Project Democracy: 2011 Electoral Analysis – Part 1


The dust is settling after the 2011 Canadian election. After a tumultuous campaign, and a conclusion that surprised pollsters, pundits, parties, and perhaps even the electorate itself, we are taking stock of the outcomes, the role of informed strategic voting, and of how effectively Project Democracy assisted voters in making informed electoral choices.

Briefly: during the election campaign, over 405,000 people (2.75% of those who cast votes, and 4.56% of opposition party voters) consulted the Project Democracy website on strategic voting choices. In the 84 "Key Contest" ridings targeted by Project Democracy, we recommended the correct candidates in 73 (87%). Twenty-six of these were won by opposition parties, and in eleven the margin of victory was less than 5% of votes cast. In five ridings, the margin of victory was less than 2.1%. On statistical grounds (and anecdotal evidence from the ridings themselves) the case can be made that informed strategic voting helped tip the balance in those five ridings

In 22 ridings won by Conservative Party candidates, a strategic shift of less than 10% of the votes cast for opposition parties would have been sufficient to tip the balance from a Conservative win to a victory by an opposition party candidate. In those 22 ridings, a total of 57,049 votes (i.e., 0.37% of ballots cast) would have been sufficient for the opposition parties to win the seats, leaving the Conservatives with a minority government (144 seats) or making possible as NDP-Liberal majority (159 seats) coalition government.

Interested in more detail? Read on!

Over 14.72 million Canadians exercised their electoral franchise in 2011, 61.4% of those who were registered to vote. This was a modest increase from the 58.8% who turned out in the 2008 federal election. Although extensive polling took place prior to the election, and the polling results reflected some of the electoral trends (a surge in popularity of the NDP while support for the Liberal and BQ parties waned) the actual electoral results surprised everyone.

• The Conservative Party, with a very modest (1.96%) increase in popular vote from 37.6% in 2008 to 39.6% in 2011, increased its seat count by 23 from 143 to 166, a 16.0% increase in seats.

• The New Democratic Party (NDP), under the helm of leader Jack Layton, increased its popular vote from 18.2% in 2008 to 30.6% in 2011, resulting in an increase of seats from 37 to 103, allowing them to form the Official Opposition, for the first time in Canadian history.

• Although the proportion of the Green Party's popular vote dropped from 6.8% in 2008 to 3.9% in 2011, they nevertheless succeeded (also for the first time in Canadian history) in electing a Member of Parliament, party leader Elizabeth May.

• The proportion of the Liberal Party vote fell from 26.2% in 2008 to 18.9% in 2011 resulting in a loss of seats from 77 to 34, a 56% decline.

• The Bloc Québécois (BQ) was affected even more dramatically. Although their proportion of votes fell from 10.0% to 6.0%, this had a striking effect. The BQ lost 45 of the 49 (92%) seats it held, winning only four.

• Both Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, and BQ leader Gilles Duceppe, lost their own seats in the election, and both have subsequently resigned as party leaders.

It's fair to say that the dramatic scale of changes in the 2011 election caught everyone off guard. (, the pre-eminent Canadian electoral forecasting website, which bases its work on a consideration of the results of all Canadian polls, had an accuracy rate of only 76.0%, which it itself called "absolutely unacceptable". It is outside the scope of this report to discuss all the reasons why this was so; interested readers are referred to for more detail. In that context, how did Project Democracy fare during an election of great voting flux? How accurate were our projections and what impact did they have?  And finally, how effective can informed strategic voting be?

In this first part of our analysis we focus on the 84 "Key Contest" ridings that Project Democracy selected as the key constituencies in the country. These were ones which we selected as being significantly "in play" between the Conservative Party and other opposition parties, and where informed strategic voting could make a difference between a Conservative win, and an opposition party victory (Project Democracy did not select candidates in contests where the leading contenders were candidates of different opposition parties; our focus was solely on ridings that were salient contests between Conservatives and opposition candidates).

Of the 84 ridings targeted by Project Democracy, 26 were won by opposition parties (NDP 16; LIB 9; GR 1). In 11 of these the margin of victory between opposition candidates and Conservative candidates was less than 5% of the votes cast (an average of 2.8%). In five of these (Louis-Saint-Laurent, QC; Montmagny-L'Islet-Kamouraska-Riviére-du-Loup, QC; Welland, ON; Burnaby-Douglas, BC; and Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, BC), the margin of victory was 2.1% or less of votes cast. Since 2.8% of Canadian voters consulted the Project Democracy website (see below) informed strategic voting may well have played an instrumental role in the outcomes of these ridings

Conversely, 58 ridings targeted by Project Democracy were won by Conservatives. Of those, in how many could a wider adoption of informed strategic voting have tipped the balance? In other words, how many ridings were there in which the combined opposition vote exceeded that of the Conservative candidate who won? That number is 37. 

It would be unrealistic to expect that in all of these seats,100% of opposition voters would coalesce strategically. However, it is not unreasonable to suppose that 10% of them might be motivated to vote strategically in order to avoid a Conservative win. Pre-election polling conducted by Angus Reid indicated that 36% of Canadians were considering voting strategically in the 2011 election (including 55% of Liberals and 44% of New Democrats). 


