The Mapmakers

An appreciation for Alberta’s Electoral Boundaries Commission

By Evan Osenton

On January 24, 2017, I took a road trip. Driving from Calgary to Drumheller that day was like floating in a void. Heavy fog under a blank-canvas sky. Snow on the field stubble. Frost on the fence wire. It was easy to imagine no one lived out there. But then a house appeared briefly, then a silo, before Highway 9 plunged into the badlands and a town of 6,400 emerged out of the white.

My destination was the Canalta Jurassic, a dinosaur-themed hotel playing host to an Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission (AEBC) public hearing. I found a seat in the Cretaceous Conference Centre along with 20 Drumheller-area citizens, six Hansard staff and five AEBC commissioners. The event would be recorded and a transcript published by the Legislature, but I was there to witness the room’s mood.

For seven years out of every eight, the AEBC doesn’t exist. In every eighth or thereabouts (after every second provincial election), the commission is re-formed by the government and tasked with determining the boundaries of Alberta’s electoral ridings. This year’s appointees are Calgary lawyer Laurie Livingstone, Acme mayor W. Bruce McLeod, Carstairs gun club owner Gwen Day, Calgary lawyer D. Jean Munn, and Court of Appeal judge—and AEBC chair—Myra Bielby. In official terms these five people propose “that updates be made to provincial constituencies to reflect population increases.” Ultimately their work decides the weight of your vote.

Alberta’s population of 4,062,609 is represented in our Legislature by 87 MLAs. Ideally, each legislator represents the same number of people. For every citizen’s vote to be equal, each riding should have 1/87th of the population—that is, 46,697 people. But over time some areas grow and some hollow out, so that MLAs end up representing different numbers of people. Currently this varies from a low of 17,129 in Fort McMurray-Conklin to a high of 92,148 in Calgary-South East. If an election were held today, a vote cast in south Fort McMurray would be worth more than five times a vote in suburban Calgary.

Determining vote-weight is a tricky business. The commission considers the law, census data and a host of other factors (see sidebar) to carve the province into 87 ridings, soliciting input across Alberta before releasing an interim and then a final report. The legislature typically accepts these recommendations holus bolus or with minor changes. Said Bielby in Drumheller, “We’d hate to be the first commission where that doesn’t happen.”

Each recent commission has had more public feedback than its predecessor did. It became clear early on that this year would set records. Before a new map had been proposed—before new census data were even out—and with a second round of hearings months away, some 350 citizens had contacted the commission. The previous AEBC heard from 500 in total.

Each presenter at the Drumheller meeting sat at a small table with a microphone, and every one of them told the commissioners why they opposed a new map. Craigmyle’s Maeghan Chostner said a bigger riding could worsen rural decline and isolation and “really dilute the ability of rural residents to have their real concerns heard.” Drumheller councillor Lisa Hansen-Zacharuk said her riding’s size was “almost obscene.”

It was obvious, however, even in January, that boundaries would change. Many Albertans do live “out there,” and rural citizens have a right to effective representation. But the populations of some parts of rural Alberta are shrinking even as the province, since the last AEBC, has added over half a million people. Take our representative democracy, mix thinning countryside with swelling cities, and add time: rural votes today weigh two, three, four, even five times those in the biggest cities.

The implications of a new AEBC were clear. As citizen Rod Trentham of Red Deer wrote to the commission in January: “Good luck with an extremely complicated but important process that is guaranteed to upset people.”

Drumheller-Stettler covers a vast swath of eastern Alberta; by area the riding is one of our largest and its voters are notably overrepresented. It’s thus of special interest to the AEBC. (Each commission since 1996 has held a hearing in Drumheller or Hanna.)

Few parts of Alberta more intimately know decline. The town of Drumheller’s population is rapidly aging; council in 1997 asked to be downgraded from a city so the province would pay for road repairs. The town, however, is stable by comparison. The population of Special Area No. 2, around Hanna, has fallen 5.9 per cent since 2011. Special Area No. 3 (Oyen): down 7.1 per cent. Special Area No. 4: down 8.5 per cent. The towns of Empress, Cereal, Veteran—all about one-fifth smaller, in five years. We at the meeting in January didn’t know the extent of Drumheller-Stettler’s hollowing out. The 2016 census later revealed there were some 1,284 fewer people in Drumheller-Stettler (pop. 36,810), or 3.4 per cent shrinkage.

