This op-ed was originally printed in the Edmonton Journal on January 28, 2017
By Larry Booi, Chair of Public Interest Alberta's Democracy Task Force
The current work of Alberta’s Electoral Boundaries Commission offers significant opportunities to not only solve problems related to representation by population, but also to further strengthen important elements of democracy in our province.
The problems with our current boundaries are serious and in need of attention. In a recent submission to the commission, Public Interest Alberta’s Democracy Task Force concluded that Alberta has allowed substantial, unwarranted, and unnecessary departures from representation by population and that our current system is one of unfair variance by design. In the process, we have sacrificed important aspects of political equality and have unfairly advantaged some groups of voters and disadvantaged others.
The departures from representation by population are dramatic and troubling. For example, in the 2015 provincial election, Calgary-South East had approximately 46,000 eligible voters, while Fort McMurray-Conklin had just over 15,000.
This means that voters in Fort McMurray-Conklin had three times the ‘voting power’ of voters in Calgary-South East. When one MLA speaks for three times the number of voters represented by another MLA, we have clearly abandoned the fundamental democratic principle of political equality.
The problems have stemmed mainly from two factors. First, current Alberta legislation allows far too much initial variance in setting up constituency boundaries. This means that differences in population can vary as much as 25 per cent above or below the provincial average between constituencies.
If the average population per constituency were 48,000, there could then be constituencies with as few as 36,000 and as many as 60,000 people — which in effect means that some constituencies might begin by already being 67 per cent larger than others.
The problem is then made much worse over time by subsequent population shifts, which nearly always involve substantial increases in urban and suburban areas and declines in rural areas.
In part, the practice of allowing wide variances has carried over from a previous era. When it was more difficult for MLAs to effectively represent voters in constituencies with large areas and more sparse populations, those MLAs were given smaller numbers of constituents to deal with. But those were earlier times, when there were fewer telephones, fewer paved roads, no television, and most importantly, no Internet. Today, the improvements in communications mean that we have far better options to support MLAs in providing effective representation to their constituents — and we can do this without having to undermine the principle of political equality.
Specifically, the commission should pursue two strategies in ensuring both representation by population and effective representation. (cont'd)