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Editorial: Byelection results are not always a harbinger of things to come

Thompson riding voters will have another chance to have their say in less than two years, in an election when everything’s actually on the line.
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Elections Manitoba ballot boxes during the 2019 provincial election.

In the wake of any election, it can be tempting to try to read the tea leaves and interpret what the results mean for the future. But every election is a unique creature and sometimes, trying to read a lot into who won, who lost and how many people voted can be a fool’s errand, at the end of which you aren’t really any more capable of making a good prediction about the next election than you were before the analysis began. This probably holds particularly true for byelections, since they lack the larger implications that general elections do and so are possibly just more about how people feel about the candidates they have to choose from, rather than the party or the larger movements they represent in general.

Not unexpectedly, turnout for the Thompson byelection was low, just a shade under 20 per cent, which is slightly more than half of what it was in 2019 when voters elected the late Danielle Adams, whose December 2021 death precipitated the June 7 byelection to select her successor. But other than that, it was remarkable similar in some ways. Each candidate got about 1,000 fewer votes than they did in the September 2019 general election that pushed PC MLA Kelly Bindle out of the legislature after three years of representing the Thompson electoral division. But the number of votes separating them was pretty close to what it was a couple of years ago. What does that mean, if anything? Maybe that the NDP base in the riding is larger, or that the party has more volunteers and is better at motivating its supporters to turn their intentions into reality by showing up at the ballot box. The fact that the vote total is lower tells you a lot about people’s motivations. As much as candidates may try to tout their individual credentials and their willingness to stick up for people in their region, a lot of the time, they are somewhat interchangeable come general election time. People, for the most part, are not voting for the individual, even though that person may go on to distinguish themselves as a fine legislator, but for the party the represent. This is sometimes characterized as a regression, but during the Roman empire, there were factions identified by different colours — blue and green. Sure, there were philosophical distinctions between the two groups, but for many the point was that their identity was tied to being a blue or being a green. Like different sects of the same religion, the fact that there is much commonality between them is less important that the relatively fewer differences. People are tribal animals and to pretend that this somehow a recent phenomenon is counterfactual.

Perhaps the takeaway from the byelection is this: no one wanted it to happen, prompted as it was by a tragedy. Although the PC government is inevitably becoming less popular the longer it is in power, the fact that they lost this election decisively is not necessarily a condemnation of their government. They lost by a similarly wide margin in 2019, when they won two-thirds of all the seats in the Manitoba legislature. 

The fact that 80 per cent of eligible voters didn’t turn up is not necessarily an indication of a distaste for politics in general but perhaps just a sign that the one quarter of them or so who voted in the last provincial election realized that whatever happened, it wasn’t going to make huge difference. Adams did a good job as a first-time MLA, they might have reasoned. Maybe whoever gets elected this time will do so as well, the line of thought could continue, so why not let someone else go to the polls and make it happen? Coming as it did on one of the first few nice days of June after the month started off feeling like late winter. many of the region’s residents may have decided that there were better things to do with their time. And who’s to say they’re wrong? Besides, they’ll have another chance to have their say in less than two years, in an election when everything’s actually on the line.