Calgary and Edmonton, meanwhile, have exploded. While Drumheller-Stettler lost over a thousand residents, Edmonton-Ellerslie added 23,712 (pop. 60,554); Edmonton-South West added 44,234 (pop. 79,881); and Calgary-South East added 55,300 (pop. 92,148). Red Deer and Grande Prairie swelled too, as did ridings of boomtown spillover—Airdrie, Chestermere-Rockyview, Highwood, Leduc-Beaumont.

Whereas US politicians redraw maps themselves and Alberta’s MLAs did likewise until 1969, the AEBC is independent.

By provincial law, any riding can have 25 per cent fewer or 25 per cent more people than the average and four can have up to 50 per cent fewer. These are allowances, however, not goals. Previous AEBCs have typically made 10 per cent, plus or minus, their limit. Today almost two-dozen ridings, most of them rural, have a population more than 10 per cent below average. Four of these are more than 25 per cent below; four more, including Drumheller-Stettler (–21 per cent), are right on the cusp. In the cities, 19 ridings are more than 10 per cent over. Seven are over 25 per cent larger—in violation of the law.

The result is that the farther you drive from Calgary or Edmonton, the more influence a voter has. West Yellowhead (pop. 31,551), for example, has roughly two times the voting power of Spruce Grove-St. Albert (62,786), whose residents likewise send one representative to the legislature. Lesser Slave Lake (pop. 27,663) has three times the voting power of two Alberta ridings. Dunvegan-Central Peace-Notley (pop. 23,094) has four times the voting power of Calgary-South East (pop. 92,148). Four ballots to one, if you will.

Each AEBC confronts a similar situation, since the province’s rural proportion has been shrinking steadily since 1901 (then 75 per cent rural; now less than 20 per cent rural). But no matter a commission’s recommendations, many Albertans jump to the wrong conclusion.

The United States has loaned much colour to our political vernacular. “Pork-barreling,” or public spending in exchange for political donations. “Astroturfing,” or fake grassroots. But the US’s greatest lexical export may well be “gerrymandering.”

The term dates to 1812 Massachusetts, when Governor Elbridge Gerry redrew an electoral map to favour his party. The Essex County district was so distorted it evoked a perching, dragon-like salamander—or “Gerry-mander.” Since then, hundreds of US districts have been redrawn to favour one party or another, easily picked out by their “squiggles and offshoots and tentacle-looking protuberances,” in the words of a Washington Post writer. In the Obama era, Republican legislators redistricted Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, among other states, in what Salon editor David Daley calls “the biggest political heist… in modern memory.”

Gerrymandering—along rural/urban lines—is long believed to have skewed Alberta’s map. The Calgary Herald wrote in 1991 that a Getty-era redistricting proposal “smacks of gerrymandering” and was “an unconscionable abuse of power”; the Edmonton Journal called the 1992 AEBC “a farce.” When that commission couldn’t reach consensus, the premier had a PC-dominated legislature committee draw the map instead; the cities gained no seats. “If that isn’t gerrymandering, I don’t know what is,” said Liberal leader Laurence Decore.

Similar objections have come up at every subsequent review. Despite an outcry, Edmonton lost a seat in the 2002/2003 exercise. The Stelmach government added four urban ridings in 2009 instead of combining rural ones, raising the seat count to 87, and was accused of foul play. One AEBC petitioner that year dubbed the province “politely gerrymandered”; another called the AEBC process “jiggery-pokery.” The Liberals saw PC “sticky fingers” all over the new map. Wildrose leader Paul Hinman said the process “reeks of political gerrymandering.”

Thus 2017 began under a haze of suspicion. (“Get rid of the Tory’s gerrymandered ‘rurban’ ridings!” wrote citizen Doug Fischer on the AEBC’s Facebook page in January.) But Albertans perhaps borrow US lingo too eagerly.

