Do you enjoy getting into the minutiae of redistributing provincial electoral districts?
Yeah, that’s what I thought. Still, the process of deciding B.C.’s next electoral map has formally begun, with public meetings taking place throughout northern B.C. this week.
Here’s some stuff you should know about it.
1. The provincial government has imposed pretty severe limitations on the process
The government passed changes to the Electoral Boundaries Commission Act which says the independent commission will continue to lead the process…but the number of seats will be
kept at 85 capped at 87, which would be the smallest increase to the legislature in 30 years. (I originally said it would be capped at 85; I am a moron)
More controversially, they also mandated that three specific areas of the province would keep their current number of ridings—the North (8 ridings), the Kootenays/Columbia region (4), and the Cariboo/Thompson (5).
2. This is controversial
Why? Because in theory, we believe in that hoary old “representation by population”, which in First Past The Post terms gives every riding around the same number of people.
But these protected regions are already home to some of the smallest ridings in B.C., and that trend is only accelerating. As it currently stands, all but one of these 17 ridings sits below the average “electoral quotient” of 54,369, whether it be by as little as .65% in Kamloops-North Thompson, or 62.08% in the massive riding of Stikine, which has a population of just 20,616. The only one that doesn’t is Kamloops-South Thompson.
Here’s another way of looking at it.
This sort of distribution isn’t new; the north/Columbia-Kootenays/Thompson-Cariboo have been declining relative to the rest of the province for untold decades. But in the past, electoral commissions have circled this square by increasing the total number of seats, while also removing seats from declining regions and adding them to the growing ones (The Kootenays used to have 11 ridings, and the Cariboo 8).
But this commission has very limited use of these tools this time, and so it’s guaranteed that many ridings in the North, Cariboo, and Kootenays will have less than half the people of some ridings in Metro Vancouver.
3. Some are claiming this is gerrymandering. It probably isn’t
NDP MLA’s and others grumbled that the Liberals were trying to manipulate the system to their own advantage. Their main claim is that the Liberals won 11 of 17 seats in these regions, so they’re trying to keep seats in areas they have an advantage.
A couple problems with that.
First, the Liberals won 49 of 85 ridings last election, or 57.6% of the seats. In the protected areas, the Liberals took 11 of 17 ridings, or 64.7% of the seats. It’s a difference of one seat, and the protected areas include the two Prince George and two Kamloops seats, which are generally bellwether cities.
You know what would really help the Liberals? If they told the commission to add seats in areas with the most people, and take them away from areas with the least. How would that look?
If the commission had no restrictions on what they could do, they would certainly add one or two seats to the east Surrey/Cloveralde/Langley area, and probably one to Richmond, both of which are Liberal strongholds. And the protected area most likely to lose a seat would be northwestern B.C., home of three NDP MLA’s.
But they do have restrictions, and this could ironically hurt the Liberals.
4. Vancouver Island *could* lose seats though. And that would make the NDP angry
So the Fraser Valley deserves one or two extra seats. So does Richmond. The three “Central Surrey” seats are already quite big, so that area could handle another one too. Vancouver could expand from 11 to 12 seats, and the Tri-Cities from 4 to 5.
But what if the commission was determined to put more than 2 extra seats in the Fraser Valley and Richmond because
they’re neoconservatives! those ridings have the most people AND the fastest population growth?
Well, they would have to take away seats from a region that isn’t in the protected zones, but has a seat or two beneath that electoral quotient of 54,369.
That really leaves only two options. The first is taking away a seat from the Vancouver Island. Alberni-Pacific Rim has a population 19.88% below the average, while three adjacent ridings (Parksville-Qualicum, Nanaimo-North Cowichan, North Island) are just over the average. It would be awkward, but those ridings could conceivably eat up Alberni-Pacific Rim without becoming too large themselves.
Another option is in the Victoria region. The five ridings completely in the Capital Regional District are under the provincial average and could be reduced by one without any real difficulty.
Of course, only 2 of Vancouver Island’s 14 seats went to the Liberals last election, so you can see why the NDP might be concerned.
5. But the Okanagan could lose a seat as well
There is a scenario in which a Liberal-friendly area loses a seat, and that’s in the southern Okanagan. Boundary-Similkameen is 30.4% under the electoral quotient. To the north is Penticton, which is just 4.33% above the quotient. Smush the two together, let Kootenay West take the towns of Grand Forks and Greenwood, give Westside-Kelowna a bit of Peachland, and you can see a way where Liberal-friendly Okanagan goes from seven seats to six.
If any area loses a seat, people in Penticton/Victoria/Port Alberni would (with reason) complain that their voting power was being diluted while smaller areas were being protected.
Another scenario is that nothing at all happens. It’s early days. But if you’re going to place money on where controversy will come in this process (humour me here), odds are it will happen with the removal of a seat in the Okanagan or Vancouver Island.
Alright. Break time.
6. If representation by population no longer matters, what should?
If you know anything about electoral commissions (and who doesn’t?), ensuring equitable representation through even population numbers is generally priority #1.
This usually comes at the expense of geographical coherency—municipalities will be split apart or smushed together for the sake of reaching the almighty electoral quotient, much to the chagrin of actual voters. As a result, you get federal situations like the new Burnaby North-Seymour riding, which links North Vancouver with the north half of Burnaby, simply because the North Shore is “too big” for two ridings, but “too small” for three.
And in rural areas, where the percentage of population is perpetually declining, it means important bits of large cities have large rural ridings grafted on them to reach population quotas.
In B.C., that means both Kamloops and Prince George are split in two, with people living in modern city centres and suburbs sharing the same MP as rural towns hundreds of kilometres away.
And if you were to ensure equal population among the protected ridings, you’d probably think about splitting them up into three ridings next time around, as Bernard von Schulman hypothesized earlier this year.
This would be, in a word, goofy. There’s no reason for either city to be parcelled into three sections, and then for those ridings to extend deep into the interior.
If you cared about rep. by pop, that would probably happen again. That being said, at least 10 ridings will be 20% under the electoral quotient to begin with and will likely get worse as time goes on. If the government is de-prioritizing rep. by pop, why shouldn’t the commission think outside the box?
7. We’ve been through this before
It was just last decade that an electoral commission had similar thoughts. In 2007, the Electoral Boundaries Commission proposed that if B.C. continued with individual ridings, the North should get a radical makeover. They said Prince George should get its own, completely urban riding. They proposed that all of the major Peace River Regional District towns, save for Chetwynd, should be part of the same riding. And they said the far reaches of northern B.C., whether in the east or west, should be part of the same vast riding called…oh, let’s say “Northland”.
No really. That was the proposed name.
The proposal had wild deviations in population, dramatic geographical changes, and a reduction from 8 seats to 7. It cared about geographical coherency and planning for future population growth.
Yeah, it never stood a chance. After much gnashing of teeth, the commission walked back most of its proposals for the north, Prince George turned from a three-riding city to a two-riding city, and nobody speaks of Northland.
Yet that example shows the range of reasonable proposals that can arise, and probably will in this process. The commission is accepting submissions until November 16. There are public hearings happening throughout the province in the coming weeks. Let the best ideas rise to the top.