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Not All Votes Carry The Same Clout In B.C.

Under the Liberals, B.C.'s land mass hasn't changed, but the number of protected ridings sure has.

06/22/2017 11:57 EDT | Updated 06/23/2017 11:03 EDT

Elections have two key components: the race and the mechanics -- the legislative process and administration of the vote. The race gets the media coverage, not so much the mechanics, even though it can have far more impact on the results than many might imagine. Let's check under the election 2017 hood, so to speak, just to see how well the mechanics are holding up.

One number didn't get much attention during the campaign: the number of voters. On April 11, 2017 B.C. had 3,156,991 registered voters. Notable because it's 19,464 voters less than there were at the close of voting in 2013. In a province like B.C. that shouldn't happen and hasn't going back as far as 1986.

Andy Clark / Reuters
Voters park their bicycles outside a polling station in downtown Vancouver, B.C. on Oct. 19, 2015.

It's not the result of how the voters list was built, more how it's been managed. Using data provided by Elections Canada, roughly 40,000 voters were purged from the list in 2016, according to Elections B.C. "In December 2016, we processed a file of records of voters whose address on the National Register of Electors changed from within B.C. to outside B.C. We removed approximately 40,000 voters from the list. We believe this process, which was not performed in the lead-up to the 2013 general election, improved the overall accuracy of the voters list."

No kidding on the accuracy part, but that also says something about the 2013 and earlier lists. What harm could possibly come from 40,000 redundant names on the list, you ask? It could have scuttled the 2011 HST referendum. Under B.C.'s Recall and Initiative Act, petitioners are required to gather the signatures of at least 10 per cent of the total number of registered voters across the province and in each and every riding.

That's where it gets tricky. In Abbotsford South, the No HST petitioners came within 599 signatures of blowing it all. Something else of note about the race -- which touches very much on the mechanics -- was how remarkably efficient the B.C. Liberal party's vote was. The party only needed 170,234 votes -- 21 per cent of their 796,672 total -- to lock up 20 ridings, nearly half of their seats. The Liberals put 10 of the 20 into their column with 69,857 votes, roughly the capacity of CenturyLink Field, home to the Seattle Seahawks. Seven of the 10 are among B.C.'s 17 "protected" ridings. The 17 account for 13.7 per cent of registered voters and 19.5 per cent of the seats in the legislature.

Ben Nelms / Reuters
Premier Christy Clark speaks to media in Vancouver, B.C. on May 30, 2017.

Here's where it gets messy, constitutionally speaking. The right to vote is set out in Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms: "Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a Legislative Assembly and to be qualified for membership therein." Something else was set out, albeit by the courts. The right to vote "is not equality of voting power per se, but the right to 'effective representation.'" Broadly defined, effective representation is "relative parity among voters," while accounting for special circumstances, "such as geography, community history, community interests and minority representation." After every other election, B.C.'s electoral boundaries commission goes into action to ensure the electoral map meets those two tests.

What does "relative parity" mean in B.C.? According to the electoral boundaries commission's 2007 report, "B.C. is among the group of jurisdictions that gives their commissions the greatest latitude, adopting a plus or minus 25 per cent deviation limit." It would seem even the greatest latitude isn't good enough. In 2014, the commission was given its marching orders by the B.C. government: two new seats could be added to the existing 85, but 17 hand-picked ridings had to be protected. After everything was said and done, the 17 first-class ridings ended up with an average of 25,382 voters and the 70 second-class ridings an average of 38,935.

Quite a range among the full 87, though. Stitkine has the lowest number of voters at 13,240 and Vernon-Monashee the highest with 47,373. Vernon-Monashee would need three MLAs to be close to matching the weight of Stitkine's clout in the legislature. Using the April list of registered voters, the 25 per cent rule would see Nelson-Creston with 27,338 registered voters on one end, Parksville-Qualicum (44,743) on the other and 68 in between. Seventeen ridings overshoot the 25 per cent, but funnily enough only 10 are among the 17 "protected" ridings.

Under the Liberals, B.C.'s land mass hasn't changed, but the number of protected ridings sure has.

The Charter applies to people, not square kilometers, but since it's part of the special circumstances test, let's see how much it mattered in the government's selection: The 17 first-class ridings range from 2,437 to 196,446 square kilometers, but nine second-class ridings are within that range. Can't be size. Perhaps it's the number of voters?

The 17 range from 13,240 to 42,054 voters, but 54 other ridings fit within that spread. Can't be voters. Maybe it's a form of gerrymandering? How did the 17 ridings vote? Thirteen went for the Liberals -- representing 30 per cent of their total seats -- and four went to the NDP. Might be something to that gerrymandering idea.

Under the Liberals, B.C.'s land mass hasn't changed, but the number of protected ridings sure has, increasing from six when they assumed power in 2001 to 10 in 2009 to 17 today. That's more ridings than Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta protect combined. And before B.C. votes again, the government must refer these boundaries to the B.C. Court of Appeal to determine whether they comply with Section 3 of the Charter of Rights.

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