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Lori Turnbull is an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University
Lori Turnbull is an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University

LORI TURNBULL

What the Nova Scotia vote says about our electoral system Add to ...

After what seemed like a long and not too flashy campaign, the Nova Scotia election is over. The era of majority government continues but with a brand new Liberal government at the helm.

Tuesday night, the New Democratic Party was reduced from first place in the House of Assembly to third, so here ends the province’s first experience with an NDP government. Of the redistributed provincial legislature’s 51 seats, the Liberals won 33, the Progressive Conservatives 11 and the NDP a mere 7. Although the seat count makes it look like the NDP were trounced, it’s worth taking a closer look. Our first-past-the-post electoral system has a clever way of obscuring what really happened at the ballot box.

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Just over 45 per cent of Nova Scotians who cast ballots in this election voted for a Liberal candidate, so the Liberals’ share of the popular vote came up a whopping 18 points from where it sat in the last election in 2009. Their share of seats in the House of Assembly is even more impressive at 65 per cent. This means that even though most voters did not vote Liberal, the new governing party holds almost two-thirds of the seats in the House. With numbers like that and party discipline being what it is, Liberal leader Stephen McNeil should have no trouble moving his agenda through the legislature.

In truth, it is not at all unusual for majority governments to hold less than a majority of the popular vote. In fact, it’s the norm. But, to the extent that the winning party is “over-represented” in the House, when its seat share is larger than its vote share, there has got to be at least one party that is “under-represented.” It’s just mathematics.

This time, the under-represented party is the NDP. Although they actually won more votes than the soon-to-be Official Opposition Progressive Conservatives, claiming 26.9 per cent of the popular vote compared to 26.39 per cent for the Tories, they will have four fewer seats than the PCs when the House meets next. Throughout the campaign, the polls put Jamie Baille’s Tories at a distant third place, so the election results could be seen as a win for them. In actual fact, the Tories’ gains were modest compared with the last election, when then-Premier Rodney MacDonald’s PCs were reduced to ten seats in the legislature with just under 25 per cent of the popular vote.

Because we use single member ridings rather than multi-member ridings, our system rewards the candidates who come first. This draws our attention away from the substantial support that the other candidates and parties get. Even though last night’s result was crushing for the NDP, the fact is that in the 44 ridings that the New Democrats didn’t win, they came second in 27 of them. Many of these ridings are located in the metro Halifax area – a traditional stronghold for the NDP. For example, in the metro riding of Cole Harbour – Portland Valley, outgoing premier Darrell Dexter came second to Liberal Tony Ince. For some, this was the biggest surprise of the night.

Starting today, the NDP must embark on the difficult project of renewal, which will have to include finding a new leader at some point. The party can take comfort in its second place finishes across the province, as they are evidence that the NDP’s support in the province has not disappeared completely. Though Nova Scotians haven’t returned the NDP for a second mandate, it would be naive to write off the NDP as some kind of political one-hit wonder, or a blip on the radar screen never to be seen again. The fact that all three parties won at least a quarter of the popular vote suggests that the infrastructure of the province’s three-party system is still strong.

Lori Turnbull is an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

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