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Baldrey: Splits happen. It'll 'almost certainly occur' in B.C.'s 2024 election

Columnist Keith Baldrey explains why it's not unheard of for a B.C. political party to win the most seats in the legislature, but not the vote.
Voting ballot. | Getty Images

There is a lot of talk about potential “vote splitting” in the upcoming provincial election set for October and given the impact that could have on the election outcome it is worth examining our previous experiences with it.

The mother of all vote-split elections occurred in 1996, when the NDP government was re-elected despite getting almost 40,000 fewer votes than the B.C. Liberals province-wide. The NDP, with 39.5 per cent of the vote, won 39 seats while the B.C. Liberals, with 41.8 per cent of the vote won just 33 seats.

This anomaly occurred because the upstart Reform Party of B.C. took almost 10 per cent of the vote and two seats, and it can be reasonably argued that most of those voters would otherwise have voted B.C. Liberal had the Reform Party not existed.

The Reform Party may have not attracted a lot of voters (about 146,000) but they were spread over enough ridings to allow the NDP to win four seats with less than 40 per cent of the vote as Reform and the B.C. Liberals “split” the anti-NDP vote.

For example, in the northern riding of Bulkley Valley-Stikine the NDP won with just 37 per cent while the Reform Party and the B.C. Liberals split 57 per cent of the vote between them. Similar scenarios unfolded in the ridings of Kootenay, Prince George North and Cariboo North, while the NDP won another six ridings on vote splits.

If these splits had not occurred and had the Reform Party not existed, the B.C. Liberals would likely have won around 43 seats while the NDP may have been reduced to around 30 seats.

Another vote-split election occurred in 1991, when the NDP likely won at least nine seats because the Social Credit Party and the upstart B.C. Liberal Party split about 57 per cent of the voters. The 2017 election, which elected three Green Party MLAs, wasn’t really a typical vote split result  because it was far from clear which party lost the most voters to the Greens.

Fast forward to the October election and if you apply a vote split scenario based on the assumption the NDP will go into the campaign with a  lead (based on a serious of polls) the potential impact can be seen from past election results.

A split of even minor proportion would likely strengthen the NDP’s hold on the 15 ridings it took from the B.C. Liberals in the 2020 election and increase its chances of winning other ridings such as Skeena, Columbia River-Revelstoke, Kamloops-North Thompson and Surrey-White Rock.

Vote splitting will almost certainly occur in the looming election, as the B.C. United Party and the B.C. Conservatives are increasingly at each other’s throats in a bid to be the lone alternative for those not wanting to re-elect the NDP government to a third straight term.

But neither Opposition party shows signs of going away. While another B.C. United MLA defected to the B.C. Conservatives last week, most of the party’s incumbent MLAs have said they are sticking with their party and another 40 candidates have been appointed by it.

And the B.C. Conservatives continue to be a strong second choice in public opinion polls, which puts considerable wind in the party’s sails as it appoints more and more candidates.

Get ready for it, folks. Splits happen.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.