A look at the early turnout for the BC referendum on electoral reform

The referendum on electoral reform is happening right now in BC. According to Elections BC, as of yesterday's morning, 6.5% of the registered voters have sent their ballots back (or, more exactly, Elections BC had received these ballots).

With every single poll showing pretty much a 50-50 race, including my own poll, turnout might be the key to this referendum. Which side will get its vote out the most? If Millennials and people on the Island vote the most, PR will pass. If, on the other hand, the votes come mostly from older people living in the interior, then the current system will prevail.

It's very early and therefore preliminary, but let's look at the numbers and see if we can find some patterns.

1. Turnout predictions

As mentioned above, the current turnout is 6.5% but there is considerable variation across ridings. This is mostly due to the fact that some regions (mostly in the interior of BC) got their envelops earlier. According to the website of Elections BC, there are four groups: 1 that received by October 24th, another by the 25, one by the 26 and, more importantly, a large group of 64 ridings that received their ballots until November 2nd. Among this group, you have variations as well (as indicated by the fact that some of these ridings were below 1% turnout even yesterday) but we don't have the exact date.

For us, it creates really two groups: the 23 ridings (16 in the interior, 4 in the Lower Mainland and 3 on the Island) that received early and the rest. It is important to keep that in mind during our analysis.

Elections BC started reporting on the number of ballots received on November 5th. For the first group of ridings, that means up to 12 days after receiving the envelops while the second group could have had as little as 3 days. We naturally expect the current turnout in the first group to be higher and it is. The average (not weighted, so each riding is equal) turnout is around 10.5% while it's only around 5% for the second group (another way to see the impact of the dates, the first group represents 36% of all ballots received while representing only 26% of the ridings).

This graph below shows you the turnout by date for the two groups:

As you can see the second group is catching up. As a matter of fact, at the same numbers of days since receiving the ballots, the second group is higher. But remember that the second group has more variety within it and not all ridings actually received their ballots as late as November 2nd. Also, comparing the number of days since received isn't truly an apple to apple comparison. According to Google Trends, the interest in this referendum picked up early November and peaked at the "lit" debate on November 7th (see graph below). This means that it's reasonable to assume the second group of ridings would have voted sooner while the first group wanted to wait. They should converge as we approach the deadline.

So, where is this heading? As some people right in fearing a record low turnout? Maybe.

Using this graph from David P. Ball from the Star, we see that the early turnout for this referendum is actually outpacing the previous two referendums (the 2011 one about the HST and the 2015 transit "plebiscite").

(Yes the period to return the ballots was longer for the HST referendum. This is because a postal strike happened in the middle of the campaign and Elections BC decided to extend the deadline. They might do the same this time around depending on what happens with Canada Post)

So, can we expect this referendum to break the 50% barrier? I'm skeptical.

I believe more people were interested in the HST (people actually requested this referendum after being upset at the BC Liberals for breaking their promise not to introduce this tax; Plus, you know, people really, really dislike sale taxes) or the transit plan than electoral reform. The Angus-Reid poll was clearly showing that for many people, this just wasn't a major topic.

Also, if I only use the data from the first group (the one that got their ballots earlier), we see that the best fit for the data seems to be a concave function (like a logarithm). The HST line on the graph above showed that turnout really picked up after around 16 days. If the same was to happen this year, the current data isn't showing this. But again, this is very early.

Let's do the extrapolation with multiple scenarios.

Scenario 1: we extrapolate the current concave function. In this case, we would predict a final turnout of around 20%.

Scenario 2: linear extrapolation. In this case, we end up at around 26%.

Scenario 3: it picks up. In this case, your guess is as good as mine. I can't really use the current data since it doesn't show an steepening of the slope. Based on the graph from the Star, 50% and more isn't impossible. Maybe a better way is to see where the HST turnout was at the same point as when this referendum will end. As you can see, this is just crossing the 30% mark.

Ultimately a turnout between 20 and 30% seems likely. Not only based on these graph but on the fact that during a similar referendum last year, Prince Edward Island got 36% turnout. If you account for the fact that PEI has higher general turnouts than BC, then 20-30% becomes quite good actually.

2. Any pattern?

Again, I repeat myself but this is very early and the data is not super reliable for now (the problem really is the second group of ridings that just started voting). Still, I decided to look at general correlations between the current turnout and some other variables such as the region, the electoral results in 2017 (is the riding a Liberal or NDP one?) as well as the median age and the share of Millennials in the riding (based on the 2011 census, haven't seen the updated version unfortunately).

What did I find? So far, it seems the Interior is voting more (and that's while factoring the fact most of the ridings in the first group were from this region; I used a regression to isolate each effect). For the age and shares of Millennials, they both have positive effects on the turnout! Is it possible that young people are voting (the 18-44, so that includes some Gen Z) and the older people also do? So a Baby-boomers versus Millennials while the Gen X would watch from the sideline. Finally, regarding who the riding voted for in 2017, I find that BC Liberals ridings are currently voting more (again, this is while accounting for when they received their ballots).

All of this is consistent with the Insight West poll showing that among the people who had voted already, FPTP was leading. Yes my regression is supposed to control for the fact some ridings received their ballots sooner, but it might not be doing a perfect job yet since we are too early in the process. Or turnout will simply remain higher among the BC Liberals, older ridings in the interior and proportional representation won't pass.

So right now it doesn't look too good for proportional representation. But we'll. My poll was clearly showing that the undecided were more similar to the pro-PR folks. The key now for Horgan and Weaver is to get these people (mostly Millennials) to actually vote.

As a conclusion, I think the key might be how well the Green party is mobilizing its voters. They are around 18% right now in the polls (so similar to last year). Their partisans are some of the most pro-PR, for obvious reasons. If the overall turnout does remain as low as 20%, then the Green vote could well be the difference. If this party can get its voters to vote, even half of them, that could be enough to reach a majority in favor of PR. The Liberals are definitely trying hard to get their vote out and I'm not sure about the NDP.