How many ridings were there in which a strategic shift of less than 10% of votes cast would have been sufficient to tip the balance from a Conservative win to a victory by an opposition party candidate? Twenty-two of the 37 fall into this category (see Figure 1). If electors had followed Project Democracy's voting recommendations in these 22 ridings, 15 would have been won by the Liberals, and 7 by the NDP. In those 22 ridings, if a total of 57,049 votes (i.e., 0.37% of ballots cast) had shifted strategically, it would have been sufficient for the opposition parties to win these seats. Under that scenario the composition of Parliament could have been CON 144; NDP 110; LIB 49; BQ 4; GR 1 (see Figure 2).

In other words, a Conservative minority government, with an NDP-Liberal coalition (159 seats) capable of forming a majority government – a very different outcome than Canadians are faced with as a result of the present election.

How accurate were Project Democracy's selections? In other words, how well did we do in selecting the candidates who actually ran second to the Conservatives, and hence were the correct ones for Canadians to vote strategically for? Of the 84 "Key Contests", we recommended the correct candidates in 73 ridings (87%) and the wrong candidates in 11.

It is clear that vote splitting amongst opposition parties in the 37 ridings where the combined support of progressive voters is greater (in many cases, significantly greater) than the Conservatives, allowed Conservatives to win a majority government.

In the absence of a system of proportional representation, strategic voting still offers the opportunity of defeating the Harper Conservatives. Despite significant changes in the electoral landscape of Canada in 2011, Project Democracy's methodology correctly identified the strategic candidates in 73 of 84 (87%) key ridings. This is a validation of both informed strategic voting (which Project Democracy has advocated for), and of the methodology employed. 

Over 405,000 unique visitors consulted the Project Democracy website in over 720,000 visits, resulting in over 5.26 million page views. This represents 2.75% of the 14.72 million Canadians who voted in the 2011 election, and 4.56% of the 8.89 million voters who supported opposition parties

It is impossible to know precisely the impact of Project Democracy, since there were surely 14.72 million individual reasons why voters made the decisions that they did in the polling booth. On statistical grounds, however, the case can be made that informed strategic voting helped tip the balance in the five ridings where the winning margins were less than 2.1%.

So, in looking towards the next election, what is the best course of action?

1. Do nothing and hope for the best. This seem a highly unattractive option.

2. Work to develop a greater knowledge and acceptance of informed strategic voting. If participation doubles, then this strategy can potentially have a significant effect in determining the electoral outcome. In the 2011 election, 4.56% of opposition voters consulted Project Democracy. If this proportion had been 10%, 22 additional seats might have been won by opposition parties.

3. Work towards electoral reform. The principle objective of Project Democracy is not simply informed strategic voting, but democracy. Electoral outcomes in which a single party, supported by a minority (39.6%) and opposed by a majority (61.4%) of the electorate, but which nonetheless is able to form a majority government, are not in the spirit of democratic principles. A government should reflect the will of the people, and there is a significant problem if a majority of Canadians vote for one thing and end up with the exact opposite.

It was such inequities that brought Project Democracy into being as an attempt to wrestle more representative and democratic outcomes from an increasingly archaic and dysfunctional first-past-the-post electoral system that produces erratic and unrepresentative outcomes.

More and more Canadians are coming to similar conclusions. Recent polling by Angus Reid shows that many citizens are distrustful of the electoral system, and almost 50% would prefer some form of proportional representation. The Project Democracy team recognizes that even informed strategic voting is a poor cousin to electoral reform, measures that would allow Canadians to vote according to their convictions and select a government that genuinely represented the makeup of the country. Under such conditions, strategic voting would become superfluous. Until electoral reform is realized, however, strategic voting may well be indispensable in working to counter the distortions of the first-past-the-post electoral system.

4. Work towards some form of more formal electoral co-operation by the parties of the centre-left.

This election has demonstrated once again that vote-splitting is the wild card that has denied progressive Canadians political representation for far too long. The political events of the next several years will be shaped by a many factors, both within Parliament and amongst Canadians at large. Already there is an acute understanding that there have been seismic changes in the Canadian political landscape, and there are likely more in the offing. The continued future and relevance of the Bloc Québécois has been brought into question. There has been much discussion about possible mergers between NDP and Liberal parties, or of a strategic alliance during the next election in which opposition parties would coordinate their campaigns and candidates so as not to split the progressive vote. What forms such official co-operation could take is open for discussion. However, the evidence says that without co-operation of some sort, the dismal defeats we have experienced over the last three elections, are likely to continue. New thinking and new political behaviour are essential. Albert Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results," a warning we need to heed if we wish to avoid deranged electoral outcomes. What will emerge over the next several years is ultimately up to Canadian citizens, and the needs and desires they impress upon the leadership of their political parties.

The 2011 election clearly marked a dramatic break from a status quo that has afflicted the Canadian political landscape for several decades. That change, however, is as yet incomplete. Whether the next election will mark another milestone in that progression, or whether politics will lapse into another zero-sum stalemate of adversity, rhetoric, and inaction on vital issues, is in our hands as Canadian citizens. How will we meet this challenge?


The Project Democracy Team


Note: This is the first installment of Project Democracy's 2011 electoral analysis. Working is continuing on other elements, and will be published on our website as soon as it is available.