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Opinion

Voter equality for a healthy democracy

Published on 17/09/2012

One measure of the health of democracy is if voters have equality of voice. If each riding in a country has about the same number of voters, then the Parliament or legislature will represent people in all parts of the country equally.

At present, Canada is not very healthy in this regard. For some justifiable historic reasons, some parts of the country have a much stronger voice in the federal Parliament. For example Prince Edward Island has four seats in Ottawa’s Parliament, despite its small population, giving it about 35,000 voters per riding. The ideal average riding size is currently 110,000 voters per riding, but PEI’s arrangement was made at the time they entered Confederation. Other ridings, mostly on the edges of Toronto and Vancouver have almost 200,000 voters.

In Ontario, the inequality of voice becomes apparent when comparing the largest riding in Canada with two smaller ones. In Oak Ridges-Markham, a single Member of Parliament (MP) represents a population of 228,997. Compare this to the ridings of Parry Sound-Muskoka, with an MP representing just over 91,000, and Leeds-Grenville with an MP representing 99,000. In essence, this means that voters in those two smaller ridings have more than twice the influence in parliament. Does that seem healthy for our democracy?

The large ridings reflect the growth of our most vibrant cities, partly from people moving from other parts of Canada but mainly people from other parts of the world. So a significant proportion of these large ridings are immigrant rich, and these newer Canadians are afforded an unequal voice in the casting of their ballots. The voice of urban Canadians is quieter than the numbers warrant, resulting in much less attention being paid to issues of importance to city dwellers, like urban transit and housing.

Recently, the federal Parliament agreed to increase the number of seats in the House of Commons to alleviate this inequality, adding 30 seats. Those seats will go to the growing provinces of Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, where the disproportionately largest ridings exist around Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. Provincial Boundary Commissions are charged with recommending to Parliament new electoral boundary maps. They first produce a draft map of redrawn districts, and invite comment in a formal process of submissions, and then produce a final recommendation to Parliament. The public is invited to comment during the submissions process.

While a 25% variance from the average riding size (population divided by seats) is permitted, the ideal is to land as close as possible to the average. Most countries mandate a much smaller variance than Canada, 5-10%.

Why should this matter to you?

Canada is alone among developed nations in lacking national policy on transportation and transit, and on housing. It is a comparative laggard on environmental policy, a matter of considerable importance to cities. It focuses most tax revenue on the federal and provincial governments with cities receiving barely eight percent of tax revenues, and generally limits city taxation to property tax, which does not grow with the economy and is relatively inflexible.

In debates in the federal Parliament, urban issues come up infrequently. Federal political parties rarely put urban issues into their platforms, even when they draw many of their members from cities. And when they form governments, there is seldom follow-up on any urban promises made.

The urban voice in Canada is muted by the imbalance in power between rural and urban votes. The current redistribution process and the boundary commission submissions are a way to rectify this democratic imbalance. But to be effective, those living in urban regions need to speak up and let the boundary commissioners hear the urban voice. In past redistributions, the rural voice has been heard loud and clear, and the commissioners have typically mitigated their recommendations to favour rural areas. It’s time for urban voices to be heard.

The Mowat Centre has undertaken a useful information initiative to make sure that Canadians understand this process, and know how to make submissions to the boundary commissions. Read the Mowat Note “Voter Equality and Other Canadian Values: Finding the Right Balance.” It is important for us all to be interested and involved in creating greater voter equality.

Canada’s future is closely linked to the prosperity and quality of life of its cities. It is also linked to the health of its democracy. Voter equality serves both of these pillars of our success.

Summary

The urban voice in Canada is muted by the imbalance in power between rural and urban votes.

Topic(s)

Cities and communities, Civic engagement