The Value of Your Vote

Rural votes are worth up to three times as much as urban votes. How Alberta is confronting this thorny issue.

By Larry Johnsrude

To unravel Alberta’s electoral boundaries riddle, a good place to start is the sprawling east-central constituency of Battle River-Wainwright. Progressive Conservative MLA Doug Griffiths figures he spends up to 40 hours a week just in his car, driving from meeting to meeting. His sparsely populated riding includes 34 towns, villages and hamlets, five counties, six school boards, 34 schools, 69 municipal arenas, curling rinks and halls for a total of 41 elected bodies expecting face time with him regularly.

On a typical night, he’ll hop in his car and drive two hours from his home in Hardisty to a municipal council meeting or high school graduation, then turn around and drive two hours home. And that’s when he’s not driving the two hours to Edmonton when the legislature is sitting. He puts 100,000 kilometres on his car every year.

“When I was single, it was easier because I would just stay with friends along the way,” the 34-year-old father of two boys says by phone from his Wainwright constituency office. “But now I would like to get home at night as often as I can to maintain a family life.”

As large as Battle River-Wainwright is now, it is about to get larger, as the provincial Electoral Boundaries Commission (EBC) redraws riding boundaries this year to make them better reflect the province’s changing population patterns. The riding is among several with declining rural populations, while urban centres along the Calgary/Edmonton corridor have boomed.

“I’m not going to pretend that many of us rural MLAs aren’t going to get territory added because of population growth,” Griffiths says with grim resignation. “For me, it will probably mean three or four more towns. And that’s three or four more schools. That comes at a time when it’s almost unmanageable already.”

By contrast, Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman doesn’t even have to leave her Edmonton Centre constituency to go to the provincial legislature. She can walk from one end of her riding to the other in an afternoon. She and the 17 other Edmonton MLAs have only one municipal council to deal with and two school boards.

But unlike rural ridings, Edmonton Centre has issues such as urban poverty, homelessness, big-city crime, immigrant issues, business and residential revitalization, post-secondary education and public transit. And for all the big-city issues they deal with daily, Blakeman’s electors don’t have the same power at the ballot box as most rural voters, owing to a system that over-represents rural areas on account of their immense geographical size—and also favours the governing Conservatives.

“I have only one municipal council to deal with, but I have community leagues and business revitalization zones,” Blakeman says in her downtown office. “I have AISH recipients and Workers Compensation Board clients who need me to intervene on their behalf. I need to work with community groups on CFEP [Community Facility Enhancement Program] grants. I have more immigrants, seniors and disadvantaged people than most ridings. So it shouldn’t be a contest about who works hardest. We all start at 8:00 a.m. and aren’t done until after 11:00 p.m. It’s not as if I do nothing all day but sit around eating bonbons.”

Alberta’s Electoral Boundaries Commission is charged with reconciling the difference between heavily and lightly populated ridings and creating, if not absolute equality, at least something closer to equity. And the most important issue facing the EBC is not MLAs’ relative workloads, of course, but the massive difference in the relative power of Albertans’ ballots.

“We need another four MLAs like a dog needs more fleas,” says Hehr about the increase to 87 ridings.

The debate comes down to numbers. Census figures for 2006 put Edmonton Centre’s population at 41,299 and Battle River-Wainwright’s at 30,403. That means that for every four constituents Blakeman represents, Griffiths represents only three—even though the two MLAs’ votes carry the same weight in the legislature.

Battle River-Wainwright is just one of more than a dozen sparsely populated rural ridings that inflate the political clout of their residents. The most extreme is Dunvegan-Central Peace, with a population of only 23,649. By contrast, Calgary-North West has a population of 60,511, making it the most densely populated riding in the province. The MLA for Dunvegan-Central Peace has the same voice in the legislature as the MLA for Calgary-North West, even though the Calgary MLA represents over two and a half times as many people. Approximately one-quarter of the province’s ridings—all in rural areas—have populations significantly below the provincial average (39,643 people) while almost one-third—all in or near major centres—have populations substantially above the average.

