Althia Raj
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Electoral Boundary Commissions: Opposition Parties Fear Politics Will Influence Redrawing Of The Electoral Map

Posted: 04/26/2012 7:56 am Updated: 04/26/2012 7:59 am

Electoral Boundary Commissions Canada
Opposition parties are sounding alarms about the redrawing of Canada’s electoral map, suggesting the Tories may hijack the process in order to create safe Conservative seats unless the general public gets involved. (Alamy)

Opposition parties are sounding the alarm about the redrawing of Canada’s electoral map, suggesting the Tories may hijack the process in order to create safe Conservative seats unless the general public gets involved.

And they point to Saskatchewan as a cautionary tale of how a rejigged riding map can skew election results.

As HuffPost Canada reported, 10 electoral boundary commissions are quietly at work devising ways to re-jig overpopulated ridings based on new census data. The job, done every 10 years, is particularly sensitive this time around because of the addition of 30 new ridings, which will be in play for the next federal election in 2015.

PHOTOS: HOW MANY SEATS IS EACH PROVINCE GETTING AND HOW FAIR WILL THE MAP BE?

How existing ridings are redrawn can profoundly change the outcome of close races, which is why the process is meant to be public and non-partisan.

But strange things can happen.

This is the second part of an ongoing series on the redrawing of Canada's electoral map. First, we looked at how the process will work and how new Tory rules may sideline the public from getting involved. This piece is an examination of fears the process may be manipulated for political gain. Friday, we'll look at an example of a riding where those fears have become all too real and investigate some of the most important regions likely to be affected by the coming changes. As always, you can find these stories and more on HuffPost Canada's Politics page.

Last May, the NDP obtained 32.3 per cent of the votes cast in Saskatchewan but was completely shut out of seats in the Prairie province. The Conservatives, with 56.3 per cent voter support, won 14 seats or 93 per cent of the total.

What explains the huge discrepancy?

NDP MP Irene Mathyssen believes the answer lies in Regina and Saskatoon’s pie-shaped ridings, which split the middle urban core across several constituencies.

“All those ridings are pear shaped, so all those people who live in the urban part of Regina have very little to say in terms of their vote and their MP and their representation because the rural part out-votes them,” Mathyssen said.

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York University political scientist Dennis Pilon studied the votes in the last election in Saskatchewan and argues there’s no alignment between votes received and seats won.

“The federal Conservative Party was dramatically over-represented,” Pilon said. “By attaching the urban areas to rural areas, (the Conservatives) basically allowed their rural dominance to overwhelm their urban opponents.”

In Canada, independent boundary commissioners decide who’ll be part of what constituencies. The Speaker of the House of Commons appoints two commissioners per province while each province’s top judge names a peer to act as chairperson. The job of the three-person panels is to hear from residents and weigh different considerations -- such as population base, protection for communities of interest and land mass -- in order to draw the electoral map.

STORY CONTINUES BELOW SLIDESHOW


PHOTOS: HOW MANY SEATS IS EACH PROVINCE GETTING AND HOW FAIR WILL THE MAP BE?


Loading Slideshow...
  • As <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/25/electoral-boundary-commissions-canada_n_1451484.html" target="_hplink">electoral boundary commissions begin to carve up ridings</a> to make way for the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/12/14/house-of-commons-seats-senate_n_1149540.html" target="_hplink">30 new seats being added to the House of Commons</a>, we take a look at how many seats each province is getting and just how fair representation really is in Canada.<br><br> Except in extraordinary circumstances, the population of each electoral district must be within +/-25% of the provincial quota.<br><br> (Shutterstock / <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/tomatogeezer/" target="_hplink">Flickr: Tomato Geezer</a>)

  • Ontario

    Ontario will gain 15 new seats under the Tory bill, bringing the province's total to 121.<br><br> Ontario's population is now 12,851,821 people.<br><br> The size each riding should now be is 106,213 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 36 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 38 per cent.<br><br> (Alamy)

  • Quebec

    Quebec will gain three new seats under the Tory bill, bringing the province's total to 78.<br><br> Quebec's population is now 7,903,001 people.<br><br> The size each riding should now be is 101,321 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 23 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 24 per cent.<br><br> (Alamy)

  • British Columbia

    B.C. will gain six new seats under the Tory bill, bringing the province's total to 42.<br><br> B.C.'s population is now 4,400,057 people.<br><br> The size each riding should now be is 104,763 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 12 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 13 per cent.<br><br> (Alamy)

  • Alberta

    Alberta will gain six new seats under the Tory bill, bringing the province's total to 34.<br><br> Alberta's population is now 3,645,257 people.<br><br> The size each riding should now be is 107,213 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 10 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 11 per cent.<br><br> (Alamy)

