The Weekly Writ for Apr. 5: Why banning polls is a bad idea
Plus: PEI election results, Alberta polls and a milestone for Jagmeet Singh.
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Elections Ontario is proposing that the publication of voting intentions results (or, as Elections Ontario bafflingly calls them, “political party favourability ratings”) be banned in the last two weeks before election day.
It’s a monumentally bad idea.
After I shared some of my thoughts on Twitter, Michelle Rempel Garner, the Conservative MP for Calgary Nose Hill, invited me to collaborate on a dialogue of sorts with her on the issue over on her Substack. You can check that out here:
But let me expand a little more on why I think this proposal from Elections Ontario is just a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea.
It’s a misdiagnosis of the problem
In a bid to combat decreasing turnout, Elections Ontario thinks a ban on polls is a good idea because “political polls have the potential to influence election results by either motivating or demotivating electors.” Of course, polls aren’t alone in that. Media coverage, political advertising, chats with family and friends, the weather — these are all things that can influence an election’s results.
Blaming polls for low turnout makes no sense. There are plenty of elections with predictable outcomes that have higher turnout than we see in Ontario (and, without polls, a foregone conclusion that has become competitive might go unnoticed, depriving voters of the information that might have motivated them to cast a ballot). As even parties themselves recognized in their election post-mortems, the fault for the low turnout in 2022 largely lay in the inability of the Liberals and New Democrats to motivate Ontarians to bother casting a vote for them, and the success of the PCs in demotivating potential opponents to bother voting against them. Turnout ebbs and flows with the dynamics of a campaign, not what the polls reveal about that campaign.
It’s based on some worrying principles
At its core, this proposal is based on the belief that if only Ontarians had been left in the dark, they might have been fooled into believing that the election was more competitive than it actually was and would have voted in bigger numbers. Encouraging uncertainty to foster suspense in order to increase turnout is a dangerous idea.
Interest groups and political parties would still be able to poll. A ban on the publication of polls during a campaign gives those actors all the advantages. Why should the organizations actively trying to influence a voter have access to information that the voter does not?
And let’s not confuse things. Polls don’t come out of thin air, they are measuring something that is real. Saying polls influence elections is the same as saying information influences elections. Picking and choosing what information voters should have access to is not the role of an electoral authority.
Has Elections Ontario heard of the internet? Nothing would prevent polling firms in other provinces or in the United States from releasing the results of their own surveys. There is a reason that the ban on reporting election results in areas where the polls haven’t closed yet had to be dropped. Whether or not it was a good idea in the first place, it just didn’t make any sense in the age of social media.
It’ll produce worse outcomes
Polls get lots of attention during campaigns because they try to answer the No. 1 question people have in any election campaign: who is going to win? Banning polls will not stop horse race journalism. It’ll produce worse horse race journalism based on spin, rumour and anecdote. Narratives of an inevitable election result will be set just as readily by the media with or without polls. (Also, I believe that the column spaces and airtime liberated by reduced poll coverage will not be filled by increased policy coverage, but rather decreased election coverage.)
As people search for the answer of who is going to win the election, they will fall prey and be manipulated by bad actors, leaking secret polls or spreading fabricated results that can’t be verified or checked against legitimate, publicly-available surveys. Instead of the supposed danger of influence, we’ll have the very real danger of misinformation.
Of course, I’m not a dispassionate observer. I have skin in this game. But I don’t cover polls for the money (and, if I did, I should probably re-think my life choices). I cover polls because I think they are 1) interesting and 2) useful. I’ve always believed polls are a gateway drug to political participation and enthusiasm. If you become engaged in the horse race, you’ll start paying more attention to what the horses are doing.
This proposal is just wrong-headed in every way and won’t fix low turnout. It’ll instead produce a less informed, misled and confused voter. Better that person stay home.
Now, to what is in this week’s instalment of the Weekly Writ:
News out of Prince Edward Island’s election, a resignation of a former federal party leader and the passing of a Saskatchewan MLA. Plus a few more things you might have missed this week.
Polls, polls and more polls in Alberta, Ontario and federally.
Trudeau’s Liberals would likely hold on if the election were held today.
The New Brunswick Liberal leader’s chance for a seat in this week’s riding profile.
Another Ghiz takes over the PEI Liberals in the #EveryElectionProject.
Jagmeet Singh reaches a new milestone.
Let’s get to it!
IN THE NEWS
PEI PCs get their majority, opposition survives
Dennis King’s gamble in calling the Prince Edward Island provincial election six months ahead of schedule paid off in spades, as his Progressive Conservatives increased their majority from 15 seats at dissolution to 22 seats.