By law, Alberta’s five-member Electoral Boundaries Commission meets every 8–10 years. The chair is appointed by the Lieutenant Governor; two members are appointed by the Premier and two by the opposition parties. The current commission is chaired by Provincial Court Judge Ernest J.M. Walter, and includes members Keith Archer of Banff, Brian Evans of Calgary, Peter Dobbie of Vegreville and Allyson Jeffs of Edmonton. The EBC’s initial report was expected in February and its final report is expected in July. The interim report is expected to set the general direction of the changes; the general public weighs in and the final report works out the details, which can include substantive changes from the initial report. The new boundaries are brought before members of the legislature, who can approve, or approve with alterations, the commission’s recommendations.

Since its appointment last year, the EBC has held 22 public hearings at 14 locations across the province, heard from more than 80 interested Albertans and received 320 written submissions. That’s twice the number the last commission received in 2003.

The increased interest is an encouraging sign. While to many people electoral boundaries are an arcane collection of lines and squiggles on an imaginary map, they have a profound impact in formulating public policy and setting the tone of how we do politics for years and decades to come. Most importantly, the borders define a given constituency of voters, who in turn decide which party represents them in the legislature. Draw the boundaries one way and a certain candidate might get elected; draw them another way and a different one might win. In a larger sense, boundaries help define who we are as individuals and as a community, how we relate to our politicians as well as to communities around us.

Given the competing demands, some say the commission requires the wisdom of Solomon to come up with an electoral map that is fair to everyone. Others say all it needs is a calculator and a sharp pencil.

“I don’t see why this is a complicated issue,” Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel says. “Just take the province’s population, divide it by the number of seats, and that’s the population we should be striving for in each riding across the province. Fair representation is equal representation by population.”

It was an argument made with equal passion by many appearing before the commission. But EBC chair Walter notes that “fair” does not necessarily mean “equal.” The commission operates under a landmark 1991 Supreme Court of Canada decision that allows population variances between provincial ridings of up to 25 per cent above or below the average.

“The Supreme Court has said we are here to ensure all voters get effective representation,” he says. “Population is not the only factor.”

In fact, the commission can look at geographic challenges, such as the driving times noted by Griffiths and the fact it can take Lesser Slave Lake MLA Pearl Calahasen three days to get around her riding, much of which is accessible only by air.

“Some of these electoral divisions are the size of small European countries,” Walter notes. “As a constituent, for your vote to be effective you require access to your MLA. Representation isn’t effective if it’s hindered by geographic barriers.”

Along with ensuring effective, although not necessarily equal representation, the EBC was mandated by law to increase the number of seats in the legislature, giving it the flexibility to partially equalize population by adding four more ridings. It can also create up to four “special consideration districts” with population variances of up to 50 per cent as long as they meet criteria, including being a certain distance from the provincial capital and other major centres and containing isolated communities with special needs. Until now, only Dunvegan-Central Peace has been so designated.

This commission is using up-to-date municipal census data for the first time, giving it an advantage over its predecessors. This is a significant development considering that Alberta’s population grew by an estimated 300,000 people since the census in 2006. It can also draw its boundaries based on anticipated future growth so future commissions aren’t always trying to catch a runaway freight.

Despite the current commission’s best intentions, the electoral boundary review process is tainted by memories of past commissions, especially the changing of boundaries to further partisan interests. The 2003 commission enraged Edmontonians by reducing their seats in the legislature by one, to 18. Voters responded by electing 14 opposition members in the city. The previous commission, in 1996, ended in failure when its members could not agree on proposals to extend city constituency boundaries into rural fringes. Then-premier Ralph Klein appointed a committee of Conservative MLAs to set the boundaries, prompting charges of gerrymandering.

Alberta’s sparsely populated ridings often have been compared to the “rotten boroughs” of 19th-century Britain, where small population bases propped up the political elite. Similarly, the governing Conservatives, strongest in rural areas, would like to see their party continue to dominate the legislature. Critics see the creation of four new seats—as opposed to simply redrawing existing boundaries—as an extension of that.

“The Conservatives weighed increasing the number of seats against keeping the same number, and decided the rural backlash against cutting rural seats would be too great,” said John Kolkman, who made a presentation at the Edmonton hearing as an interested private citizen. “They were afraid of losing rural votes.”