Whereas US politicians redraw maps themselves, and Alberta’s MLAs did likewise until 1969, the AEBC is independent. By law four commissioners who aren’t MLAs are to be named: two by the governing party, two by the opposition. (In 2017 McLeod and Dunn were the former; Livingstone and Day the latter.) Two must be rural, two urban. The chair—the tiebreaker, maybe—is chosen by the Lieutenant Governor and is typically a senior judge or the province’s Ethics Commissioner. Bielby is Alberta’s most senior judge not retiring this year.

Some commissioners issue minority opinions with AEBC reports; Liberal appointee Bauni Mackay in 2002/2003, for example, opposed Edmonton’s loss of one seat. None have accused their colleagues of political bias or otherwise cast aspersions on the mapmaking process.

Moreover, the numbers just don’t point to gerrymandering. By 1990 Calgary and Edmonton had 36 of Alberta’s 83 ridings; with roughly half the province’s population, they had 43 per cent of the legislature seats. In the 1996 review they gained two ridings each—“the rest of Alberta” lost four. They were up to 41 seats by 2003, and to 44 by 2010. By then Calgary and Edmonton, at 52 per cent of the population, had 51 per cent of the seats.

Consider too those US districts’ tentacle protuberances. A 2009 MIT study posited a correlation between a district’s “compactness” (meaning no part is too far from the centre; think circles and squares) and its not being gerrymandered. By this standard, Canada’s ridings proved considerably more compact than US equivalents. In 2015, Edmontonian Michael Ross used the MIT formula on Alberta’s provincial ridings, finding them equivalent to Canada’s. Just look at the maps: Not even our least-compact riding remotely resembles, say, North Carolina’s 12th district or Maryland’s 3rd, both approximating crime-scene blood spatter.

Two elections will be contested using 2017’s map, which will be approved, for the first time, by a legislature whose majority party in no way benefits from rural overrepresentation. My sense was the new map will be controversial, so I called Justice Bielby on April 10 to learn a bit more about her commission’s process.

The 27-year judge dismissed criticism of previous commissions. “What’s triggered the change this time, and maybe the concern, is not what happened last time but in the last eight years… a huge inflow in population,” she said. In other words, even if an AEBC’s work were impeccable, booms still throw ridings—as Bielby put it—“substantially out of whack.”

Similarly, she rejected those who see gerry-mandering here. “They’re affected by the recent [US] election,” she said. At Drumheller, for example, citizen Rick Laursen had warned the AEBC that “the current government want[s] to realign boundaries to make it more advantageous for future elections.” Elsewhere Bielby was given “proof” of past shenanigans: Chestermere-Rocky View, flanking Calgary like curtains, or Cypress-Medicine Hat’s “donut hole.” Municipal boundaries, among other factors, determined those shapes. “People jump to conclusions,” Bielby said. “They’d say ‘There’s such a weak, undulating border on this side of the constituency; something wrong must have happened.’ [I’d tell them] Take a closer look; that’s a river.”

Changes will not achieve the ultimate goal—as guaranteed by the Charter—of effective representation.” —MLA Rick Strankman

The uneven weight of votes, Bielby said, also reflects Alberta’s Electoral Boundaries Commission Act, which itself is informed by the Charter. Much legal interpretation has deemed that the Charter guarantees Canadians a right to “effective representation,” not (as in the US) to absolute vote parity. This is why we don’t just divide Alberta’s population by 87 and draw boundaries such that every riding has the same population. The process would be quicker, sure—but towns and neighbourhoods would be cut into pieces.

Justice Edward Wachowich, the 1995 AEBC chair, summarized the grounds for equity rather than strict equality: the Supreme Court and Alberta Court of Appeal agree that “the right to vote under the Charter includes… the right to have the parity of the votes of others diluted, but not unduly, in order to gain effective representation or as a matter of practical necessity.”

To ensure effective representation, the AEBC considers population density/sparsity, common community interests, existing community boundaries, geographical features (including roads), the number of local authorities an MLA might meet (school boards, municipal councils, community associations etc.) and the desirability of understandable and clear boundaries.