With 55.9% of the vote, the PCs saw their support balloon by 19 points compared to the last election. Somewhat surprisingly, that didn’t produce as much of a win as it historically should have. When the PCs won 26 of 27 seats in 2000, they had a 24-point margin over second place. When the Liberals won 26 of 27 seats in 1993, they beat the Tories by 16 points.
Here, the PCs won by 34 points over the Greens but did not win as many seats as they could have, suggesting that local factors played a big role in the outcome. The Greens took 21.6% of the vote, down nine points from 2019, but only secured two seats. That cost them official opposition status, as the Liberals won three seats with just 17.2% of the vote. The drop of 12 percentage points cost the Liberals one seat, while the Greens’ nine-point drop cost them six seats.
A sweep, or near it, wasn’t all that far off for the PCs. They came 1,089 votes short of winning every seat on the island, or 501 votes short of going 26 for 27. The party’s dominance was nearly complete, as the PCs were a strong second in all five of the districts they didn’t win.
For the Greens to lose official opposition status is a huge blow for Peter Bevan-Baker. His party was only 38 votes short of beating the PCs in Mermaid-Stratford. With three seats, incumbency and more of the vote, the Greens probably would have retained official opposition status if they had as many seats as the Liberals.
But not all is lost for the Greens. They still finished second in the vote and have a broad base to build back from — they placed second in 18 districts. But this was a near-run thing. Only 180 votes separated them from being completely shutout.
The Liberals were at less risk of that, as they won their three seats by bigger vote margins than the Greens won theirs. But the party only has something to show for itself out of this election thanks to its incumbent candidates: Robert Henderson, Hal Perry and Gord McNeilly. Their long-standing ties to their districts helped them survive the PC cull.
But that papers over a problem: it wasn’t the Liberal Party that retained official opposition, it was these three locally-popular guys. The Liberal base has been eroded, with only three second-place finishes.
The New Democrats, as has been the case throughout their history with the exception of a single election in 1996, were shutout. But their 4.5% vote share was more than they earned in four of the previous five elections, so it wasn’t an entirely bad showing.
The broader implications of these results are limited. But this is yet another incumbent government that has been re-elected. The only post-COVID government to have been defeated is that of the Liberals in Nova Scotia. Since the beginning of 2020, every other government has been re-elected. That record will be tested later this year in Alberta and Manitoba.
From a party perspective, it’s another example of successful, middle-of-the-road conservative party, another case of the Liberal brand being in some trouble at the provincial level and another setback for the Greens. In the 2010s, everything seemed to be going in the right direction for the party. So far, the 2020s haven’t been easy for the Greens.
Thanks to those of you who tuned in to my livestream of the results on Monday night. Next up: a trio of New Brunswick byelections on April 24.
First update to the 2023 Prediction Contest
With the PEI election now behind us, here’s where things stand in the contest to win the 2023 Prediction Contest and the coveted Writ Cup!
The maximum number of points up for grabs was 14: five points for calling the PC victory (which everyone did) and three points for calling the PC, Greens and Liberals to within one seat. One point was awarded for calling their result within three seats.
Seven contestants earned the maximum number of points, but nobody had a perfect call. These seven are in the pole position as the 2023 Prediction Contest gets going:
14 points: Joshua Lo, Larry Savage, Philip Palmer, Hannah, Kalenne H., Hamish Gilleland, Kate Butler
12 points: Russ, Anthony C.
10 points: Éric Grenier, Brett Willemsen, Peter Ryan, Cam Chamberlain, Vivian Unger, WilliamOC, Gerard Kennedy, Rod, Richard Davies, Peter, John Orr, Leonard Hetu, Ali, Jonathon, Matt Ewing, David Fraser, Murdoch Macleod, Felix, Brian Lowry
9 points: Jon M, Morrey Ewing, Adam Berkan, Tom McIntosh, Markus Meyer, Nicholas, Jason Young, Jeff
8 points: Patrick Lachapelle, Anthony Piscitelli, Ryan Vienneau, Bill Day, Alan Siaroff, Rob DePetris
7 points: Andy T, Scott, Rod Dickinson
6 points: Adrian Wright
Barring a snap election call or the resignation of a federal leader, the next set of points to be awarded will be after the Alberta election on May 29.
Erin O’Toole to resign at end of sitting
The MP for Durham and the former leader of the Conservative Party, Erin O’Toole, announced last week that he would resign his seat once Parliament adjourns for the summer.
