What “vote efficiency” might mean to Manitoba in 2015-16

The 2011 Manitoba election was, based on seat counts, a huge win for Premier Greg Selinger’s NDP, which won 37 seats, far greater than the 19 seats won by Opposition Leader Hugh McFadyen’s Progressive Conservatives. Yet, if you look at the popular vote, it was a fairly close election, in which the NDP won 46 percent of the vote and the Progressive Conservatives won 44 percent.

It would be correct to say that the difference between these two pairs of numbers can be attributed to Manitoba’s first-past-the-post electoral system, in which voters choose only one MLA for each of the province’s 57 electoral districts, and whoever gets the largest number of votes wins, no matter how far short of a 50-percent-plus-1 majority.

But there is another factor that many followers of Manitoba politics might have heard of, but not be too familiar with: vote efficiency.

As the name suggests, this refers to how readily each party’s share of the vote translates into seats. The first chart below shows the relationship between the NDP’s share of the vote and its seat count in each Manitoba election held from 1958 to 2011.* (Elections prior to 1958 were held under a different electoral system in which some districts elected only one MLA, while others elected multiple MLAs.)

Vote Efficiency NDP

As the chart suggests, there has traditionally been a very close relationship between the NDP’s share of the vote and the number of seats it wins. Generally, if the NDP wins more than 40 percent of the vote, it wins a majority of the 57 seats in the Legislature. Hence, one will occasionally hear political analysts commenting on the efficiency of the NDP vote: additional votes translate into additional seats.

The provincial Liberal vote has historically been fairly efficient, though less so than the NDP vote. Due to the efficiency of the NDP vote and the reliability of the Progressive Conservatives’ rural southern Manitoba strongholds, the Liberals would likely need to have both opponents’ vote collapse simultaneously to form the first Liberal government since Premier Douglas Campbell left office in 1958. But if they win more than 20 percent of the vote, they could win enough seats to force a PC or NDP minority government, or lower the threshold at which the Progressive Conservatives can win a majority government into the low-to-mid 40-percent range.

Vote Efficiency Liberal

The Progressive Conservative vote, by contrast, is fairly inefficient: between 1958 and 2011, less than half of its seat count can be explained by the percentage of votes won. Part of this is due to their tendency to win thumping majorities in rural southern Manitoba, such as in Morden-Winkler, where PC candidate Cameron Friesen won 86 percent of the vote in the 2011 election. Since this huge surplus of votes cannot be dispatched to other constituencies, the Progressive Conservatives depend to a larger extent on how the other two parties split the vote. They are most likely to prevail if the Liberal vote is high enough to hold the NDP vote below 40 percent, or both the Liberals and the New Democrats run weak campaigns.

Vote Efficiency PC

This dynamic bodes well for the Progressive Conservatives in the next Manitoba election, expected to take place in 2016. The NDP won 46 percent of the vote in 2011, and could only afford to lose no more than six percentage points to be re-elected to a fifth consecutive majority government: a tall order for a 16-year-old government beleaguered by both a controversial sales tax increase and a caucus in a state of civil war. Their hopes of winning a minority government also seem remote, being reliant on both their own party winning about 35 percent or more of the vote and the Liberals winning more than about 20 percent of the vote and enough seats to hold the balance of power.

This could explain why the race to lead the NDP into the next election is between three veteran MLAs: Premier Greg Selinger (first elected to the Legislature in 1999), former Jobs and Economy minister Theresa Oswald (2003) and former Infrastructure and Transportation minister Steve Ashton (the dean of the Legislature, first elected in 1981). Even if the government’s re-election outlook is grim, holding the premiership for even a year is an opportunity that will likely never come again after so many years in public life.

For current Jobs and Economy minister Kevin Chief, however, the incentives are likely quite different. Some were surprised by his decision to take a pass on the leadership race despite being the party’s front man at so many public announcements in 2014 that he was beginning to look like a man being introduced to the public as a premier-in-waiting.

But being only 40 years old and still in his first term as an MLA, a run for the top job now would put him in the awkward position of having to defend the government’s record as an incumbent premier in the 2016 election, and likely result in him becoming an ex-premier at just age 42. If he does indeed crave the premiership, his interests might be best served by letting a party veteran hold the job for the time being, winding down his or her political career after the 2016 election having at least briefly held the honour of being Premier of Manitoba before handing the job over, as almost assuredly will happen no matter who leads the NDP, to PC leader Brian Pallister.

This would leave Chief free to seek to lead the NDP into the subsequent election, by which time he would still be a relatively youthful 46.

By that point, vote efficiency might be working in his favour. To win a second term, the Progressive Conservatives will need either a relatively strong Liberal Party holding the NDP below 40 percent of the vote, or the support of close to half the electorate to give them enough votes to win the tight races in addition to their huge majorities in the rural southern constituencies. If a slip in Progressive Conservative support and ongoing Liberal weakness allows NDP support to recover to 40 percent or more in a 2020 election, then the NDP’s vote-efficiency advantage could allow them to win a majority of seats, even if the PCs win the popular vote by several percentage points.

Cue the calls for vote reform, atypically from the right, if that happens.


* – In the 1958 and 1959 elections, the NDP was known as the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), and the Liberal Party was known as the Liberal-Progressive Party. Both had changed their names by the 1962 election.


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

3 Responses to What “vote efficiency” might mean to Manitoba in 2015-16

  1. derick says:

    I book-marked this in my head and came back and read just now. A thought about the Liberal stats: a logarithmic model might fit that data better, showing that as the Liberal % grows their vote becomes increasingly efficient. It’s flat below 25% but if they can get past that point they could make big gains.

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    Good feedback, much appreciated as always.

    Here are the various models. Most seem to suggest that the Libs win their usual seat or two, maybe three, at below 15 percent of the vote; but that they can quickly add to their seat count above that.





  3. derick says:

    I guess Logarithmic wasn’t exactly what I was thinking of, but you got the idea. Thanks for the follow-up.

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