Municipal Elections Matter, Part 1: An Introduction to CMES and Split-Ticket Voting

Municipal elections are important, however, in the field of political science, they are largely understudied. Notably, little is known about how candidates compete, or how voters make choices at this level. The Canadian Municipal Election Study (CMES) received funding to conduct research based on survey data in eight Canadian cities. This month, seven draft papers focusing on the Montreal and Quebec City elections were presented at a small conference at McGill.[1] I will be writing three broad pieces about split ticket voting, nationalism and party identification, and women in municipal politics based on what I learned at the conference.

Of the eight cities studied, Montreal and Quebec are interesting because voters make choices for multiple races (mayor, city councilor, borough mayor) in one election and because of the development of political parties. Voting in multiple races at once is a regular occurrence in places like the United States; voters must choose state governors, the president, senators, and representatives. In Canada, however, voters only choose a member of parliament for their riding in federal elections or in provincial elections, which do not occur simultaneously. In the United States, all the candidates, generally speaking, are either republicans or democrats, in Canada, federal and provincial parties are separate organizations. If a voter selects candidates from more than one party on their ticket, they engage in split-ticket voting.[2] In Canada, municipal elections with parties are the only instance of voting where ticket splitting can occur.

There are two overarching theories for why voters split tickets: strategic and accidental splitting. Some posit that voters purposefully or strategically split their ticket in order to try and elect a more ‘balanced’ government (i.e. one that is not dominated by a single party, but one which deliberates policy better). In such a case, voters are deliberately choosing multiple parties because they believe multiple parties holding power is superior to one party holding power. The accidental ticket splitting camp holds that people vote based on their preferences, which, at times, leads to crossing party lines.

If you were in Montreal during the 2017 municipal election, you probably saw candidate posters all over the city, belonging either to Équipe Denis Coderre or to Projet Montréal. Each party fields candidates in each race (mayor and city councilor). This was not, however, the first instance of political parties competing in Montreal municipal elections. Parties first began to dominate the municipal election scene in the 1960s when Jean Drapeau was mayor.[3] A competitive party landscape also exists in Quebec City. Such landscapes do not exist in other Canadian cities. Thus, the two cities are the perfect opportunity to study split-ticket voting in Canada.

The two CMES team members presenting on the topic were Charles Tessier (McGill University) and R. Michael McGregor (Ryerson University). They find levels of split-ticket voting comparable to elsewhere in the world, around 20% of ballots are split. Furthermore, they find no evidence of strategic vote splitting, it appears that voters make choices based on policy preferences. They find the most significant factor predicting a voter’s choice to split a ticket to be their commitment to the party they are voting for, their partisanship.

You may ask why this is relevant, perhaps municipal elections are understudied because they are unimportant. In fact, municipal government accounts for over 99% of governments in Canada and over 95% of all politicians.[4] Additionally, municipal government is closest to us, they arrange garbage and recycling disposal, take care of parks, and have their place of residence in the municipalities where we live; your local town hall is much closer than parliament. As citizens, it is important to learn about and engage in democracy; it is essential that we continue to vote and think about the policy choices we want to see implemented. Thus, we should care about the study of local politics.

[1] https://www.cmes-eemc.ca/conference/

[2] https://www-cambridge-org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/core/journals/american-political-science-review/article/motivational-basis-of-straight-and-split-ticket-voting/D85A453B6D83CBEE5994F30234AB80FD

[3] https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/city-politics/

[4] https://www.cmes-eemc.ca/about/

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