conservatives (centre-right) fell to 27.8%, a drop of some 16%, while the slightly further-right Wildrose, which had been the official opposition, fell only a little less sharply to finish with 24.2%. The Liberals and the Alberta Party were a long way back with 4.2% and 2.3% respectively.

Still, as basic arithmetic will reveal, the right-of-centre parties still have a clear majority of the vote between them, about 52%. In a democratic system, they should together have won a majority of seats.

But of course they weren’t even close. The NDP won 53 seats, against Wildrose’s 21 and the Progressive Conservatives just 10. The two minors won a seat each, and one seat is undecided due to a tie between the NDP and PC. So 40% of the vote was enough to win 60% of the seats.

Despite their ideological similarity, there’s no guarantee that the PC and Wildrose would have formed a coalition. But on the numbers, they should at least have had that opportunity. The system denied it to them. It’s almost a mirror image of the 2011 Canadian general election, when the three left-of-centre parties collectively had 53.4% of the vote, but were unable to prevent the Conservatives from winning an absolute majority of seats.

Unlike the case of Britain, this is an example where preferential voting would make a big difference. In nearly half of the NDP’s seats, a reasonably tight exchange of preferences between PC and Wildrose could have changed the result. But Canada stubbornly sticks with the first-past-the-post system that it was bequeathed by British colonialism.

It’s hard to muster a huge amount of sympathy for Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives – they have after all been in government for more than 43 years. It’s not a bad thing for someone else to have a turn. But don’t pretend it was a democratic result.

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