The best defence of “not undue dilution,” Bielby said, is the huge size of a handful of rural ridings. Drumheller-Stettler, for example, stretches almost from the QE2 to Saskatchewan. Some at the Canalta Jurassic had driven two hours to get to that hearing, in the riding all the while. Some MLAs estimate they travel hundreds of hours every year for work. Long-time Little Bow MLA Barry McFarland told the 2017 AEBC he annually spent 100 workdays driving.

In April, with the interim map underway, Bielby said MLA workloads were on her mind.  If her AEBC were to insist on parity, even in northern ridings, “You’d have a constituency the size of a quarter of the province,” she said. “Is that fair for the MLA?”

On May 23, with nearly two dozen public events in 14 cities and towns under its belt, the AEBC released its preliminary report. By that point—the summer hearings not scheduled, a final report not due until October—the commissioners had heard 749 submissions, or 50 per cent more than the previous AEBC had received by its end.

As the presenters in Drumheller had sensed, urban growth was always going to force the mapmakers to wield their red sharpie. Indeed, the 2017 AEBC proposed a major update.

The new map has Edmonton gaining one seat, to 20—a fair reflection of the city’s share of Alberta, since its population divided by the average riding’s equals 20 almost exactly. Calgary will gain a seat as well, to 26 (closer to equality, but below the one-and-a-half extra seats the city’s population would warrant if strict parity were the AEBC’s only criterion). A third new riding accounts for bursting-at-the-seams Cochrane and Airdrie.

To accommodate these—since the AEBC can’t add MLAs—rural Alberta will lose three constituencies. Four ridings northeast of Edmonton (Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills, Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater, Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville, Bonnyville-Cold Lake) will become three. Five in west-central Alberta (Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre, West Yellowhead, Drayton Valley-Devon, Whitecourt-Ste. Anne, Stony Plain) will become four. And seven in central-southern Alberta (Battle River-Wainwright, Drumheller-Stettler, Strathmore-Brooks, Little Bow, Cardston-Taber-Warner, Cypress-Medicine Hat, Vermilion-Lloydminster) will become six.

Rural MLAs reacted with disbelief. “It just doesn’t make sense,” said Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills MLA Nathan Cooper. Highwood MLA Wayne Anderson: “I don’t think common sense is in play on this one; it’s all about numbers.” Paula Simons in the Edmonton Journal, however, called the proposal “long-overdue justice” for her hometown in particular, and wrote that the map “would dramatically tilt the Legislature in the direction of demographic, democratic fairness.”

True to previous AEBCs, one commissioner issued a minority opinion. Gwen Day suggested rural Alberta need not lose any seats. “It would have been in the best interest of all Albertans to preserve as many of the existing ridings as possible using allowable variances,” she wrote.

Justice Bielby, for her part, said the new map “strikes a balance between population numbers and public interest.” Probably the proposal shouldn’t have surprised anyone. All but one of Edmonton’s ridings will be within 4 per cent of the population average. The average variation in Calgary is just 2 per cent. And where the challenge proves greatest, in rural Alberta, only 10 ridings deviate more than 10 per cent.

Lesser Slave Lake (new pop. 27,818) and Central Peace-Notley (32,471), were permitted, respectively, 40 per cent and 30 per cent variance. Previous AEBCs made such allowances too. The Electoral Boundaries Commission Act allows up to four such exceptions if ridings meet criteria including size and distance from Edmonton. MLAs in these ridings typically travel by plane.

Residents of Drumheller-Stettler had asked the AEBC to leave their sprawling riding alone or give it a special designation, as in northern Alberta. The commissioners’ proposal meets them halfway.

Barring revisions before October 31—when the AEBC final report is due—much of the riding won’t change. Stettler and hamlets east will join the new Stettler-Wainwright. Near Drumheller the riding will send out a tendril to envelop Strathmore, the villages of Rockyford, Standard and Hussar (and surrounding area) and Siksika Nation. The rest is status quo. The new riding resembles a tilting mushroom—odd, but probably not enough to invite conspiracy theories.

