Guest Post: Five things you need to know about Alberta’s latest Electoral Boundaries Commission

Posted on January 12, 2017, 12:46 am
8 mins

PHOTOS: A rural scene grabbed from the Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission’s website. Can you spot a rural voter? Remember, the driver of the car may actually be from Calgary. Below: Post author John Ashton and Electoral Boundary Commission members Laurie Livingstone, Jean Munn, Bruce McLeod and Gwen Day.

By John Ashton

AshtonYou’ve got the post card in the mail and maybe heard your political activist pals muttering about this redraw of the electoral boundary maps. You don’t know what it is and you’re not sure if you want to.

We’re here to help. Here are five things you need to know about the Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission.

What do they do?

Alberta is divided into 87 electoral districts, and each district elects an MLA. After every two elections, a commission is struck to spend about a year dividing our province into 87 pieces roughly equal in population.

The Electoral Boundaries Commission will hold hearings and produce an interim report on May 31. Then they’ll hold another set of hearings and produce a final report on Oct. 31. That report will then be voted on in the Legislature.

“Roughly” is necessarily a vague qualifying adjective, in this case. There are supposed to be 49,000 Albertans per riding, but the commission can allow a riding’s population to be 25 per cent above or below that average in any riding. This is known as a “variance.” Plus, they may allow up to four ridings to even break that rule (although there’s never been more than two that do). More on variances later.

LaurieLivingstoneWhat don’t they do?

The commission’s mandate is limited to the map, and only the map. They can’t introduce proportional representation or otherwise change the electoral system. They can’t reduce or increase the number of MLAs. They can’t keep candidate signs off every corner. They can’t introduce Internet voting.

Who’s on it?

Alberta is one of the few jurisdictions in Canada where elected officials ostensibly control this process. While the MLAs don’t draw the map themselves (as is the case in the United States), the premier is allowed to nominate three of the commission’s five members, including the commission’s chair. The leader of the Opposition nominates the other two members.

As one might expect, Progressive Conservative MLAs arguably got very friendly maps for decades, especially in Edmonton and downtown Calgary, while MLAs from Opposition parties were generally terrified of having their riding boundaries scrambled or merged with conservative-voting neighbourhoods.

Why hasn’t the Notley Government changed this system? Her reactionary attackers might claim that she wants the same advantage that the PCs enjoyed for so long. But finding multi-party support with two intransigent opposition parties to make these changes, while trying to remove big donations and spending from politics, may have been a bridge too far.

JeanMunnSo who got appointed this time? Alberta Court of Appeal Justice Myra Bielby is the chair. Acme Mayor Bruce McLeod and Human Rights lawyer Jean Munn are the other two Rachel Notley appointees. Wildrose Leader Brian Jean nominated litigation lawyer Laurie Livingstone and Mountain View County Councillor Gwen Day.

Hicks v. city slickers

For decades, the Electoral Boundaries Commission has been peppered with the same competing sides of the same argument: rural voters are losing population and are therefore in danger of having giant ridings separated by enormous distances (which is true) versus urban voters who argue they have way more voters than there should be in their ridings and that their representation is therefore diluted (which is simultaneously true).

For example, Calgary-South East at last count had 20,000 more people than it should. Dunvegan-Central Peace-Notley has 23,000 too few.

In 2010, former PC premier Ed Stelmach dodged this fight before it began by increasing the number of ridings from 83 to 87. This allowed the previous commission to give seats to Calgary, Edmonton, and Wood Buffalo without dissolving rural seats. Even then, the commission said that this had only deferred this conflict.

BruceMcLeodMr. Stelmach said later in a CBC interview that “if we had not increased the number of seats, we would have lost three just in the horseshoe from Lloydminster coming around to Rocky Mountain House, three rural ridings.”

The current commission has two rural politicians and two Calgary lawyers sitting on it. Odds are good that this fight will play out both in front of and behind closed doors.

Lies, damn lies, and statistics

There is one new issue about to land on the commission’s collective lap. It involves the raw population statistics that both the commission and those who would make presentations to it use to build the maps.

Legislation requires that the commission must use the most recent municipal or federal population counts available. And, as luck would have it, Statistics Canada is ready to unveil all the data from last year’s census on Feb. 8.

GwenDayHere’s the problem: All the hearings are in January. The deadline for written submissions is also Feb. 8. For added confusion, Calgary and a handful of small towns will be allowed presentations, but no written submissions. This means the commission gets to use the latest numbers for their interim report, and almost every Albertan presenting to the commission does not.

Any researcher from any academic discipline will tell you that this is a huge problem. A presenter can’t have a chance at having their proposed maps taken into serious consideration for the first round if her or she is using old data, especially as Alberta tends to grow faster than other provinces.

While those statistics will be available for the second round, that second round is a time for edits, not new ideas. At best, Albertans can hope to influence the commission into making tweaks, but no real chance at making a major change.

