Settling Boundaries

For the past decade at least, concerns about voter inequality and underrepresentation of Canadians in urban areas have been front and center with calls for fairer, more equal and constitutionally sound representation becoming the soundtrack for progress towards other democratic reforms in Canada.

So, what does voter inequality mean? It means that one person’s vote counts more or is valued or weighted more than another person’s vote. It is a troubling state of affairs in a democracy when one vote is somehow worth more than another. The question is how does this occur or what does voter inequality look like?

Our constitution requires that the distribution of seats in the House of Commons (and by extension, in the provincial legislatures) be allocated on the bases of proportional representation of provincial populations. That is, that each province receives an amount of seats based on its population. So, the larger the population, the more seats. Ontario, for example, as the most populous province, has the most seats (106 currently) while Prince Edward Island as the smallest province in terms of population, has the least (currently 4) (Territories have one representative each given that they do not have the same status as a province).

However, this does not mean that every province has a “fair” allocation of seats under the representation by populations (AKA, “rep-by-pop”) formula. In fact, a report from the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation released a report in 2010 that posits that the current distribution violates the rep by pop principle as set out in the Constitution [1]. Moreover, rural and regional provinces may in fact be over-represented while provinces with larger urban areas (and therefore population) have been under-represented, namely Ontario, BC and Alberta.

According to VoterEquality.ca, an organization which advocates for (you guessed it) equal representation across the country:

“Canadians in and around our largest cities have been badly under-represented in    Ottawa. Rapidly growing communities in the suburbs, often with high rates of immigration, fare the worst. This under-representation means people in these communities have less say on the issues that affect their day-to-day lives—things like the economy, health care, the environment, education, infrastructure, and transit” [2].

How? Well, in a democracy like ours based on a representational model, the people speak through their elected representatives who sit in Parliament. If there are fewer representatives in areas with dense populations then fewer voices can be heard. Given how Canadian cities are growing, and the influx of immigrants to Canada are headed to major urban centers and their surrounding suburbs, it is unhealthy for a representative democracy to function in this way. When there is one representative for 240, 146 people [3] in the riding of Brampton West, when an average size of an Ontario federal electoral district is 110,000 while the average size in Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia is approximately 70,000 people and 30,000 in PEI [4], then something must be done.

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Currently, the Electoral Boundaries Commissions are working to redraw electoral districts across the country. Each province has an independent electoral boundaries commissions and have been established to change the electoral boundaries in their province. Their mandate is to propose a new electoral map for their province considering several things including average population, the identity and interests of communities, geographic size of the districts among other criteria. They also consult the public, submit a report of their proposals to the House of Commons, and then submit a final report outlining the new electoral districts for their provinces [5].

The problem, as we have seen from several news reports, the alteration of electoral boundaries are highly political: some stand to gain, while others stand to lose. These changes affect strategy, affect campaigning, literally affect the political map.

Most of these changes are bound to benefit the Liberals and the NDP, because the places with the highest concentration of voters, and which are likely candidates for boundary redistribution are largely urban areas around cities like Toronto, Vancouver, Saskatoon where the two parties have their bread and butter. To create more ridings in these areas translates into more potential opportunities, more seats for the Liberals and NDP to gain.

Interactive 2011 Canadian General Election map

This is why the Commissions make their recommendations independently, rather than leaving the decision as to how electoral districts are mapped out strictly to the influence of the House of Commons. An independent body which overseas the new distribution of seats is less likely to take part in gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is the manipulation of riding boundaries for the benefit of one party [6]. Prior to the 1960s, redrawing boundaries was left to parliamentarians and studies of this time suggests that there was considerable gerrymandering and so it was decided that independent commissions would take over the task [7].

Updated October 1st, 2013: There was an interesting story today in the CBC related to gerrymandering in the US. It provides a good illustration of the use of gerrymandering as a partisan tool: http://www.cbc.ca/news/the-perverse-math-behind-the-republican-budget-showdown-neil-macdonald-1.1873758

[1] Andrew Santon (March 2010). The principle of representation by population in Canadian federal politics. Retrieved from: http://www.mowatcentre.ca/pdfs/mowatResearch/11.pdf
[2] Voter Equality (n.d.). What is voter equality? Retrieved from: http://voterequality.ca/what-is-voter-equality/
[3] Mowat Centre. (November 2012). Moving toward voter equality. Toronto: Michael Pal & Melissa Molson. Retrieved from: http://www.mowatcentre.ca/pdfs/mowatResearch/72.pdf
[4] Matthew Mendelsohn and Sujit Choudhry (n.d.). Canada’s unequal votes. Retrieved from: http://www.mowatcentre.ca/opinions.php?opinionID=81
[5] Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission (n.d.). The role of the electoral boundaries commissions in the federal redistribution process. Retrieved from: http://www.redecoupage-federal-redistribution.ca/content.asp?section=info&document=index&dir=rolec&lang=e
[6] Elections Canada (2004). Representation in the House of Commons. Retrieved from: http://www.elections.ca/scripts/fedrep/federal_e/red/readjusting_e.htm
[7] Ibid.

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