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Friday's ruling by Justice Thomas Lederer of the Ontario Superior Court declaring the May 2, 2011 results in Etobicoke Centre, ON null and void of course puts the riding into play, thereby presenting the different political parties with a very different set of risks. [first link opens PDF]
The one-time seat of such influential cabinet ministers as Progressive Conservative Finance Minister Michael Wilson and Liberal Justice and Health Minister Allan Rock, could now become the focus of a by-election, assuming first-time M.P. Ted Opitz and the Conservative Party decide to appeal defeated Liberal M.P. Borys Wrzesnewskyj's victory in getting the results of the third closest contest of last May's election overturned, as now seems likely.
Judge Lederer found that more ballots were called into question as the result of unsigned registration certificates from voters not already on the list of electors, and from undocumented vouching, than the 26 vote margin which resulted from last year's judicial recount in the seat; and on that basis he asserted that Canadians could not have confidence in the outcome of the election, in spite of the fact that all election officials and party representatives appeared to have conducted themselves with the best of intentions.
Historically, the riding has never been anything but a two-way Liberal-Conservative race federally, the two traditional parties or their offshoots accounting for between 82.5% and 96% of the ballots cast in every election since at least 1988. The NDP has always run name-on-ballot candidates, rarely spending more than 5% of the limit, while the Greens have done the same since 2004; and a similar pattern is found provincially as well since at least 1999.
[Click on image to open full-sized version]
More recently, while Etobicoke Centre was not ground zero for the so-called "Ford Nation" (Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's own ward as a city councillor was Ward 2 in Etobicoke North), its Wards 3 and 4 certainly formed part of the heartland of his support in the stunning Toronto mayoralty results of 2010.
UPDATE 1: See the excellent clarification on this point from the first reader comment below.
Given this pattern of voting behaviour, one might be tempted to view the seat as one of the few potentially viable targets for a Nathan Cullen-style "cooperation plan" between the so-called "progressive parties" should a by-election indeed be required. But before latching on to such an electoral shortcut too hastily, a quick review of the last overturned election result reminds us how quickly things can change.
Sidebar on York North
In the 1988 "Free Trade" election, first-time Conservative candidate Michael O'Brien was declared the winner on election night in the then-open seat of York North, but an initial recount reversed the result in first-time Liberal candidate Maurizio Bevilacqua's favour, after which a judicial recount re-installed Michael O'Brien with a margin of 99 votes. Even though O'Brien was subsequently sworn in as a Member of Parliament, Bevilacqua appealed the recount and was therefore declared the winner by 77 votes. Finally O'Brien filed an "election petition", after which the number of irregularities was found to have exceeded the 77 vote margin and a new election was ordered. (See note 185 in Marleau & Montpetit here.)
Here's how the York North results changed from the 1988 general election to the 1990 by-election and on to 1993:
Raw Vote and Vote-Share by Party, 1988 GE, 1990 By & 1993 GE, York North, ON
||NV | %TO
So, the Liberals and PCs were even-steven in 1988, but by the time the by-election rolled around the Tories had dropped to 3rd place behind an unusually strong NDP candidate (in the wake of the 1990 Ontario NDP provincial victory and in the depths of the Mulroney government's second-term unpopularity). 1993 went on to be a rout for Bevilacqua and the Liberals.
Vote-Shifts in Etobicoke Centre from 1988 to 2011
So, we can see the risks of going to a by-election in a narrowly won seat in the midst of a government rolling out the toughest parts of its agenda. This is clearly one of the considerations facing the Conservative Party in any decisions about appealing Justice Lederer's ruling to the Supreme Court, and to the extent that voter identification is said to be going on already in the riding of Etobicoke Centre, if it's not a media organization trying to break a quick story with an IVR poll, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the calls were being made by the Conservatives themselves to quickly gather some data to help with that decision-making.
UPDATE 2: According to a tweet, but nowhere else on the Internet yet that I know of, Forum Research (which does IVR polling) has the Liberals 10 points ahead in Etobicoke Centre. It seems unlikely that candidate names were used in the question, when not everyone would be known yet, so I'd take that as a measure of party preference more than anything else.
While we know the past doesn't always predict the future, understanding a riding's history can sometimes help rule out some less plausible hypotheses, so let's turn to the vote swings in the three incarnations of Etobicoke Centre since 1988.
