For your consideration - Thom Barker

For your consideration - Thom Barker

The decline, but not elimination, of gerrymandering

Incumbent politicians have always found ways to put their thumb on the scale

Our democracies in B.C. and in Canada are still by no means perfect, but we’ve come a long way.

Since the mid-1960s the review of electoral district boundaries has been left up to independent bodies.

In B.C., since 1966, following every second election, a three-member panel is established.

These folks have a very important job. The ultimate role of the commission is to make recommendations that ensure voters have “proper and effective” representation in the legislature.

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This is an extremely complex task, but it basically boils down to population distribution, demographics and regional interests — regions being anything from a vast swath of wilderness such as our Stikine constituency to a particular neighbourhood in a big city.

Since these considerations are always in flux, it is essential that regular reviews and redistribution occur.

Establishing independent bodies was a direct response to the kind of gerrymandering that used to be rife in politics.

Historical aside: Gerrymandering was coined by the American press in 1812 after the Governor of Massachusetts Elbridge Gerry created a partisan district that the Boston Gazette compared to a mythical salamander-like creature.

While we tend to be a little smug when comparing the relative corruption of our democracy to that of our southern neighbour, Canadian and B.C. politicians have never been immune to putting their thumb on the scale.

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Even since Canadian jurisdictions switched to independent electoral boundary panels, it hasn’t stopped entirely. Prior to 1991, B.C. had an odd mixture of single MLA districts and multiple-MLA districts. This arrangement heavily favoured the centre-right Social Credit Party, which ruled the province from 1952 to 1991, with only one three-year gap (1972-1975).

The first electoral commission in 1966, recommended doing away with multi-MLA constituencies altogether, reducing representation in the north from seven to five districts, the Cariboo and southern Interior from four to three, the Kootenays from eight to four and increasing the number of ridings in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland from 19 to 27.

The legislature of the day, (coincidentally?) dominated by W.A.C. Bennett’s Social Credit Party, refused to do away with the two northern ridings and hung onto a couple of the other rural ones while increasing the number of MLAs in Vancouver to 12, but opting for six two-representative ridings instead of the recommended 12 single-MLA districts.

Guess who handily won the next election in 1969?

Subsequent Legislatures accepted and rejected commission recommendations to varying degrees and it remains true today that the Legislature can accept or reject the recommendations. That’s not to say there aren’t checks and balances, the most important of which is us.

For example, in Prince Edward Island the Conservative government rejected that province’s 2006 commission’s recommendations and the caucus created its own map that heavily favoured re-election in 2007.

While Premier Pat Binns and his caucus may not have seen anything wrong with the attempted gerrymandering, the press and the Oppositon certainly did. And apparently so did PEI voters. The Liberals thrashed the Conservatives in that election taking 23 of the Legislature’s 27 seats.

The current process in B.C. could see the addition of up to six new seats in Victoria.

It will be interesting to see what the commission comes up with.

It will be even more interesting to see what the current NDP-led Legislature does with the recommendations.

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