Provincial and federal elections in Canada are largely determined by quirks of geography. That is, the number of seats each party receives in the legislature is rather independent of the popular vote and has more to do with the way people of particular political leanings are concentrated (or not) within arbitrarily-drawn districts. This makes pre-election polling an interesting exercise in extrapolation; a particular percentage of popular support could translate into quite a range of possible seat totals. Most polls, therefore, gauge public opinion well enough, but are unreflective of the reality of our electoral system.
The only way to predict the final seat count in the “first-past-the-post” system with reasonable accuracy—and without resorting to formulas—is to go riding by riding. For the 1997 federal election, David Savitt, then a Harvard grad student in mathematics, used the internet to do exactly that with his Riding-by-Riding Information Exchange. Site visitors were encouraged to share their takes on what was going on in their riding, based on their on-the-ground perspective. The “prediction through submission” project was a success, correctly forecasting 267 out of the 301 seats, about 89%. The idea was revived two years later by Milton Chan, then studying in the political science department at the University of Waterloo, as a thesis project to predict the outcome of the 1999 Ontario election. Achieving a respectable 85.4% accuracy rate, Chan kept the Election Prediction Project going after his graduation.
Carefully filtering public submissions to minimize the impact of enthusiastic party hacks, and weighing tips for their reliability, Chan and a team of volunteers try to glean a consensus about which way a district is going to go, and as an election day approaches, they call more and more ridings that they had previously designated as “Too Close.” Their final picks for the 2007 Ontario election are: Liberals 64, Progressive Conservatives 31, NDP 12, others 0.
In 2003, they got 93 out of 103, so if you don’t like what they’re predicting for tomorrow, the best way to complain is to get out and vote.
Photo by james_at_middleage from the Torontoist Flickr pool.