28 June 2010

The value of a vote in Alberta

I can't complain. The value of my vote, under the constituency boundaries recommended by the Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission, will be close to average. At least for now. According to the Commission, the average population per electoral division in the province is 40,880. The population of my proposed new constituency, Calgary-Buffalo, is 40,381. I did much better than, say Calgary-Hawkwood, which will have a population of 47,686, yet much worse than the rural constituency of West Yellowhead which will have a population of only 31,338 privileged citizens, if the Commission's report is accepted by the Alberta Legislature.

How democratic is this? Well, not very. Democracy means political equality, but a citizen in West Yellowhead has a vote worth 50 per cent more than that of a citizen in Calgary-Hawkwood. Actually, it's even worse. The population of Dunvegan-Central Peace, considered a special case because of its vast area, is only 24,584. A vote in that "special case" has almost double the value of a vote in Calgary-Hawkwood.

And that is now. This distortion will be greater by the time the next boundary review takes place. The trend is for rural ridings to decrease in population while urban ridings increase. Considering this trend is now a century old, it is long past the time boundary commissions took it into account.

Sadly, the rural/urban perversion of democracy has been sanctioned by no less an authority than the Supreme Court. In a 1991 decision, Madame Justice Beverley 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’.” She went on to say, "Factors like geography, community history, community interests and minority representation may need to be taken into account to ensure that our legislative assemblies effectively represent the diversity of our social mosaic. These are but examples of considerations which may justify departure from absolute voter parity in the pursuit of more effective representation; the list is not closed."

Unfortunately, in practice the list is closed. The discrepancies allowed are generally based on area and sparsity of population, thus advantaging rural voters over urban ones. In an inner city riding, an MLA or MP may face an additional challenge of dealing with many citizens for whom English is a second language. This would seem to fit into Madame Justice's "community interests" or "minority representation," but are the populations of such ridings ever reduced to compensate for the greater challenge of representation? I think not.

At one time, we might have been able to make an argument for offering rural areas special consideration because of the distances their representatives had to travel. Even then, however, reducing the democracy of urban citizens to compensate was never justified. It should have been dealt with by providing appropriate assistance to the representative such as a greater travel allowance or more aides. And it certainly isn't justified in an age of instant communication. It matters not at all to me where my MLA is if I want to contact him. I can do so instantaneously by email or phone, and even snail mail takes only a couple of days.

Madame Justice McLachlin's definition of the right to vote is arbitrary and undemocratic. Democracy rejects her "effective representation." It demands equal representation. Saskatchewan most closely approaches equality, restricting deviations from the average population of only plus or minus 5 per cent (except for two special cases of its own). Alberta still allows the grossly excessive 25 per cent. Our votes are discounted enough by our archaic first-past-the-post voting system; we don't need persistent gerrymandering in favour of rural constituencies.

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