Many people believe that every single democracy has a one-person-one-vote rule that never gets changed or broken. They’re mistaken. Population density, geography, and the very real limitations faced by elected officials make it impossible for every electoral district to have the same number of voters.
Electoral boundaries are supposed to be determined by two things—population and extenuating circumstance. To calculate an average population per riding, the people who establish electoral boundaries take the total population and divide it by the number of ridings allowed by the legislature. This average is intended as a start-point or rough guideline only.
The second thing Alberta’s electoral boundary people must do is obey the law, which obligates them to propose electoral boundaries that ensure “effective representation.” This rule makes provision for extenuating circumstances such as distance, geography, etc. This is so important that Alberta’s Electoral Boundaries Act actually says that to accommodate this objective, the population from one riding to another can “vary” by as much as 25%.
In other provinces, ensuring “effective representation” can mean variances that are wider than Alberta’s 25%. For example, due to distance and geography BC’s smallest populated riding has just over 20,000 people while the largest has more than 70,000.
Alberta’s electoral boundaries are established by the Electoral Boundaries Commission (EBC), run by five people the government appoints. These five propose changes that can alter a riding’s size, amend the number of voters, rename the riding, etc. It’s also their responsibility to make sure “effective representation” is established.
“Effective representation” simply recognizes that some urban MLAs can drive across their constituencies in half an hour or less, and often have no requirement to interact with town councils, school boards, or junior governments. Conversely, in many rural ridings, not only is distance a factor, but MLAs may have dozens of town councils with whom they must interact, plus several school boards, municipal or county councils, and multiple hospital boards.
The failure of Alberta’s EBC to establish “effective representation” in its recent recommendations for constituency changes prior to the next Alberta election has some observers suggesting that the Commission has circumvented an earlier decision by the Supreme Court of Canada. This was a 1991 ruling recognizing the importance of “effective representation.” The EBC is proposing changes that would eliminate two rural Alberta ridings, while increasing the size of other rural districts.
To explain why some believe that the Commission ignored “effective representation,” consider the fact that a proposed new riding in southern Alberta would take nearly three hours to drive across. It’s shaped like a distorted hourglass that’s wide at the U.S. border, yet only about 15-20 km wide near its middle. The riding then widens way out again and goes north all the way to a line east of Strathmore. Near the top of the crooked hourglass, it juts far to the east, ending southeast of Brooks.
The demands of these large ridings are already extremely challenging. These new and expanded ridings will likely result in obstacles that hinder voters from even meeting with their MLA. Other rural ridings face similar challenges due to the EBC’s failure to appropriately consider “effective representation.”
As of this fall, the Commission’s public process has ended. It has presented its boundary proposals for the next provincial election to the legislature for its consideration.