Editorial: Be careful with vote numbers

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Politicians, like many of us, can’t resist playing with numbers to make a point. NDP Leader John Horgan is one of those who are doing arithmetical acrobatics with the latest election results.


The preliminary results of last week’s provincial election show that 1,799,685 people voted. Absentee ballots and recounts are still to come, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying to tease meanings out of the figures.


The numbers they play with are these: B.C. Liberals 40.86 per cent; NDP 39.85 per cent; Green Party 16.74 per cent; Libertarians 0.40 per cent; Others 2.15 per cent.


This week, Horgan maintained that the results, which gave the Liberals 43 seats, the NDP 41 and the Greens three, showed that British Columbians want a change in government. He added the votes to conclude that 59.14 per cent of voters cast their ballots against the Liberals. Therefore they wanted to turf the government.


“I think the message from where I come from is that almost 60 per cent of those that cast ballots, with many more to come, said: ‘I don’t believe you’re working for me. I think you’re working for your donors. I think you’re more focused on fundraising than you are on governing,’ ” he said.


That might be true, but it is by no means the only way to interpret the votes. It is also true that 60.15 per cent didn’t vote for the NDP. That’s 1.1 percentage points more than voted against the Liberals, so perhaps a non-NDP coalition reflects the will of the voters.


Similarly, 83.26 per cent didn’t vote for the Green Party, so there could be overwhelming consensus that the Greens should play no role in governing or setting policy, even as part of a coalition.


The debate is reminiscent of the years when the NDP were in power in B.C., and politicians argued that lumping together the votes of all the “free enterprise parties” proved that most voters were opposed to the New Democrats.


We don’t get to cast ballots against a candidate or party. All we can do is vote for one candidate.


It is possible that many who voted for the Greens are just as opposed to an NDP government as they are to a Liberal government. It is also possible that some people who voted for the NDP wanted a strong opposition to the Liberals, but didn’t want an NDP government.


We should remember that every person gets only one vote, and none of them can know for certain how anyone else will cast a ballot in the privacy of the voting booth. Each of those votes is indivisible; there is no subtle hint or shade of meaning within that single ballot.


To suggest, for instance, that “British Columbia voters wanted to give the government a minority” is to turn that mass of individual voters into a single living entity capable of refined thought.


The results of the election put the Liberals in a minority position, but that doesn’t mean that any individual voter wanted that result or that the collective mind of the electorate wanted that result. There is no collective mind, just a mass of independent decisions recorded on pieces of paper.


If any two major parties, or all three of them, want to work together in a formal or informal coalition, they are welcome to do so. They can add up the seats in the legislature any way they want to make it work.


But they can’t read voters’ minds from a handful of numbers.

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