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Why vote when you’re in a riding where your candidate has little to zero chance of winning? There’s a reason

May 14th, 2013 · 54 Comments

I’ve always wondering about those dedicated souls who turn out to vote Liberal in Vancouver-Mount Pleasant or Surrey-Green Timbers, or the equally hardy souls who vote in West Vancouver-Capilano, Vancouver-Quilchena or Kelowna-Mission, where there’s not an ice cube’s chance in hell that their candidate will win.

My story today takes a look at that phenomenon.


Jean Olson knows that her vote for NDP candidate Terry Platt is likely to be just another dead bug on the windshield of the fast-moving Liberal SUV in her riding.

After all, Ralph Sultan won that West Vancouver-Capilano seat for the Liberals last time by 12,001 votes, the highest margin in the province. It’s not what you’d forecast as a tight riding, even in this uncertain election.



“I know, I know,” says the 85-year-old Ms. Olson resignedly as she hears the odds again. “But I’m a supporter of unions and the Liberals don’t support unions.”

Hers is a dilemma many voters confront in this election. Why vote when it seems like it won’t make a difference in the immediate outcome, one way or another? When it’s obvious that your party and your candidate will never win, has never won?

It’s a dilemma that does appear to stop some people from voting. As political scientists like the University of British Columbia’s Richard Johnston have noted in the past, people are more likely to vote in ridings where the two major candidates each seem to have a fighting chance.

In B.C.’s 2009 election, some of the highest voter turnouts in the province were in the ridings where the results were the tightest.

While barely half of B.C.’s registered voters showed up at the polls in 2009, ridings that resulted in sliver-thin wins – for independent Vicki Huntington in Delta South, Liberal Ida Chong in Oak Bay-Gordon Head, and Liberal Murray Coell in Saanich North and the Islands – had more than 65-per-cent turnout.

Mr. Johnston points out that’s not just a factor of average people’s calculations about the utility of voting.

“Turnout is higher in competitive elections, but likely because there is more money invested in the campaign,” says Mr. Johnston. In places where parties think they have a chance of winning, they spend more on advertising and will pay for more staff.

In ridings where the result seemed like a foregone conclusion – Liberals in Peace River country and the Kelowna area; NDPers Jenny Kwan and Adrian Dix in east Vancouver – the turnout was in the 40s.

The number of competitive ridings in this election is small. Political strategists and media pundits keep drumming the message that only about two dozen of the province’s 85 ridings are likely to change flags.

Both the NDP and the B.C. Liberals are expected to hang on to 30 “safe” seats apiece.

That includes ridings like Vancouver-West End, where venture capitalist Antonio Arias has thrown himself into volunteering and voting for B.C. Liberal candidate Scott Harrison despite the odds.

The NDP’s Spencer Herbert won the seat handily last time by just over 4,000 votes, 25 percentage points over his opponent. And the West End is not an easy provincial Liberal win at the best of times.

Mr. Arias, who is working all out because “the NDP would bring so much uncertainty,” is convinced his candidate has a chance if the party can get out the almost 18,000 registered voters, just over half, who didn’t get involved in the election last time.

But that’s unlikely – partly for the other factors that affect turnout.

The West End is characterized by the kind of demographics that have a much bigger impact on voting than competition and money.

It is an area with a lot of renters, a lot of people with lower incomes, a lot of people in their 20s and in their 80s. As every study on voter turnout indicates, those people are less likely to vote.

(It also explains why, even though everyone knows who is going to win in Vancouver-Quilchena or West Vancouver-Capilano, there’s a relatively high turnout. Those ridings are filled with property-owning, high-income, highly educated people who have the highest rates of voting in any election.)

But Mr. Arias, no matter what, is going to make sure he votes and votes Liberal.

So will that make any kind of difference, even if his candidate isn’t elected?

Political scientists and strategists say yes. A vote counts as much when it’s an “expressive vote” – a vote that shows what people think on the whole of a government – as one that actually elects a politician.

That’s because governing parties remain acutely aware of where they are vulnerable.

“Governments pay disparate attention to swing ridings,” says Mr. Johnston. “Even if you lose, you win. You send a signal that this is a competitive riding.” Governments will spend more money and pay more visits in swing ridings.

They even pay attention to safe seats where the opposition vote is starting to climb.

For many voters who faithfully mark their ballots every election, often with little reason to think their candidate will win, that’s some reward.

But many of them do it simply because they believe it’s the right thing to do, win or lose.

Mary Iverson, like Jean Olson, is voting NDP in West Vancouver-Capilano without the faintest hope her candidate will win.

“If you want to live in a democratic country, you should participate in the system,” says Ms. Iverson, a 69-year-old retired therapist who left her job 10 years ago when the Liberals privatized a part of WorkSafeBC. “I think everybody should vote even if [the candidate] isn’t going to win. It’s a protest.”

SAFEST RIDINGS (Percentage point difference between first- and second-place candidates)

West Vancouver-Capilano (Liberal): 52.96

Vancouver-Quilchena (Liberal): 49.48

Surrey-Green Timbers (NDP): 48.69

Kootenay West (NDP): 44.27

Vancouver-Mount Pleasant (NDP): 43.75


Delta South (Independent): 0.14

Maple Ridge-Mission (Liberal): 0.35

Cariboo-Chilcotin (Liberal): 0.67

Saanich North (Liberal): 0.88

Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows (NDP): 1.32

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