Yukon's election shows why every vote matters — especially for Justin Trudeau's Liberals

The Yukon territorial election ended in a tie, but the performance of the conservative Yukon Party could mean the federal Liberals end up struggling to hold the territory's federal seat.

The federal cousins of parties that win territorial elections have tended to win Yukon's federal seat

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2019. The Liberals hold Yukon's seat at the federal level, while the Yukon Liberals have governed the territory since 2016. (Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press)

It can't get much closer than this.

Yukon's territorial election on Monday ended in a tie — in more ways than one. Premier Sandy Silver's Yukon Liberals and the opposition Yukon Party under Currie Dixon finished the night with eight seats apiece. Kate White's Yukon New Democrats won two seats.

That leaves one seat left to be decided: the northern riding of Vuntut Gwitchin, where the Liberal and NDP candidates each wound up with 78 votes. If a recount doesn't decide the outcome, a random draw will.

Either way, the Liberals will get the first crack at governing and the NDP will hold the balance of power in an almost evenly-divided minority assembly.

It's hard to find a more complete demonstration of why every vote matters.

It's something the federal Liberals might want to think about too, as they work to keep Yukon's single federal riding in their column.

Elections in Yukon have been quite close lately. The margin between the first and third parties has been shrinking over the last four territorial elections.

In 2006, the conservative Yukon Party finished first with 40.6 per cent of the vote, with the NDP in third at 23.6 per cent — a gap of 17 points. That margin decreased to 15 points in 2011 and 13 points in 2016.

The unofficial count from Monday has the Yukon Party in first with 39.4 per cent of the nearly 18,000 ballots cast, with the Liberals at 32.3 per cent and the NDP at 28.2 per cent. Just over 11 percentage points divide first from third.

Things have been tight at the federal level as well, with two of the last three elections being decided by fewer than 200 votes.

Liberal Leader Sandy Silver (centre) watches results pour in from outside the Liberal Party HQ in Dawson City, Yukon, Monday night. (Julien Gignac/CBC)

There hasn't been a huge amount of variation in party support over the last few Yukon territorial elections. The Yukon Party has registered between 39 and 41 per cent of the popular vote in four of the last five elections — the one exception being when it lost power in 2016. The NDP has scored between 26 and 33 per cent in five of the last six elections, putting Monday's result well within their average over the last two decades.

The Liberals, however, have swung from as little as 25 per cent of the vote in 2011 to 43 per cent in 2000. Before 2016's election brought Silver to the premier's office, the Liberals had only ever won a single election in Yukon. Whether they win re-election as a territorial government for the first time in the party's history will depend on that count in Vuntut Gwitchin.

Result bodes well for Erin O'Toole's Conservatives

A territorial election can't tell us much about a federal election. If Silver's Liberals do secure that ninth seat, they'll be the fifth incumbent government to be re-elected during the pandemic. (While Silver might continue governing even if he ends up tying the Yukon Party in seats, it wouldn't quite count as an election "win".)

If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decides to call a federal election this spring or summer, it will be because he thinks his government can be the sixth to win re-election.

In that sense, the Yukon result could turn out to be part of a broader pattern.

More specifically, however, the results in the territorial vote can tell us a little bit about what to expect in the next federal vote in Yukon.

Consider this historical fact: the party that won the most votes in a territorial election in Yukon has won the Yukon riding in the subsequent federal election 60 per cent of the time.

The Conservatives last won the federal Yukon seat in 2011, but came up just 153 votes short in the 2019 federal election. After a good showing for the conservative Yukon Party in Monday's territorial election, Erin O'Toole's Conservatives will hope to take the seat when a federal vote is next held. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

That winning record improves to 67 per cent if we exclude Audrey McLaughlin's victory in 1993, when she was both the MP for Yukon and the federal NDP leader. The Yukon Party (which had changed its name to disassociate itself from the Progressive Conservatives) was in government at the time.

The winning record of parties sharing a political brand improves to 78 per cent (or 88 per cent, excluding the McLaughlin case) in cases where territorial and federal elections were held within about a year of each other.

So history suggests that Erin O'Toole's Conservatives could be the favourites to win Yukon if a federal election is held in the next few months.

The result in the federal riding was close in 2019, when the Liberals' Larry Bagnell defeated the Conservatives' Jonas Jacot Smith by only 153 votes.

Between the 2016 and 2021 territorial elections, the net swing from the Liberals to the Yukon Party was nearly 2,500 votes. The federal Conservatives need just a fraction of that to defeat Bagnell.

One seat is unlikely to make that much of a difference in a national federal election. But Trudeau's Liberals can't afford to lose any seats if they are hoping to win a majority government. The CBC's Poll Tracker estimates the Liberals would win around 174 seats if an election were held today — just four more than they need for a majority government.

With such a slim margin for error, the Liberals can't really afford to lose any of the seats they hold now — in Yukon or anywhere else.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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