Friday, 24 February 2017

Will city folk continue to be Alberta's second class citizens?

Amid debate about adopting a voting system to replace the egregiously undemocratic first-past-the-post, another offense against fair voting is sometimes overlooked. In Alberta, an opportunity to redress that particular sin is underway.

In accordance with the Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission Act, a commission has been established to set the constituency boundaries for the 2019 provincial election. If history is any guide, city folk will once again be relegated to the status of second class citizens.

Under the Act, "The population of a proposed electoral division must not be more than 25% above nor more than 25% below the average population of all the proposed electoral divisions." The boundaries were last established in 2010 and, following tradition, urban ridings were generally more populous than rural ridings with the result that the votes of city dwellers were worth less than those of their rural brothers and sisters. They are worth even less today. As urban populations have been growing much faster than rural populations for the last century or so, the situation always deteriorates between boundary reviews.

For example the most populous riding, Calgary-South East, now has 2.7 times more people than Leader of the Opposition Brian Jean's riding, which means that Jean's constituents get 2.7 votes for every constituent in Calgary-South East. The average of the five most populous ridings (all urban) is over double the least populous five (all rural), or putting it another way, the country folk have two votes for each city voter's.

Historically, this injustice has been defended on the grounds that rural ridings are much larger in area. That excuse loses its credibility in this modern era of instant communications. But while it may have been defended, it was never justified. If an MLA faces an extra challenge because of distance then provide him or her with a greater travel allowance, or satellite constituency offices, or additional aides to roam the backwoods of the riding, but diminishing someone else's vote is not the answer.

His or her vote is a citizen's most precious democratic possession. There can be no justification for diminishing one citizen's vote in favour of another. Democracy is, after all, political equality.

All constituencies face their own special challenges. For instance, my constituency, being inner city, has many residents whose first language isn't English. It contains Chinatown, 40 per cent of the residents of which don't speak English at all. Yet I would never suggest we address this challenge by reducing the number of people in our constituency to less than the average. I wouldn't suggest that because I have no desire to diminish the votes of citizens in other ridings. The answer is clearly to provide my MLA with special translation facilities. Solve the problem, don't erode democracy.

On the subject of first languages, it is worth noting that because immigrants tend to congregate in cities, diminishing the value of urban votes results in diminishing the voices of ethnic communities. A victory, one might say, for "old stock" Canadians.

Unfortunately, political equality was undermined by the Supreme Court in the 1991 Saskatchewan Reference case in which Madame Justice McLachlin stated, "the purpose of the right to vote enshrined in s. 3 of the Charter is not equality of voting power per se, but the right to 'effective representation'." It is the arbitrariness of the weasel words "effective representation" that have allowed Alberta its outrageous ± 25 per cent.

Alberta's prairie neighbour limits the range to ± five per cent. Saskatchewan has very similar boundary challenges to Alberta. If it can achieve five per cent, our province has no excuse for 25 per cent except a lack of imagination or laziness.

The chair of the recently-appointed commission, Justice Myra Bielby, has commented,
"The basic underlining democratic principle is that every voter's vote should be relatively as effective as every other voter's vote." Her use of the phrase "relatively as effective" is not encouraging.

But I will give her the benefit of the doubt. I will faithfully make my submission and faithfully keep my fingers crossed that when the new boundaries are established I will finally be able to emerge from the shadows of second class citizenship.

1 comment:

rumleyfips said...

This is not limited to Alberta. Across Canada urban ridings have more voters than rural ones. Our governments are heavily weighted to the countryside.

In the US, the Electoral College advantages smaller, more rural states.

The days of the 'Rotten Buroughs ' are with us still.