John Ashton is a former NDP Caucus director. More information about the commission can be found at abebc.ca. This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

11 Comments to: Guest Post: Five things you need to know about Alberta’s latest Electoral Boundaries Commission

  1. Keith McClary

    January 12th, 2017

    ABebc.ca
    Can’t we just demand equal population per “riding”. Its not like rural candidates have to ride horses around to campaign.
    (I just now looked this up and found that “riding” has nothing to do with horses, as I had believed.)

    Reply
    • St Albertan

      January 12th, 2017

      But politicians do have completely and utterly, something to do with horses. At least where Jason Kenney is concerned.

      Reply
  2. John Ashton

    January 12th, 2017

    You can certainly show up to the hearings or e-mail to demand it, if that’s what you want. It’ll certainly be the topic of conversation.

    As for horses, well, some people think horses are fun, I guess … 😉

    Reply
  3. Bob Raynard

    January 12th, 2017

    Mr. Stelmach said later in a CBC interview that “if we had not increased the number of seats, we would have lost three just in the horseshoe from Lloydminster coming around to Rocky Mountain House, three rural ridings.”

    Why would that be a bad thing? If the area’s percentage of the provincial population has dropped, their influence should as well. How many federal ridings are there in the same area?

    Reply
  4. Ron

    January 12th, 2017

    Lester Pearson was the greatest PM…. just for bringing in medicare, let alone the long list of other achievements of his minority gov’t. Such as the ten electoral boundaries commissions.

    Thanks for the education. While not as parochial as the failed USA gerrymandered nightmare,
    “Alberta is one of the few jurisdictions in Canada where elected officials ostensibly control this process”.

    When Lester Pearson fixed this at the federal level he created a system that is truly non-partisan. Despite the occasional controversy the system works.

    What he did not fix is the rural over-representation at the expense of urban voters. Alas. If urban votes were equal to rural votes we would have never suffered through Mulrooney’s regime and Harper would still be kicking tires in the mail room at the Taxpayers Federation.

    Reply
  5. anon

    January 12th, 2017

    Too bad the NDP is not willing to pass legislation enforcing “one person, one vote.” It looks like principle matters about as much to the NDP as it did to the Cons.
    So what is the point of making a presentation to this commission? I seem to have missed that.

    Reply
    • GMP

      January 12th, 2017

      I don’t blame our NDP any more than I blame any other politician who uses the word democracy to underscore his or her purity of intent. One vote. What does it mean? Ask them. They’ll obfuscate and spew squid ink until you have to go home for dinner. In the age of Skype, the margin of vote efficiency should be plus or minus 2% or the average of the percentage increase or decline of population over 5 years. Anything else is a cop out on the basic concept of democracy. If we don’t get this we get Trump!

      Reply
  6. Maria

    January 12th, 2017

    The folks who make presentations in writing or at a meeting, generally are the folks who feel that they are being disadvantaged: perhaps they were 25% below the norm and feel that an increase in the size of the riding will elect someone other than their favourite MLA. Let the census data speak for itself. Every rural candidate will have a least one vehicle to tour the riding (or borrow Jason Kenney’s truck). Riding size should not be an issue so long as there are enough polling stations, but population size does matter.

    Reply
  7. January 13th, 2017

    The question is: what does it mean, to you and to me, to live in a particular riding? What is a riding’s social function? Sorry, it sounds funny, but their function guides how they should be constructed. And, I think that is a question for which many people, living in one or another riding all their lives, don’t have a rigorous answer. So, all in all, this is a good exercise.

    Reply
  8. Athabascan

    January 15th, 2017

    Politics be dammed! Pure logic should inform this process.

    If most Albertans live in urban areas, then according to democratic principles most of the ridings should be in urban areas.

    Of course, logic rarely has anything to do with politics, and politics is never set aside. Decisions are almost always politically motivated.

    Imagine a world where science, and empathy for others were the guiding principles for politicians. Alas, we aren’t there yet.

    Reply
  9. jerrymacgp

    January 15th, 2017

    Let us be cautious about suggesting rural constituencies can be larger than they are because of modern communications making them effectively “smaller” than they once were. Many rural areas remain underserved by high-speed Internet; using Skype or any similar technology on slow Internet is like watching a slide show. That said, I support narrowing the permissible variance in constituency population, overall, but perhaps allow a few more exceptions to be made. Currently up to four constituencies can fall outside the permissible variance, while in fact at present only two actually do; the first step would be to allow two more.

    This also brings us to an important point about the role of an MLA (or an MP for that matter). Are they supposed to be our voice in the Legislature or Parliament? If so, then equity of representation is more important. Or, as many still see them, are they also supposed to work on behalf of constituents with the bureaucracy, cutting through red tape and bypassing established processes to get them government services or affect government decisions, like a sort of “super-ombudsman”? If so, the size of constituencies and ability of the elected representative to reach all areas of the constituency become more relevant. In my view, this latter view of the role is an outdated concept inconsistent with good governance, but yet we still hear stories of MLAs or MPs “going to bat” for constituents, and it is that perspective which is more aligned with keeping rural constituencies smaller and easier to service.

    Reply

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