In spring 2009, Justice Minister Alison Redford introduced Bill 45—legislation to increase the number of ridings to 87—saying it was in recognition of Alberta’s growing population, an increase of one million people since the seat count was last increased, more than 20 years ago. Liberal MLA Kent Hehr shot back: “We need another four MLAs like a dog needs more fleas.”

Alberta’s two largest cities are represented by a minority of MLAs. This means less influence on policy.

Indeed, despite the Progressive Conservatives’ mantra of “less government,” Alberta will become the most governed of Canadian provinces with populations of more than one million. It will have two more seats than neighbouring British Columbia, even though Alberta has one million fewer people, and will have more MLAs per voter than Ontario and Quebec.

“It’s going to be difficult for some of the groups we represent to stomach an increase in the number of politicians in the legislature at a time that they’re looking at some severe cuts in the coming spring budget,” said Mr. Kolkman, executive director of the Edmonton Social Planning Council, a research and advocacy group on social and poverty issues.

The commission also heard opposing views about appropriate population thresholds in rural and urban seats as well as how boundaries should reflect communities and trade patterns. Urban presenters, regardless of political affiliation, tended to support population equality between ridings, while rural voters viewed over-representation as vital to the survival of economically pressed rural Alberta.

Heather MacIntosh of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership blames population inequities for public cynicism leading to the historically low 40.6 per cent voter turnout in the 2008 provincial election. “Under-representation of young families and visible minorities is a concern, especially as we see low voter turnout among those 35 and under and among some visible minority communities,” she says.

On the other side, Geraldine Biduluk, speaking as a concerned citizen at the St. Paul hearing, called for “preserving a strong rural voice for all Alberta.” She added: “Urban MLAs may see 50 constituents in a 15-minute walk down the street. Our rural MLA on a long road trip may see five.”

Such arguments don’t impress Edmonton’s Mayor Mandel. “That doesn’t give you the right to have greater representation,” he says. “Your vote isn’t any more important than mine. Just because you live in one area, you shouldn’t have a greater privilege to have a more effective vote—yours counts one out of 20,000, mine counts one out of 50,000.” Adds MLA Blakeman: “Why bother to vote when your vote doesn’t count as much as someone else’s and they’re getting a two-for-one?”

In electoral terms, Alberta’s two largest cities, which make up a majority of the province’s population, have been represented by a minority of the members in the legislature. Fewer big-city MLAs means less urban influence on public policy and laws. Critics say that if the cities had a greater voice, more attention would be paid to urban issues such as policing, infrastructure renewal, public transit, post-secondary education, homelessness and immigration.

“More people around the table is always beneficial,” says Mandel. “We’ve become a very urbanized province, so I think it’s time to find some balance between rural and urban, based upon population.”

Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier made a similar case in a written submission. “Representation by population is the only truly democratic and fair way to ensure that all Albertans have an equal voice in the legislative assembly,” he wrote. He noted that 18 of Calgary’s 23 electoral divisions now have populations above the provincial average.

Bronconnier asked for three additional seats for Calgary. Mandel asked for two more—one to make up for the seat Edmonton lost in 2003 and another to account for population growth. Given that the commission has only four new seats to work with, the requests will be impossible to reconcile.

They aren’t necessarily warranted either, says Walter. He hints that Calgary may get at least two new seats but Edmonton may have to be satisfied with one. The reason, he says, is the difference in the municipal makeup of the two cities. While almost all of the Calgary region’s population is within the municipal boundaries, Edmonton is surrounded by a collection of heavily populated bedroom communities.

“When you look at Calgary, all the population growth, except for Airdrie-Chestermere, has been within the city’s boundaries,” he said. “In Edmonton, the fastest-growing areas haven’t been within the city limits but [within] the communities on the fringes of Edmonton.” That said, and given the public backlash in 1992 against hiving off parts of the city to create ridings straddling municipal boundaries, Edmonton seems destined to get only one new seat, while one might be added along the suburban fringe.