[Note that 1988 and 1993 were fought on the 1987 representation order boundaries; to which were added a bit of Etobicoke North while another chunk was lost to Etobicoke Lakeshore in the 1996 representation order covering the 1997 and 2000 elections; followed by a further small annexation from Etobicoke North in the 2003 representation order which was in effect from 2004 through 2011. This means that exact numbers of raw votes are not directly comparable between 1993 and 1997, nor between 2000 and 2004.]
Raw Vote and Deltas by Party, 1988 GE – 2011 GE, Etobicoke Centre, ON
[Click on image to open full-sized version]
Because turnout played an important role in at least two recent junctures here, I've plotted the results using raw vote, and showing the number of Non-Voters (NV) in purple (NV = Electors – Total_Ballots).
You can see that after Michael Wilson's last election in 1988, the combined conservative vote (Ref + PC; shown in the broken blue line) dropped by about 4,700 votes in 1993 while the NDP shed another 3,800 votes or so, as Allan Rock picked up some 5,400 of those 8,500 loose voters, with the other 3,100 either staying home (2,900) or supporting one of the smaller parties.
Rock maintained his lead over the combined conservative parties in 1997 and 2000, as they traded places a few times and the NDP staged the first leg of its comeback.
In the first election waged against the newly reunited Conservative Party in 2004, new Liberal candidate Borys Wrzesnewskyj grew both the party's raw vote, and its lead over his single Conservative opponent, while meanwhile the NDP staged the second leg of its comeback under newly-elected leader Jack Layton. Note here that the Liberals, NDP and Green Party all grew their vote at the same time, while the Conservatives fell back, and turnout increased by around 5,000 voters.
2006 saw most parties in a holding pattern, but the Conservatives making big gains out of the ranks of previous Non-Voters (note the left-most oval on the line chart above), returning to nearly the combined tally of their ancestor parties from three elections earlier.
By contrast, the story of 2008 was the "Liberals who stayed home", shown in the near exchange between the Liberal red and Non-Voting purple lines in the right-most circle, while the Conservatives this time held their ground, and the NDP and Greens exchanged a few votes between themselves.
This brings us to the quandary of what happened in 2011 in various parts of Greater Toronto, a matter of some debate in the literature, and something I'm looking forward to hearing about more definitively when the Canadian Election Study data is released at this June's Canadian Political Science Association meeting in Edmonton.
There are two main hypotheses, both of which are accepted as true in the popular press, but which seem to be mutually contradictory given the above set of numbers. Either:
- the "blue Liberals" fled to the Conservatives (implying that hikes in the NDP vote came from out of the 2008 Green vote and the ranks of 2008 Non-Voters), OR
- the hike in the NDP vote came from out of the Liberals and Greens, thus "splitting the progressive vote", but also meaning that the clearly observable Conservative gains must have come from out of the ranks of previous non-voters (perhaps the Liberals who stayed home in 2008 in that case)
Perhaps the resolution to this contradiction is that hypothesis (i) held true in the kinds of seats the Conservatives wound up taking decisively from the Liberals, while hypothesis (ii) was found more often in closer fights. Certainly there were many seats around Toronto in 2011 where the Conservatives gained more votes than the Liberals lost, meaning that "vote splits" were not the final culprit in the seat actually changing hands, but that doesn't mean some switching didn't happen between the Liberals and NDP either.
But even in that case, Etobicoke Centre was one of the 11 seats in Greater Toronto where the Liberals lost slightly more votes (2,919) than the Conservatives gained (2,805) – though only very very slightly. The magnitudes of the various parties' vote shifts mean that either of the above hypotheses is plausible here: a strategic conundrum for the parties to also consider as they plot their next steps in the riding.
Risk Assessment for the Four Parties Going Forward
The Conservatives need to figure out which trend is their friend in this case. Is it that they should avail themselves of some of the best election lawyering in the country to appeal the case and try to keep the seat for fear the national polling trends (and even Rob Ford is having some troubles holding onto Ford Nation these days too) could see them underperform in a do-over, as happened in York North. Or should they rely instead on the finding that defeated Liberal incumbents can rarely stage comebacks these days, and try to bank on a better split.