O’Toole was first elected in a 2012 byelection, and was re-elected in 2015, 2019 and 2021. He ran twice for the leadership of the Conservatives, finishing third with 21% in 2017 and winning against Peter MacKay in 2020. He led the party into the 2021 campaign and was leading in the polls for a brief period. In the end, the Conservatives finished with a little less of the vote and two fewer seats than in 2019. He was ousted as leader by the Conservative caucus in early 2022.
How O’Toole will be remembered will depend a lot on what happens next. If the Conservatives lose the next election, he’ll likely suffer the same fate as other leaders who had brief, unsuccessful stints as head of the party — forgotten figures like Robert Manion or John Bracken. If the Conservatives win the next election, how that victory comes about will colour how O’Toole is remembered, either as someone who set the party in a winning direction or who provided the cautionary tale that Pierre Poilievre avoided.
As to byelection timing, if his resignation is going to take place in June it seems unlikely that Durham’s vacancy could be filled on the same date as the other five vacancies in the House of Commons. The deadline to call a byelection to fill the longest-standing vacancy in Winnipeg South Centre is June 11 and the House is scheduled to sit for two weeks after that (though that can change). So, it’s possible we’ll have at least two sets of byelections in 2023.
Durham, located in the eastern GTA and occupying territory east and north of Oshawa, was won by O’Toole by a margin of 16.5 points over the Liberals in 2021. The Conservatives have held the bulk of what is today’s riding since 2004 and would enter the byelection as the heavy favourites. But, with just a 10-point victory margin in 2015 and 2019, when O’Toole wasn’t a party leader, Durham might be more of a contest than any of the other byelections are likely to be.
Saskatchewan MLA Derek Meyers passes away
There was sad news last week when it was announced that Derek Meyers, the Saskatchewan Party MLA for the riding of Regina Walsh Acres, had passed away from cancer at the age of 45.
A former sports reporter, Meyers first ran for office in the 2020 provincial election. He won by a margin of nine points over the New Democrats, replacing Warren Steinley as the local MLA. Steinley is now a Conservative MP.
There are now three vacancies in the Saskatchewan legislature, the others being the ridings of Lumsden-Morse and Regina Coronation Park.
My deepest condolences to his family and friends.
ELECTION NEWS BRIEFS
Nominations for the Toronto mayoralty opened and the list of hopefuls is enormous. It includes MPP Mitzie Hunter, city councillors Josh Matlow and Brad Bradford, former councillors Ana Bailão, Giorgio Mammoliti and Rob Davis, former MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes, former police chief Mark Saunders and former Toronto Sun columnist Anthony Furey, along with 21 other names (as of Tuesday at 2 PM). Is that a lot? It seems like a lot.
Plus: Former Liberal MP Navdeep Bains will not run for the leadership of the Ontario Liberals. Jim Dinn, MHA for St. John’s Centre, was acclaimed as leader of the Newfoundland and Labrador NDP. Also acclaimed as leader was John Rustad, B.C. MLA for Nechako Lakes and former B.C. Liberal. He’ll take over the B.C. Conservative Party. Ontario MPP Michael Mantha was ejected from the NDP caucus for alleged workplace misconduct and will sit as an Independent.
THIS WEEK’S POLLS
Lots of polls, little certainty in Alberta
So you like Alberta polls, eh? Well, have all the Alberta polls in the world!
Mainstreet Research: 46% NDP, 45% UCP, 3% AP, 2% WIP
Angus Reid Institute: 49% UCP, 42% NDP, 4% AP, 2% LIB
Innovative Research: 40% NDP, 39% UCP, 7% LIB, 6% GRN, 5% AP, 4% WIP
With the exception of the (unlikely) high scores for the smaller parties in the Innovative survey, these polls are all painting the same portrait that we’ve seen in Alberta for months: a very tight race between the United Conservatives and New Democrats across the province.
But, as I’ve repeated ad nauseam, it’s the Calgary numbers that count.
There were no regional numbers in the Innovative survey, so we can leave that one out. Otherwise, we have a 46-43 UCP lead according to ARI, a 44-44 tie in the Léger survey and a 51-40 NDP lead according to Mainstreet.
This varies from elation to disaster for both parties, as these three surveys would individually produce everything from a big NDP victory to a big UCP victory.
It’s hard to know what to make of these numbers. According to ARI, the provincial trend line is moving toward the UCP with the gap widening by three points compared to their survey last fall. Léger shows stability in their numbers. Mainstreet is registering a swing to the NDP.
