Canada and Liberalism’s Voter-Concentration Problem

By Eli Kahn

Canada’s election on October 22nd returned Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau to power, despite his tarnished image as a progressive champion. While U.S. liberals might regard Trudeau as a charismatic politician in the Obama mold and a foil to Donald Trump, Canadian voters had to contend with revelations that the PM had donned blackface on multiple occasions. Trudeau also faced scandal when the Canadian press reported that he had pressured the country’s first Indigenous woman Minister of Justice to show preferential treatment to a company under criminal investigation, leading her to resign in protest.

If supporters of liberalism are still willing to consider the Canadian election a win, it was a win through regionalism alone: the Liberals won 157 seats to the Conservatives’ 121, even as the Conservatives won the support of a slightly larger number of Canadian voters – 34 percent to the Liberals’ 33 percent. Conservatives won by substantial margins in the plains provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, while falling short in populous Ontario and Quebec. 

Like the U.S., Canada is divided into single-member districts with a “first-past-the-post” system in which the candidate who wins the most votes wins the election, even without a majority. However, unlike the U.S., Canada has three major nationwide parties – the leftist New Democratic Party (NDP) in addition to the Liberals and Conservatives – and one major regional party, the Bloc Québecois. The multi-party system raises the risk of left-of-center votes being split between the Liberals and the NDP, allowing Conservatives to win large numbers of seats with a minority, but in this election it was the Liberals who won out, due to a more fundamental aspect of how representation is structured. Dividing the country into electoral districts with one representative each, while a ubiquitous and intuitive system, ensures there is no difference between getting 50 percent of the vote plus one, and getting 90 percent of the vote – all the votes over and above the minimum to win are “wasted.”

Canada’s election results buck a growing trend in the English-speaking world, especially in the United States: liberal and left-wing parties, such as the U.S.’s Democrats, disproportionately suffer from these “wasted votes” due to the concentration of their voters in city centers. In his book Why Cities Lose, political scientist Jonathan Rodden demonstrates a clear pattern holding true across the United States – cities are bluer than rural areas are red. According to the Cook Political Report, which assigns congressional districts a partisan vote index, the most Democratic district is New York’s 15th, in the Bronx, with a Partisan Vote Index (PVI) of D+44; the most Republican district, Texas’s 13th, has a PVI of R+33. Even if there are more Democratic voters statewide, their concentration in urban districts means they still often end up outnumbered in state legislatures and the U.S. House. While Republicans are avid gerrymandering enthusiasts, they are also starting off with a more favorable electoral map.

It is easy enough to hypothesize why U.S. politics shows an urban-rural divide – everything from the diversity of urban cores to a rural culture of pride at not taking handouts have been offered as motivations. But America’s precise urban-rural divide is more difficult to explain. Why do Democrats win 90 percent of the vote in cities and Republicans 65 percent of the vote in rural areas, instead of the reverse? It is striking how unanimous city-dwellers are in their support for the Democrats given the common argument that Republicans are a party of ideologues whereas Democrats are a fractious coalition of interest groups. This unity is even more surprising when considering how diverse U.S. urbanites are in terms of ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, and national origin.

The same pattern exists in the U.K. In the 2017 General Election, the Conservative Party’s strongest district was South Holland and the Deepings in Lincolnshire, with 70 percent of the all-party vote. The Labour Party’s strongest performance was in Liverpool Walton, with 86 percent. If the reader will forgive an assumption: you have probably heard of Liverpool, and you have probably not heard of South Holland and the Deepings, which gives some idea which one is urban and which is rural.

However, not all countries exhibit this pattern: in this year’s Australian election, the Australian Labor Party’s highest vote share was 60 percent, as compared to the (conservative) Liberal Party’s peak performance of 64 percent. It is possible that the Canadian and Australian systems accommodate third parties that can more effectively draw out ideological differences between city-dwellers, but if so, the same should be true of the U.K., which also features strong political parties outside of the main conservative and liberal groupings. And the urban-rural divide very much exists in Canada and Australia – while Canada’s vast northern territories voted Liberal or NDP as the Conservatives won every district in the city of Calgary, zooming in on populous southern Ontario shows a more familiar pattern of liberal city centers and conservative exurbs.

For the time being, left and center-left parties in the U.S. and U.K. are more burdened than their Canadian and Australian counterparts by inefficiently distributed votes. Outcomes such as Democratic congressional candidates winning more votes in total yet losing the House remain a real possibility. Whatever dynamics are making the U.S.’s Republicans and the U.K.’s Conservatives nonviable in large cities may not be limited to one country, but nor are they immutable laws of nature. It is noteworthy, however, that both countries’ politics have been reshaped by populist anti-immigrant upheavals – Trump in the U.S. and Brexit in the U.K. By contrast, the politics of immigration in Canada and Australia, while certainly emotive and fraught, don’t seem to have reached the same tipping point. Nativist backlash in Canada, or a growing base for assertive cosmopolitanism in Australia, might in the near future sharpen the urban-rural divide in those countries.

Eli Kahn is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and an Editor of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.