In the republic to our south, state legislatures are wrapping up the once-in-a-decade business of redrawing the electoral map. Majority parties are making adjustments to ensure they win a disproportionate number of their state’s seats in Congress; draw the maps just so and a state such as North Carolina, with voters evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, will end up electing mostly Republicans. It’s called gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is not something that happens much in Canada. At the federal level, this country has had since the 1960s a system of independent and generally excellent electoral boundary commissions for fairly setting the borders of electoral districts. Every 10 years, they redraw the federal ridings in each province. Members of Parliament, and politics, are kept out of the process.
But before an independent commission can, for example, lay out Ontario’s current 121 ridings, a process has to decide how many ridings Ontario, and every other province, will get. And that process is 100-per-cent politicized.
Politicized and broken, to the point where only politics can fix it. That’s what Parliament has to do in the next few months, before the decennial redistribution gets rolling. Otherwise, the next federal election, and the one after, will be waged on a map that will be a fun-house reflection of where Canadians actually live.
The U.S., to its credit, practices perfect rep by pop. By law, each Congressional district must have the same population – though after first respecting the niceties of one person, one vote, the Americans get down to gerrymandering.
In Canada, it’s the reverse. Individual ridings aren’t doctored. But the crazy-quilt formula for deciding how many ridings each province gets is only loosely connected to population – even though rep by pop is what the House of Commons exists for.
Consider the number of seats assigned to New Brunswick and Ontario. The former has 789,000 people; current rules entitle it to 10 Commons seats in the coming redistribution – the same number it received in 2011.
Ontario currently has 121 seats, based on a 2011 population of 13.3 million. Over the past decade, however, Ontario has added nearly 1.6 million residents – equal to two New Brunswicks. So how many new seats should Ontario get?
According to the current formula, the answer is: One. Yes, 1.6 million new Ontarians translate into just one new Ontario MP.
And Ontario is not alone in getting so little rep for so much pop. British Columbia grew by more than 700,000 people over the past decade and is in line for one new seat, but Alberta, having gained fewer people, is to get three seats. Quebec, whose population rose by 600,000, is to lose a seat – the only province in that position.
We haven’t the space to fully explain the head-scratcher of a formula behind these outcomes. But, if applied, it will cause voters in the four biggest provinces, who are already underrepresented, to become more so, while voters in the six smallest provinces will become more overrepresented.
There is a way to fix, or at least ameliorate, this: Add seats.
In 2011, to address the surging underrepresentation of the growing parts of Canada, the Harper government passed a law adding 30 seats to the House of Commons. Based on rep by pop, they went to the four biggest provinces.
If Canada had a constitutional rule like that of the U.S. House of Representatives – it is fixed at 435 seats, and states whose population shares fall automatically lose seats – there would be no need to grow the House of Commons.
Unfortunately, Canada’s rules are the opposite of those in the U.S. The constitutional “Senate floor rule” prevents some provinces from ever losing seats, regardless of population; there are other rules grandfathering seats to provinces, like family heirlooms. Atlantic Canada’s population entitles it to 23 seats but it has 32; Saskatchewan and Manitoba each get 14 seats when they should have, respectively, 10 and 12.
And Quebec is poised to lose a seat, despite having added more people than live in (seven seats) Newfoundland and Labrador.
Parliament must address this by adding seats. The more it adds, the less voters in Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec and Alberta will be shortchanged. Parliament did it in 2011 because it was the only solution. It has to do it again, and soon.
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