With the election potentially as tight as it could be, this will be a tricky one to follow in the polls. Every twitch and grunt could change the complexion of the province’s next government.
POLLING NEWS BRIEFS
Léger surveyed Chinese Canadians for Postmedia and, among other things, found that opinion is split on whether they believe the allegations of Chinese election interference. Innovative Research polled the general population on the issue and its findings were similar to what other polls have found — the Liberals’ handling of it gets poor grades and too many Canadians believe the interference might have changed the outcome. Nanos Research finds Pierre Poilievre still leads Justin Trudeau on preferred prime minister at 29% to 25%. In Ontario, the Angus Reid Institute finds Doug Ford’s PCs leading the Ontario NDP by eight points as Liberal support slides.
IF THE ELECTION WERE HELD TODAY
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals would narrowly win more seats than Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives, with the Bloc and/or the NDP holding the balance of power.
The Ontario NDP makes some gains at the expense of the Ontario Liberals, but Doug Ford’s PCs remain in charge. A seat slips over to the New Democrats in Alberta, and the big chart is updated to reflect the results of the PEI election.
The following seat estimates are derived from a uniform swing model that is based on trends in recent polls as well as minor tweaks and adjustments. Rather than the product of a statistical model, these estimates are my best guess of what an election held today would produce, based both on the data and my own experience observing dozens of elections since 2008.
Changes are compared to last week. Parties are ordered according to their finish in the previous election (with some exceptions for minor parties).
RIDING OF THE WEEK
Bathurst East-Nepisiguit-Saint-Isidore (New Brunswick)
The next elections on the Canadian calendar are the three byelections scheduled for April 24 in New Brunswick. They will be held in the provincial ridings of Dieppe, Restigouche-Chaleur and Bathurst East-Nepisiguit-Saint-Isidore.
All three are safe Liberal ridings, so the outcome is in little doubt. But one of these is nevertheless going to be an important event.
That’s because Bathurst East-Nepisiguit-Saint-Isidore has been chosen by Susan Holt as her ticket to the Legislative Assembly.
Holt, who is from the Fredericton area, has been without a seat in the legislature since she took over as leader of the New Brunswick Liberals last August. The departure of Denis Landry, a long-time Liberal MLA, provided an opportunity to end her absence from the political epicentre of the province.
Landry, who resigned his seat to become the mayor of Hautes-Terre, won Bathurst East-Nepisiguit-Saint-Isidore with 64% of the vote in the 2020 election. Amanda Keast of the PCs finished well back in second with 24%, followed by the Greens’ Robert Kryszko at 12%.
Located in northern New Brunswick, this riding occupies the eastern half of the city of Bathurst as well as part of the Acadian Peninsula that runs along the Baie-des-Chaleurs that separates northeastern New Brunswick from Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula.
A fixture of local politics, Landry was an MLA in the region for all but four years between 1995 and 2022, winning Bathurst East-Nepisiguit-Saint-Isidore with 62% of the vote in 2014 and 52% in 2018.
Prior to the 2014 election, the area was split into two ridings. The PCs won a portion in 2010 and both ridings in 1999, but otherwise the area has been Liberal in every election since 1987.
So, Bathurst East-Nepisiguit-Saint-Isidore is a good landing spot for a seatless Liberal leader ahead of the scheduled 2024 election.
In the most recent Narrative Research poll, the Liberals held a 19-point lead over the PCs in northern New Brunswick, while Holt herself was up by nine points over Blaine Higgs as the preferred premier in the region.
Holt is the third consecutive Liberal leader to not have a seat in the Legislative Assembly. Kevin Vickers did not have a chance to run in a byelection before the 2020 campaign was called. Brian Gallant, however, ran in a 2013 byelection in the riding of Kent, taking 59% of the vote in what was a safe Liberal riding. He became premier the following year. Holt is hoping her timeline will be the same.
ON THIS DAY in the #EveryElectionProject
A second Ghiz for the Liberals
April 5, 2003
The 2000 provincial election in Prince Edward Island was one the PEI Liberals wanted to forget.
Against Pat Binns’s incumbent Progressive Conservative government, Wayne Carew nearly led the party to complete destruction. The Liberals were reduced to just a single seat (and that won by just 157 votes) and 34% support. At the time, that represented the worst performance for the Liberals in the party’s long history. (The party reached a new low this past Monday.)
Carew held on as leader for a few months, but by the fall of 2000 he decided it was time to step down.
"It will always be something that you wish you could have another crack at," he said. Ron MacKinley, the lone Liberal survivor from 2000, took over as interim leader.