Electoral map-making has also evolved beyond the contest of urban versus rural. The fastest-growing part of the province is the Edmonton/Calgary corridor. A number of increasingly urbanized rural ridings along the Queen Elizabeth II highway have outgrown their boundaries, which will mean moving some of their population into electoral districts to the east and west. The population of Airdrie-Chestermere, for example, almost warrants two ridings. The riding of Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo will surely be split into two constituencies—its current population of some 53,000, 39 per cent larger than the average, is a violation of the Electoral Boundaries Commission Act—with the line bisecting the city of Fort McMurray.

By way of contrast, many constituencies outside the Edmonton/Calgary corridor have stable or shrinking populations. More than a dozen large rural ridings with populations more than 10 per cent below the provincial average will have to expand to bring their populations closer to the average. This surely means a rejigging of boundaries in central and southern areas such as Drumheller-Stettler, Cardston-Taber-Warner, Little Bow and Livingstone-Macleod. Rural ridings might even disappear through amalgamation.

The number of “special consideration districts” allowed to have a population of up to 50 per cent below average may also increase by one or two. Dunvegan-Central Peace may be joined by Lesser Slave Lake. West Yellowhead, which also qualifies under the criteria, is being considered for such a designation.

Despite huge population disparities created by the “special” districts, most people involved in electoral boundary reform don’t have a problem with the designation as long as it’s used sparingly. “The four northern ridings make up 40 per cent of Alberta’s area,” says Walter. “That’s a huge chunk to try to represent effectively. Some communities aren’t even accessible by road. Lesser Slave Lake has 12 Aboriginal communities and two or three Métis settlements that present challenges on their own.”

Leaving aside the “special consideration districts,” opinions on allowable population variance abound. Many people think 25 per cent is too much—particularly when the cumulative effect of one riding being 25 per cent above average and one being 25 per cent below allows for a real variance of up to 50 per cent. NDP leader Brian Mason told the commission it should strive for a maximum population variance of 10 per cent. Judge Walter acknowledges that he is comfortable with a 10 per cent variance.

Others say it should be less. “I would rather see the maximum variance at 5 per cent,” says Harold Jansen, a University of Lethbridge political scientist. “The starting point should be equal population with a variance of as little as possible. When you start off with a 10–15 per cent variance, it doesn’t take long to get a 30–40 per cent disparity. You get some serious distortions to our system of representation by population.”

An often cited way of bridging the gap between “equal” and “effective” representation is to increase staffing and technological resources. Many argue that MLAs unable to meet regularly with constituents because of distance should hold “virtual” meetings. Constituents in remote locations now have access to their MLAs by cell phone, email, Facebook and the increasingly popular Twitter. The next step could be online videoconferencing. The commission was urged to press government for money for rural MLAs to open and staff more satellite constituency offices.

There has been a world of change since the Supreme Court’s 1991 ruling authorizing population variances up to 25 per cent. “Since then, services that were once available only through a visit to an MLA’s office are now available online and by phone,” Cory Hogan, executive director of the Alberta Liberals, told the commission. “That has somewhat diminished the requirement that constituencies have a lower population base as they get larger.” When reminded that constituency funding levels were beyond the commission’s mandate, he replied: “I think it lets the government off the hook, if you will—creating these smaller constituencies to cover a funding shortfall.”

Despite the PCs’ mantra of “less government,” ours will soon be the most governed Canadian province.

Griffiths, the Battle River-Wainwright MLA, is also a technologically savvy former teacher and would welcome online videoconferencing. “It would save me a huge amount of time,” he says. “It would be the next-best thing to a face-to-face meeting.” He notes, however, that not all of his constituents are as hooked into the technology. “Not everyone has Skype (software that enables Internet phone calls), but they’re getting there.”

Technology is making distances shorter, acknowledges Walter, but it’s only a partial solution. “Big parts of the province [have] no cell phone reception,” he says. “And a large number of people don’t use the Internet.”

Many rural residents told the hearings that phone conversations and emails are no substitute for face-to-face contact. But whether that level of access is still realistic at a time of rapid population growth and increasing demands on MLAs is another question.

“We are living in a marketplace where we compete globally with sophisticated technology for communicating with anyone around the world, and yet we’re trying to hang on to this idea that is antiquated at best,” says Jansen. “It’s not like this is 1890 and we’re trying to get around by horse and buggy.”

Long-time western Canadian political journalist Larry Johnsrude is now senior news director at CBC Radio Edmonton.


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