Summer elections aren't great for the incumbent

Nova Scotia calls a vote for Aug. 17 and the federal election might not be far behind

When Premier Iain Rankin visited Nova Scotia’s lieutenant governor on Saturday, he kicked off what could be over 70 consecutive days of election campaigning for Nova Scotians.

It’s setting up to be not only a two-dose summer on the east coast, but a two-vote summer.

Voting once when the weather is nice is rare enough. But twice?

There have been over 400 federal, provincial and territorial elections held in Canada since Confederation. Naturally, I tracked them all down to get an idea of when Canadians have gone to the polls in the past. Here’s how it breaks down by month:

As you can see, only in January and February have fewer elections been held than in July or August. That’s not surprising — we live in Canada, after all, and voting in the dead of winter is just not on.

Our favourite month to tramp out to the polls has been June, when just over a fifth of all elections have been held. Our second-favourite month is October, followed by September and May, when we just got too impatient to wait another month.

Of note, though, is that increasingly it is October that has become the most common month. Since 2000, it is the month that has — by far — featured the most elections, followed by May, November and April. June doesn’t even crack the top four.

I imagine there are simple reasons for this: in olden times, the harvest was something you couldn’t afford to interrupt. Nowadays, it isn’t as central to the country’s calendar. And, I imagine the United States’ penchant for an early November election has led Canadians to believe that the fall is when you’re supposed to vote.

Canada’s favourite day to vote? June 20th. This country has held nine elections on June 20th, four of them in Nova Scotia.

June and October are the two most common months for Nova Scotian elections, followed by May and September, so the province’s political calendar isn’t much different than the country’s as a whole.

Ditto for the federal political calendar. The most federal elections have been held in June (nine) and October (eight). The next most common months are November (five) and September (four), so a fall election is a popular choice in federal politics.

Historically, Alberta has been the most likely to go earlier in the year — March is its most common month for an election. April and May tie for the most common month for elections in Prince Edward Island, while May is the favourite month for elections in British Columbia.

June is tops for Manitoba, New Brunswick, Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan, along with Nova Scotia and federally. In the three northern territories, as well as Newfoundland and Labrador, elections happen most often in October.

Governments more likely to lose in summer

But here’s the note of caution for Iain Rankin and Justin Trudeau: the leaves might change in the fall, but governments change in the summer.

Of the changes of power that I counted in all of Canada’s history of elections, 29% of them have taken place in elections held in July, August and September — months in which only 21% of elections have taken place.

More changes of power have happened in the spring (38%), but that is on par with the number of elections that have been held in April, May and June (38%). Only 27% of government defeats have happened in the fall and 6% in the winter, while 30% of elections have been held in the fall and 11% in the winter.

This means governments have been disproportionately re-elected in fall and winter elections, but have been disproportionately defeated in summer elections.

Maybe exposure to the sun makes Canadians cranky.

Rankin, Trudeau should look to avoid past August-September election precedents

The August 17 provincial election in Nova Scotia will be only the third August election ever held in the province.

The first was in 1933, a few years into the Depression when incumbent governments were falling like flies. Gordon Sidney Harrington’s Conservative government was defeated by Angus L. Macdonald’s Liberals. The party would go on to govern for another 23 years, most of that under Macdonald’s leadership.

The second was in 2003, when the Progressive Conservatives under John Hamm were reduced to a minority government. The PCs would remain in office another six years.

If the federal Liberals decide to call an election immediately after the Nova Scotia campaign is over (as Trudeau did when the Manitoba provincial election ended in 2019), that sets the date for the 2021 federal election at September 27, assuming Trudeau opts for the shortest campaign possible.

He could have the two campaigns overlap as well, of course, but he’d have to call an election this coming weekend in order to have the vote take place in August rather than September.

So, let’s assume the next federal election is in September.

That’s not an auspicious month.

Only four federal elections have been held in September.

In September 1878, Alexander Mackenzie’s Liberals were defeated after just a single term in office. John A. Macdonald’s Conservatives stormed back to power, and wouldn’t give it up again for nearly two decades.

In September 1911, Wilfrid Laurier called an election earlier than he needed to, hoping to win on a reciprocity deal with the United States. It didn’t work, and Robert Borden’s Conservatives won instead.

In September 1926, Arthur Meighen’s short-lived return to the prime ministership was ended when Mackenzie King’s Liberals used the King-Byng Affair (it’s not as scandalous as it sounds) to win enough seats to reclaim the job King so stubbornly refused to give up.

And in September 1984, John Turner’s also short-lived turn as prime minister after the departure of Pierre Trudeau came to a thundering halt, when Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives won the biggest victory in Canadian election history.

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So, not exactly the best run of luck for incumbent governments in September. If Trudeau delays into October, the precedent is better, but not much: out of eight elections held that month, three ended in defeat for the incumbent government and another three saw a majority reduced to a minority. Only twice was the incumbent re-elected with either another minority or a majority.

See you at the polls in November?