  • Manitoba

    Manitoba will gain no new seats under the Tory bill. The province currently has 14 seats.<br><br> Manitoba's population is now 1,208,268 people.<br><br> The size each riding should be is 86,305 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 4 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 4 per cent.<br><br> (Alamy)

  • Saskatchewan

    Saskatchewan will gain no new seats under the Tory bill. The province currently has 14 seats.<br><br> Saskatchewan's population is now 1,033,381 people.<br><br> The size each riding should be is 73,813 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 4 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 3 per cent.<br><br> (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/justaprairieboy/" target="_hplink">Flickr: Just a Prairie Boy</a>)

  • Nova Scotia

    Nova Scotia will gain no new seats under the Tory bill. The province currently has 11 seats.<br><br> Nova Scotia's population is now 921,727 people.<br><br> The size each riding should be is 73,813 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 3 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 3 per cent.<br><br> (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/ojbyrne/" target="_hplink">Flickr: ojbyrne</a>)

  • New Brunswick

    New Brunswick will gain no new seats under the Tory bill. The province currently has 10 seats.<br><br> New Brunswick's population is now 751,171 people.<br><br> The size each riding should be is 75,117 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 3 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 2 per cent.<br><br> (Alamy)

  • Newfoundland And Labrador

    Newfoundland and Labrador will gain no new seats under the Tory bill. The province currently has 7 seats.<br><br> Newfoundland And Labrador's population is now 514,536 people.<br><br> The size each riding should be is 73,505 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 2 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 1.5 per cent.<br><br> (Alamy)

  • Prince Edward Island

    P.E.I. will gain no new seats under the Tory bill. The province currently has 4 seats.<br><br> P.E.I.'s population is now 140,204 people.<br><br> The size each riding should be is 35,051 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 1 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 0.5 per cent.<br><br> (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/neilwillsey/" target="_hplink">Flickr: n_willsey</a>)


John Courtney, a current member of the Saskatchewan boundary commission and an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Saskatchewan, said his colleagues will follow the letter of the law and draw boundaries based solely on population count.

“We take census data to do that and … whether they are a bigger or smaller constituency than last time around or whether they are different in shape is determined really on population,” he said during an interview.

Partisan interests are never a factor, he asserted.

“It is not even a question, we simply do not consider any of the election results, what party won, what party lost,” he said.

So how can a political party influence the system?

“Un-self-interested” people can intervene in the process, said Pilon, something he suspects happened in Saskatchewan during the last redistricting.

“Might there have been Conservatives who recognized that this unusual drawing of the boundaries was working in their favour, especially once they got past the division between the two-right wing parties?” he asked.

Well-meaning commissioners, Pilon said, were “taken in” by some political advice they received without, possibly, realizing that was what it was.

Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, who was re-elected in Wascana, winning the only non-Tory seat in Saskatchewan, said he believes the pie-shaped constituencies were not the result of any malfeasance but just a fluke.

“I think it was an academic concept that just got articulated by somebody in the process and there weren’t too many people ... participating so the commission grabbed on to it and ran with it,” he said.

Still, Goodale acknowledged that the “out-of-whack” results have generated controversy and suggested the Commission this time would have the opportunity to correct the error.

David Smith, an emeritus professor at the University of Saskatchewan, sat on the commission in 2002 when the decision was made to keep the pie-shaped ridings in place.

Smith said his commission made the decision to “quite heavily” weigh the comments they had received during sparsely attended public meetings.

“The commission was told repeatedly, and I don’t believe there was any dissent from this, at those meetings that those urban seats ... they wouldn’t serve the Saskatchewan interest, that it wasn’t the Saskatchewan tradition,” Smith said. “We were told there is no such thing as ‘an urban interest’ in Saskatchewan. So having heard that, the commission went back and considered what we heard and then decided that … we should take into account the public opinion that we heard.”

At no time did the commission ever discuss the partisan consequences of their decision, Smith said.

“That was not a consideration at any time in the commission,” he said.

However, political parties often pack rooms with supporters in order to try to make their point in a less overtly partisan way, said University of Manitoba emeritus professor Paul Thomas, a member of that province’s current boundary commission.

“MPs don’t like to show up and speak in a transparently obvious, self-interested way … So instead they send along proxy representatives,” Thomas said.

Still, he cautioned, commissioners tend to be “sophisticated folks” who are able to recognize when someone is there serving as a spokesperson for a party and particularly for a member of Parliament.

Political parties with good information about the local riding can know with a high level of accuracy what the result will be of taking one part of the constituency out of the electoral district and replacing it with another.

That scares people such as Liberal Sen. Maria Chaput, who is concerned that her Grits may be in an unfair fight.

“Our own party is getting back on its feet … there is no doubt that when you are not that organized and you haven’t had that many votes, there is no doubt that you don’t have as much information as you should have -- the lists and that type of thing,” she told HuffPost.

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