A risk for the party in pursuing the appeal is that it will further commit them to the position taken by Mr. Opitz's legal counsel before the Ontario Superior Court that it is not necessary for every procedural detail of the Elections Act to be followed in order to have a vote counted. This is the exact opposite of the strategy being pursued by the Republican Party south of the border, where very strict voting rules are being promulgated in Republican-controlled states apparently in order to curtail voting by certain groups and in areas less favourably disposed to their party.
Still a seat in the hand is worth two in the bush, so unless the Conservatives have or quickly obtain opinion research showing that the provincial deterioration in federal Liberal support would give them a much stronger shot at winning the riding (in which case I would call a by-election almost immediately in the PM's shoes to catch the other folks off-guard), I suspect we'll probably see an appeal.
For the Liberals, a by-election here would be either their time to shine in an old-school pure two-way Liberal-Conservative contest – the kind they love, and want to recreate in as many other places as possible – or another quantifiable measurement of their reduced status on the federal scene. The party will also likely try to have some fun at the expense of the NDP and its new role as the official opposition, or by stirring up a little trouble over the now-discarded Cullen Plan.
It would seem unimaginable for the Liberals not to renominate Wrzesnewskyj as their candidate, given his enormous personal (and indeed financial) commitment to seeing the legal case through to this point. Although, looking back to the York North parallel, it's interesting to note that Maria Minna unsuccessfully challenged Maurizio Bevilacqua for the Liberal nomination in the 1990 by-election.
On the other hand, Wrzesnewskyj has been offside with the party leadership before, is an advocate of party reform, and was even talked about as a possible leadership contender (though I think that story was subsequently denied – perhaps a reader in the know could fill us in, in the comment section). A party about to enter a leadership contest has to be very careful about the conduct of by-elections during that period, as we've seen elsewhere.
As to the NDP, they really cannot win this seat unless newly-elected leader Thomas Mulcair has some really game-changing candidate recruitment tricks up his sleeve this early in his tenure that we don't know about. Even if they were trying to form a majority government, I doubt this seat would be in the Next 70 or 85, or even in a 338-seat strategy it would almost certainly be in the "Last 50".
Still, they will have to play the expectations game carefully. A competent campaign with a credible candidate that shows growth, say, at the expense of the Conservatives as well as the Liberals would be a plus for them, while a sloppy afterthought of a campaign that saw them fall behind the Greens and miss an opportunity to experiment with new issues, language and target groups would be a minus. It's not surprising to see the "Toronto-area Conservative strategist" speculating on NDP gains in the seat to Postmedia's Stephen Maher in this light, since if you may have to take a hit, it's only smart to make sure someone else is at risk for one at the same time.
Finally, the Greens now have to consider the next steps in their party's strategy. By-elections can be ideal openings for parties following beach-head strategies, but again the party is also at risk of seeing its shrinking national profile (as compared with that of its leader Elizabeth May) quantified in a poor result – in a seat that is not likely its ideal profile either. Not that there is any shortage of environmental issues to run on these days, but it's less clear to me that they would play vote-determining roles in a riding such as Etobicoke Centre.
One cheap and easy out for the party would be to decline to run against Wrzesnewskyj in a Cullen-esque cooperative gesture (much as they decided to do in Cumberland-Colchester against Bill Casey in 2008 after their previous candidate there stepped down), and then dare the NDP to follow suit. No cost, no risks associated with a poor showing, a story the media loves-loves-loves to cover, and a bit of grief for the party that probably ate their lunch there in 2011. It's almost a gimme.
In the absence of the constant election scares of minority parliaments, the occasional by-election offers one opportunity to quantify the parties' relative standings, albeit in particular ridings that may not be representative of the overall national picture at all.
The Conservatives clearly have much more to lose here than in the Toronto-Danforth by-election earlier this spring, even though their performance there was one of their worst outings ever since reforming as a party in 2004, but all the parties have some strategic risks to manage around the likely do-over of the election in Etobicoke Centre.
What I haven't discussed here is the ruling itself, and what it says about two significant changes made to the Elections Act since 1988, but hopefully I can find the time to write about that next.
[Thanks to Chris Carter of the CBC for taking the time to post the entire ruling to documentcloud.org.]