Where Drumheller-Stettler’s population was previously well below the provincial average, the new riding (working name: Drumheller-Strathmore) will grow to 54,232, or 16 per cent above the average. With the stroke of a pen, the area goes from over- to underrepresented.

On its face, this fact will upset locals. The AEBC, however, is taking into consideration another criterion: projected population decline in east-central Alberta and growth elsewhere, which should have the effect of quickly bringing Drumheller back to average. “By the time of the next electoral boundary review,” the commissioners wrote, “the… 16 per cent positive variance may well be on par with the provincial average… or below.” (Had they kept the riding intact, its population would soon have fallen to 25 per cent below average—a privilege typically saved for truly remote northern ridings.)

Here, the commissioners were perhaps heeding advice from a predecessor. “One of the mistakes we made years ago,” said 2002/2003 AEBC chair Bob Clark (former Alberta Ethics Commissioner) at the January 2017 hearing in Olds, “was spending too much time just looking at the population now, as opposed to looking at the areas that are growing, and taking that into consideration.” This strategy partly backfired on the 2010 commission, which is why Fort McMurray-Conklin today has such disproportionate voting power (less development than expected occurred south of the city, and the 2016 fire didn’t help). But to ignore projected growth could render an AEBC’s corrective work quickly obsolete. Such thinking is why the least-populated urban ridings—e.g., the proposed Calgary-North, 16 per cent below average—are at the city’s edge.

In adding population to Drumheller’s riding, however, the commission says it also managed to address locals’ main concern, by slightly shrinking the riding area. In other words, the 2017 AEBC believes it can create more democratic fairness across Alberta without increasing the Drumheller MLA’s travel burden. Assuming the constituency office in Stettler is replaced by one in Strathmore—to complement existing offices in Drumheller and Hanna—most area citizens will be able to travel a similar distance to meet their representative.

They’d say ‘There’s such a weak, undulating border on this side of the constituency; something must be wrong.’ [I’d tell them] Take a closer look; that’s a river.” —2017 AEBC Chair Myra Bielby

I wondered what Drumhellerites thought about the proposals, or how Strathmore would feel about being part of a new riding. And so, on July 21, 2017, I made another drive, this time to the public hearing in Brooks.

For all the changes proposed, and given the paucity of summer hearings (half as many as in winter), the event was sparse; maybe 30 people in a hotel conference room that could fit triple that. Five of the 15 presenters were MLAs, one a former MLA. Reaction to the map was mixed.

Drumheller-Stettler MLA Rick Strankman voiced the strongest concern. “Proposed changes will negatively affect the stability of [my] riding,” he said. They “most certainly will not achieve the ultimate goal, as guaranteed by the Charter… that guarantees effective representation.” He called for an exception to an area “simply too large for one person to effectively cover physically. …People have an innate preference to see other people in person. Electronic solutions are no substitute. Witness your commission’s own option to have both pre- and post-report public meetings.”

I feel some sympathy for Strankman. The Altario-area farmer mailed out an invite in 2015 asking constituents to “bring your wife’s pie” and was widely mocked on social media. Missed by snickering urbanites, however, were telling comments in the flier about the reality of rural politics. “This area is too big for traditional door-knocking,” the MLA wrote. “Take a break from calving, farming, spring work and NHL playoffs to join your neighbors from near and far.” Truly, his riding is too vast for door-knocking. On summer roads, the Strankman farm is two hours from the constituency office in Hanna.

But the 2017 AEBC proposes some tough and necessary corrections. Constant travel is a reality of rural politics that only a serious democratic deficit in the cities or a big increase in the number of MLAs could correct. Phone calls and digital communication will have to do where face-to-face proves daunting. Meanwhile, making the MLA’s job more manageable—more offices, hiring drivers—is the task of the legislative Members’ Services committee.

Even without all the driving, the urban politician’s job is arguably just as tough, with some challenges (e.g., refugees, homelessness, crime, mental health issues) disproportionately frequent in the cities. But even if the rural politician’s job could be proven more difficult, a democracy cannot long flourish if some citizens’ votes weigh considerably more than others.

 

Evan Osenton is editor at Alberta Views.

 

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