Can Ontario’s 1990 election provide clues for 2018?

Conventional and social media focus on the three parties contesting the Ontario election, and particularly on the Provincial Leaders and their relative popularity.  But we don’t elect parties or leaders in our parliamentary system: as voters, Ontarians elect local representatives (MPPs).  Whichever party does the best job of electing their MPPs forms the government.

What this means in a first-past-the-post electoral system, with three strong party contenders and few “safe seats” among the 124 ridings, is that most successful candidates will be elected with much less than a majority of the votes cast.  It many cases, a little over one-third of the vote is necessary to win and where there is a significant fourth party or independent, an MPP could be elected with less than 1/3rd of the vote.

On June 7, 2018, a modest but well distributed level of electoral support for any one party can still produce a majority government.  As Bill Clinton famously observed in another context: ‘It’s arithmetic!’

Visit our poll tracker to see where the race is trending today.

Consider the experience of the 1990 Ontario election, which yielded a surprise victory by the NDP.  The NDP won its majority of 74 seats (up from 19) with a modest 37.6% of the popular vote (and some of that support was inflated by traditional NDP ridings, where it won handily).  The NDP’s success came in winning virtually every close three-way race, often with little more than 35% of the votes cast.  Of its 74 seats, 14 seats (nearly 1 in 5) were won by less than 35% of the popular vote.

Without those 14 seats, the NDP would have been in a minority government position, vulnerable to defeat as the economy went into recession in the early 1990s.

Three-way splits are especially sensitive to voter turnout, local issues, last-minute developments, and local personalities.  Speaker Tip O’Neil’s maxim was: “All politics is local”.  That is especially true for close local races.  We will be watching those three-way races if overall Ontario polling numbers start to coalesce – and so should you!


1990 Ontario Election Results

Total seats:  130 seats; 66 needed for majority

NDP: 74 (previously 19); 37.6% of votes cast

Liberals:  36 (previously 95); 32.4% of votes cast

PCs:  20 (previously 16); 23.5% of votes cast

NDP seats won by <35% of the vote:  14



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