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Supporters of France's newly-elected president Francois Hollande hold a victory rally at Place de la Bastille in Paris on May 6, 2012. (CHARLES PLATIAU/Reuters)
Supporters of France's newly-elected president Francois Hollande hold a victory rally at Place de la Bastille in Paris on May 6, 2012. (CHARLES PLATIAU/Reuters)

Crunching Numbers

How would Harper fare in a French-style run-off election? Add to ...

Voters in France took part in the second round of their presidential election Sunday, choosing François Hollande over Nicolas Sarkozy after the two had topped the list in the country’s first round of voting. But what if Canada adopted a similar electoral system?

While the French were voting for a president, their country’s legislative elections use the same sort of run-off system. One of the advantages of this method of voting is that the victor is assured of winning an outright majority (at least when two names are on the second ballot; some have more depending on the first round’s results). Canada’s first-past-the-post system, on the other hand, can result in candidates winning their riding with only one-third of the vote or less.

The thought of Canadians voting à la française makes for an interesting counter-factual. What if the 2011 federal election had been run in this manner?

For this exercise, second rounds of voting take place in all ridings where no candidate won a majority of ballots cast. In these run-off elections, only the top two candidates from the first round make it to the second round. “Second choice” polling data from the end of the 2011 election campaign has been used to determine how the second round of voting might plausibly play out.

At the end of the first round, it would be clear that the Conservatives were on path to a majority government. Leading in 166 ridings, the Conservatives would have 107 candidates clear the 50 per cent threshold out of the gate. They would be assured of at least that many seats in the House of Commons. The majority came from the western provinces, but another 40 would have also been elected from Ontario.

The New Democrats, leading in 103 ridings, would elect 36 MPs in the first round, including 14 from Quebec. The Liberals, though leading in 34 ridings, would only have two candidates with a majority – both of them in Atlantic Canada.

With the Conservatives on track for a majority, the first round’s results would also reveal the dramatic decline of the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois. Though the Liberals would still be passing through to the second round in almost 80 ridings, the majority of them against Conservative candidates, the possibility of a historic-worst result for the party would be in the cards. The Bloc would be on the brink of disaster, leading in only four ridings. And the potential for the first Green seat would exist.

How all of this might play out in a hypothetical period of campaigning between voting rounds is impossible to determine. Would the possibility of a Conservative majority result in some push back, or would it merely embolden the party’s supporters? Would the potential disappearance of the Bloc earn them some sympathy votes, or would it add momentum to the NDP landslide in Quebec? And would the Liberals be dumped en masse as a party in decline?

Assuming that the intermission has no major effect on voting intentions, or that the second round takes place automatically (with voters having made their second choices at the same time as the first), the results of this hypothetical run-off diverge from the May 2011 election significantly.

But the sympathies of voters do not follow along the political spectrum as perfectly as one might expect. Second-choice polling indicates the New Democrats were as popular of a second choice as the Liberals to a Conservative voter, while Liberal supporters were slightly more apt to choose NDP as their second choice as NDP voters were to select the Liberals. And a large proportion of voters had no second choice whatsoever, especially supporters of the Conservative Party.

As a result of this vote swapping, the New Democrats take the lion’s share of seats in the second round: 82, with 52 of those coming from Quebec alone. The NDP would also win a few extra seats in Ontario, Atlantic Canada, and the West. In 50 head-to-head contests with the Tories, the NDP would win 33 of them, while taking 16 of the 24 Liberal vs. NDP races and all 33 of those against the Bloc Québécois.

The Liberals would save themselves in the second round by winning 44 seats, half of them in Ontario and another 12 in Atlantic Canada. In 53 elections against Conservative candidates, the Liberals would prevail in 36.

The Conservatives would manage to win only 35 more seats in the second round. They would be especially hit hard in Ontario, losing 13 of the ridings in which they had led in the first round – enough alone to cost them a majority government.

The final result of the two rounds would give the Conservatives 142 seats to 118 for the NDP and 46 for the Liberals, while the Greens and Bloc would manage to elect one MP apiece. The New Democrats and Liberals could combine in this scenario to form a majority government of 164 seats.

But while the results of this hypothetical exercise might point to the potential success of an NDP and Liberal merger or electoral partnership, the reality is more complicated. A significant proportion of NDP, Liberal, and even Green votes go the Conservatives’ way when only one of these parties is still on the ballot.

A great deal of ridings also come up with very close results, suggesting that in a situation where voters are directly confronted with the implications of a second round of voting, enough of them could swing to the Tories to give the party a majority. And if Canada did transition to this kind of system, politicians would likely play more to the centre in order to get those second-round votes, shifting the dynamics of Canadian politics even further. Nevertheless, the advantages our method of voting currently gives the Conservatives (the same sort of advantages that benefited the Liberals throughout the 1990s) are clear.

Sunday’s election did not go well for Nicolas Sarkozy and no other kind of electoral system might have saved him. But Stephen Harper can be content that the system we currently have in place is not going to be changed any time soon.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.

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