Accidental Gerrymandering

The Original Gerrymander

The May 2nd election was historic in more ways than one. I’m not talking about the Conservative party returning to majority power for the first time in 18 years, or the NDP’s remarkable rise to over a hundred seats in parliament. I’m talking about the combined vote totals of the Conservative and the Liberal parties.

Since Confederation, the Conservative and the Liberal parties have dominated Canadian politics. For several elections, they were the only choices out there. Even when they were challenged by such upstarts as the Progressives, Social Credit, or the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, for every election up to 1993, the combined vote totals of the Liberal and Conservative parties consistently placed well above 70%.

And then something strange happened. In 1993, the western Canadian and Quebec wings of the Progressive Conservative party broke away into their own regional parties. The PCs collapsed, and eventually merged with the western-based Reform to form the Conservative Party of today. To get that 70% combined vote total in the 1993, 1997 and 2000 elections, you have to add the numbers of the Liberals, the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance and the remnants of the Progressive Conservatives. Given that the PCs and the Reform Party were often pushed and cajoled into setting aside their differences and “uniting the right”, I think it’s fair to make that combination.

But the strangeness doesn’t end there. Even adding the totals of the three parties together, the combined take of the mainstream political movements in this country started to drop. In 2000, the Liberal/Conservative take was 77%. In 2004, it was 66%. In 2008, 64%. Finally, in 2011, the combined total of Conservative and Liberal support dropped below 60%. Add this to the fact that barely 61% of Canadians voted, and you can say that less than half of eligible Canadian voters cast ballots for the two mainstream parties in this country.

This, to my mind, reflects a growing disconnect between this nation, and how politics are done in this country. Since 2000, there has been a rising interest in alternatives to our natural governing parties. On May 2nd, however, our electoral system delivered the second least popular majority federal government in Canadian history. Only 39.62% of eligible voters cast ballots for the Conservative Party. Only Jean Chretien rated lower when, in 1997, he extracted a bare majority out of 38.46% of the vote.

This fact has finally gotten some Liberal party supporters talking about voting reform and proportional representation. Others have noted that they’re relatively new to this concept, and didn’t complain about this problem when their guy was the one benefitting from the system. Others have noted that some Conservative party supporters, who complained about the system in the past, are strangely silent now.

I have noticed that my name has come up on a couple of these discussions, and I do appreciate the acknowledgement that some of us have been complaining about this problem for years, now. One of the more frustrating things about this debate has been to hear partisan Conservatives say “where were you when we were suffering under Chretien thanks to our split vote? Why didn’t you complain about his minority-majorities?” Well, actually, we were complaining. You just didn’t choose to listen back then.

But now that the audience is out there, even if likely only briefly before we hit the snooze button, I’ll say it again: our electoral system stinks. It doesn’t do the job it’s supposed to do, which is to represent the diverse face of the country, and to provide a venue for various interests from various regions to hash out the issues of the day. This system gives forty percent of the voting population the ability to govern without consideration towards the remaining sixty. And, I’ve noticed something else: the way our ridings are drawn has much to do with who wins and who loses.

I’m not the first to notice this. The practice of drawing up ridings in such a way that certain voting blocs are represented inefficiently is called gerrymandering. South of the border, Democrats and Republicans have accused each other of doing just that on numerous occasions. In Canadian history, the long thin ridings that stretched up and down Toronto from Lake Ontario to near Eglinton Avenue, were arguably designed (possibly by accident; possibly not) so as to counter the New Democrats’ popularity south of Bloor Street with reliable Conservative voters north of Bloor Street. The City of Vancouver eschewed ridings entirely in its early municipal elections, electing councillors at large so that voters in the richer neighbourhoods could swamp the voices that would have been elected from a handful of poorer wards. Much can be done to thwart democracy if you have a map and are good with a pen. Sometimes it even happens by accident.

Consider this map, released by Cyberpresse, which shows how the country voted, polling station by polling station. Notice that many ridings are not universally one colour, and yet each sends one colour candidate to parliament. Suburbs tend to vote differently than centre cities, and rural areas have their own patterns. The placement of the riding boundary has a lot to do with whether a riding votes Conservative, Liberal or New Democrat. Reshape Kitchener-Waterloo and Kitchener-Centre, and you can easily create a Liberal riding and a Conservative riding, each netting a strong plurality for their respective candidates, instead of the current situation, where two Conservative voices were elected in close contests.

Who’s to say that this should or shouldn’t be done? In some areas, it’s impossible to tell where the city of Kitchener ends and where the city of Waterloo begins. It could be argued that Uptown Waterloo has far more in common with downtown Kitchener than the suburbs of both cities. Why should ridings be drawn one way, and not another?

Ridings should conform to the definable communities that they represent. The long and thin provincial ridings of St. Andrew-St. Patrick and the others that graced Queen’s Park until the early 1990s made a mockery of the communities they served. But these days communities don’t necessarily conform to parcels of land. These days, many of us have greater connection with like-minded individuals half a world away than we do with our next door neighbours. These constituencies get no representation in parliament. Half a million Canadians cast ballots for the Green Party on May 2nd. They elected precisely one MP. Had they all decided to up sticks and move to Saskatchewan and Manitoba, they could have easily elected 22. Just 6,201 votes in fourteen closely contested ridings made the difference between a minority parliament and majority one. Clearly, we are governed by accidents of geography.

The current system works well enough if it follows the assumptions it was originally built on — namely that the member of parliament elected within the riding is representative of and responsible to the voters in that riding. While there are numerous local MPs who are respected by the electors in their ridings, a number of Jack Layton’s Quebec MPs show that many voters do not choose to vote in this fashion. Many people are voting for parties, or leaders, instead of local MPs. Many are voting on issues, like the environment, healthcare, education and transportation, which do not confine themselves to within one riding.

I think Canadians deserve better than to be governed by parties elected through accidents of geography. The concept of local representation is not something I want to let go of completely, but there are communities across Canada which do not fit neatly into the riding box. These deserve to have a voice in the House of Commons. If we wish our government to reflect the true face of Canada, then it has to be better proportioned.

Further Reading

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