John Diefenbaker first won a seat in the House of Commons in 1940, in the Saskatchewan riding of Lake Centre.
At the time, Diefenbaker was a rare Conservative MP on the Prairies (yes, you read that right) and a burr in the Liberal government’s side. To be rid of him, the Liberals repeatedly gerrymandered his riding, redrawing its boundaries in an attempt to ensure his defeat. He kept on being re-elected, and by 1953 they wiped Lake Centre from the map. He then ran, and won, in Prince Albert.
From the time of Confederation, gerrymandering was a plague on Canadian democracy, and it would be nearly a century before serious steps to curtail the practice were taken. They came first at the provincial level, in Manitoba in the 1950s, and then federally – with Diefenbaker among the backers. Since 1964, federal riding boundaries have been drawn up by independent electoral commissions, not self-serving politicians.
Canada of the past is the United States of the present.
As the Nov. 3 presidential election looms, this page is looking at how elections are different, and generally better, in our land of peace, order and boringly competent elections. We have already examined two big issues, from the danger of an election night without a clear winner to extensive problems of restrictions on voting.
And then there’s gerrymandering. Drawing district boundaries for one’s own advantage has long been a bipartisan American sport, as it was in Canada, but it reached new heights after 2010, when Republicans won a spree of state elections. State lawmakers turbocharged gerrymandering with modern data and software. One study of subsequent elections concluded that an average of 59 seats in the House of Representatives – one of seven – were won thanks to the crooked and often-psychedelic boundaries drawn by gerrymandering.
There’s also widespread gerrymandering at the state level, state governments being expert as they also draw boundaries for Congressional districts. Among the most egregious example is Wisconsin. In the 2018 State Assembly election, Republicans garnered 44.8 per cent of the vote to win 63 of 99 seats, while Democrats, with 53 per cent of ballots cast, took only 36 seats. The borders had been drawn to deliver that result.
Two gerrymandering cases landed at the U.S. Supreme Court last year – involving manipulations by each party – but the top court said legal venues should not be the arbiters, even as Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority in the 5-4 decision, conceded that obvious gerrymandering can “reasonably seem unjust.”
There are, however, prospects of change. In heavily gerrymandered Michigan, voters in 2018 backed a new independent commission to oversee redistricting.
That has been the Canadian way for decades, starting with Manitoba’s ending of gerrymandering in 1955. At the time, the provincial population was evenly split between urban and rural – but rural ridings accounted for two-thirds of legislature seats. Nine years later, Ottawa introduced the current federal system. Each province has an independent commission, led by a judge appointed by the province’s chief justice. Redistribution happens once a decade, after the census. There are public hearings and MPs can lodge objections, but the drawing of boundaries is out of their hands.
Another important change happened in 2013, when 30 new seats were added to the House of Commons. That moved Canada closer to “rep by pop” not only within provinces, but among them, with previously underrepresented provinces of Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta receiving additional seats.
Disparities remain, in part rooted in the Constitution, which effectively guarantees some overrepresentation of small provinces in the Commons. Another problem is that, in 1991, the Supreme Court of Canada declined to enshrine the principle of “one person, one vote." The court did not order that all ridings in a province have roughly the same population, and instead allowed populations to vary by plus or minus 25 per cent of the average riding, and more in special cases. Thankfully, provincial electoral commissions generally land much closer to equal riding populations.
As America faces another election where a significant number of districts have essentially been rigged, Canadian voters should appreciate that poisonous practice was largely ended here, decades ago.
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