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The perplexing Ontario by-election call

Dalton McGuinty recently announced that the by-elections for the ridings of Vaughan and Kitchener-Waterloo are to be held on September 6th.  The two retiring MPPs are both veteran politicians. Greg Sorbara, the former Liberal MPP for Vaughan, was first elected to the Legislature in 1985 and served in numerous cabinet portfolios, including minister of finance, and chair of the treasury and management boards of cabinet. He cites family and business interests as the reasons for his retirement.[i] 

Elizabeth Witmer, former PC MPP for Kitchener-Waterloo, is no less distinguished. Elected in 1990, she held ministerial portfolios in health, labour, environment, education, and served as Deputy Premier. She was nominated by Dalton McGuinty as the chair of the Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB), which will increase her annual paycheque from $119,487 to $188,000.[ii]

The seat count currently sits at 52 Liberal, 36 PC, 17 NDP, and 2 vacant. The Speaker, who is currently Liberal, is allowed to vote during a tie. The amount needed for a majority is thus 54 seats, so the Liberals will need to win both by-elections to gain a majority.

The timing of the election call seems to put the Liberals at a disadvantage. It is set before classes begin for students from both local Waterloo universities on September 10th. To hold a by-election at a time when university students are moving in and getting ready for the upcoming semester seems counter intuitive for a party which actively courts the student vote. McGuinty’s 2011 election platform focused very heavily on education, and especially post-secondary education.[iii]  The 30% off tuition promise from the 2011 election was implemented and refund cheques were issued to full-time students meeting certain criteria beginning in winter 2012. Louisa D’Amato, a Waterloo Region Record columnist, writes extensively on the by-election. She argues that the 50,000 university students in Waterloo are a prime target for all parties, and opined in July that “depending on the timing of the election — and all indications are that it will be held after Labour Day — there will be a huge push in September to get the students the information they need and help them qualify to vote.[iv]

A recent study conducted by two Wilfrid Laurier University instructors found that the government gains an incumbent advantage by controlling election timing, but only where the election immediately follows positive government coverage.[v] McGuinty has been receiving fairly negative coverage recently in the press, regarding the teachers’ protests over their wage freezes,[vi] scrapping the Mississauga power plant at taxpayers’ expense of $190 million,[vii] the refusal to sell beer and wine in corner stores,[viii] criticisms by doctors on cuts to health-care funding,[ix] and the legal challenge to the Green Energy Act by one of Canada’s largest solar energy firms.[x] This finding, coupled with the inevitably reduced student turnout, may put Liberals on the defensive. I speculate that the election call was for the following reasons: (1) to avoid infuriating the electorate by calling a summer election; (2) to fill the vacant seats before the Legislature resumes on Sept. 10; and (3) to avoid further negative press that may result when the Legislature resumes.

The Prince Arthur Herald was able to interview Eric Davis, who was recently re-selected as the Liberal candidate for Kitchener-Waterloo. When asked to comment on the student vote, Davis points out that the Liberal vote was very high at university polling stations. The official Elections Ontario poll-by-poll analysis confirms this: at campus polling stations in Kitchener-Waterloo, the PCs had 182 votes, the NDP 298, and the Liberals 520.[xi] This number does not account for all students, as many live off campus and vote at general polling stations, but is likely the most specific indicator of student voting intent in the region. In the riding, there were 96,268 eligible voters, and 49,667 cast a ballot, a participation rate of 50.5%.[xii] Eric Davis lost the last election to Witmer by 3,519 votes. Given the large amount of potential voters on campus, and their tendency to support the Liberals, it is unfathomable why the election was called before students have the time to settle in. Davis wants to “try and engage students as much as humanly possible in the time provided.” This, however, is going to be an extremely difficult task for all parties. When asked if he knew why the election was called on this specific day, Davis was unable to provide an answer. Still, Canadian electoral politics are notoriously volatile. Regardless of the outcome, let us hope that these by-elections will intrigue the electorate and contribute to increased civic and electoral engagement.

More from Samuel Mosonyi | @smosonyi     


[v] Jason Roy and Christopher Alcantara, “The Election Timing Advantage: Empirical Fact or Fiction?,” Electoral Studies (2012), in press: 1-8.

[xi] 44+82+57+115 = 298 for NDP, 20+34+56+72= 182 for PC, 80+122+119+199=520 for Liberal; 2 university polling stations were combined with other ridings and so are not counted. http://www.wemakevotingeasy.ca/media/EO_Site/official_GE/ED039-F0244.pdf