There wasn’t much of a rush to fill that job in a province dominated by Binns and the PCs. Not until February 2003, just a few weeks before the nomination deadline, did two candidates come forward.
Alan Buchanan was the first. An MLA for 4th Queens from 1989 to 1996, Buchanan had served as a cabinet minister in the Joe Ghiz and Catherine Callbeck governments, taking on important portfolios like health and justice. Since leaving politics ahead of the 1996 campaign that brought the PCs to power, Buchanan had been working in the private sector. He launched his leadership campaign in his hometown of Belfast in front of 250 supporters.
A few days later, Robert Ghiz joined the fray.
A familiar name in Prince Edward Island as the son of Joe Ghiz, premier from 1986 to 1993 (he passed away from cancer in 1996), Robert Ghiz was just 29 years old. While the family name was well-known among Islanders, his was also a well-known face in Liberal circles, as Robert Ghiz served as Atlantic advisor to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.
"We need a resurgence of energy that has been the backbone of our party,” he told the 275 or so supporters gathered for his campaign launch in Charlottetown. “We need a leader who wants to work hard, a leader who will bring about dramatic change in this organization — a change in attitude, a change in mind set."
Ghiz, however, was not banking his strategy on nostalgia for the years of his father, who led the Liberals to big victories in 1986 and 1989.
"I'm not my father,” he said. “I just hope I can learn from some of the good things he did on PEI."
The convention at the Charlottetown Civic Centre was very well-attended, as nearly 4,000 Liberal party members would cast a ballot.
"I didn't know there were this many Liberals left on P.E.I.," one delegate joked to the CBC.
While Ghiz pitched the message of renewal, Buchanan leaned into his experience. During his convention speech, he argued that "I am ready to lead this party. I have earned my stripes and my apprenticeship is over." But decisions he had made when in government, particularly a pay cut for public sector workers, were still haunting him.
With 3,979 ballots cast, Ghiz emerged as the favourite — but only just. He earned the support of 2,065 delegates, giving him 52% of the vote. Buchanan was only 161 votes behind with 1,904, or 48%.
"The Liberal Party is ready for change,” Ghiz said in his speech before the ballots were cast. “The province is ready for change, the Tory era is ending and I am here to offer this party a fresh start.”
"We need to learn from our past, live in the present and build now for the future. Today is the start of a new page in the history of our party."
He was right about that, but that new page wouldn’t be turned just yet.
In the 2003 election called a few months later, Ghiz would improve the Liberals’ standing, win himself and three other Liberals a seat in the legislature and increase the party’s vote share by eight percentage points. Unlike Carew, he would get another crack at the premiership. But he’d have to wait four more years before occupying the same office that his father once did.
Jagmeet Singh passes his predecessor
On Tuesday, Jagmeet Singh will pass Thomas Mulcair as the sixth longest serving leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada.
Mulcair won the party’s leadership race held in 2012, taking over the mantle that was left behind when Jack Layton passed away. For part of that year and again for part of 2015, Mulcair’s New Democrats were leading in national polls but fell short in the election that instead brought Justin Trudeau to power.
Though Singh has now led the NDP into two elections vs. Mulcair’s one, he has yet to match Mulcair’s performance in 2015. The 44 seats and 19.7% of the vote won in that campaign still ranks as the third-best result in the NDP’s history in seat share and fourth-best in vote share. Singh won just 24 seats and 16% of the vote in his first election in 2019, and improved that only slightly to 25 seats and 17.8% of the vote in 2021.
If Singh’s leadership, as well as the confidence and supply agreement signed between him and Trudeau, lasts until the next scheduled election in 2025, he will finish this Parliament fourth on the list of NDP leaders, behind only Ed Broadbent, Tommy Douglas and Jack Layton.
That’s it for the Weekly Writ this week. The next episode of The Writ Podcast will be dropping on Friday. As always, the episode will land in your inbox but you can also find it on Apple Podcasts and other podcasting apps. And don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube Channel, where I post videos, livestreams and interviews from the podcast!
Do you have any thoughts as to which party, if any, may benefit/be harmed by a ban in polling before the election?
Does the Elections Ontario report explain what they hope a ban on opinion polling will accomplish? The only thing I've found on the subject in it so far is a sidebar on p.50. It seems odd to drop such a bombshell idea in such a small space without providing a more persuasive argument. https://www.elections.on.ca/content/dam/NGW/sitecontent/2022/reports/2022%20General%20Election%20-%20Post-Event%20Report.pdf