Fair Voting BC Welcomes Reform of Electoral Boundaries Commission Process

Bill 7 – EBC Amendment Act: Fair Voting BC welcomes the recent introduction of Bill 7 – the Electoral Boundaries Commission Amendment Act by the provincial government which removes a controversial clause introduced by the previous government that, in our view, unnecessarily constrained the non-partisan and independent Electoral Boundaries Commission in setting fair boundaries in accordance with the norms and principles articulated by the Supreme Court in the landmark 1991 Saskatchewan Electoral Boundaries Reference Case (see stories by CBC and the Vancouver Sun). 

Independent Electoral Boundaries Commissions:  In strong contrast to the United States, where electoral boundaries are typically set using partisan committees that engage in significant gerry-mandering, all federal and provincial elections in Canada rely on independent Electoral Boundaries Commissions (EBCs) to set the riding boundaries. 

Principle of Representation by Population: To reflect the core democratic principle that voters should be treated equally, EBCs are instructed by legislation that their highest priority is to achieve comparative parity in the populations of each riding (a.k.a. “representation by population”, or “rep-by-pop”).  In previous legal cases, the courts have recognized that there are challenges in reconciling this primary goal with other considerations – most notably the difficulties in providing constituency service in the least-densely-populated parts of the country – and so have allowed EBCs discretion to permit limited deviations to accommodate such concerns.  Governments across Canada have generally written legislation that defines the maximum permitted deviations to lie within ranges of plus or minus 5% to 25% (BC’s legislation specifies 25%) – see Table 2 in this BC White Paper

BC Goes Well Beyond Bounds:  Deviations beyond these limits are supposed to be permitted only in “extraordinary”, “exceptional” or “very special” circumstances.  But provincially, we have many significant deviations – 47 of the 87 ridings in the province (see map below left) are over 10% away from parity, 10 are beyond 25%, 6 are beyond 40%, and two are close to 60% (North Coast at -58% and Stikine at -61%).  Such massive deviations from parity are very likely unconstitutional. In contrast, the federal riding boundaries in BC have been set such that most lie within +/-10%, with only 6 of 42 lying between 10% and 15%, and only one lying beyond 15% (+16% in North Okanagan-Shuswap) – see map below right. 

Provincial riding boundaries

Federal riding boundaries

Why is BC so Out of Whack?  The BC Liberal Party won re-election in 2013 and that fall introduced a White Paper on Electoral Boundary Reform laying out their plan to change the legislation that would govern the 2015 Electoral Boundaries Commission process.  In a move that was widely criticized at the time because of the partisan advantage it would confer on the BC Liberals, the government passed legislation in 2014 specifying that the EBC could not reduce the number of seats in each of three specified regions (the North, Cariboo-Thompson, and Kootenay-Columbia).  The Liberals won the majority of these 17 seats in recent elections (11 in 2013 and 13 in 2017 and 2020).  Had the number of seats been reduced in proportion to the population in these areas, these regions would have had only about 12 seats, so the Liberals would have stood to have lost two or three seats relative to the NDP in the 2017 election had they not imposed this change. 

Reactions to Bill 7: Perhaps predictably, some Liberal MLAs from the affected areas are criticizing the current bill, arguing that northern ridings will increase in size and therefore make it more difficult for MLAs to cover their ridings (see also story in PG Daily News), though some seem to be exaggerating the possible effects – e.g., Liberal MLA Dan Davies (Peace River North) claims that “three or four MLAs would represent the entire northern two-thirds of our province”, even though Liberal MLA John Rustad (Nechako Lake) estimates that there would likely still be at least six MLAs north of Kamloops (and possibly more, given the EBC’s discretion, as another northern MLA, NDP Nathan Cullen (Stikine), points out).  

More surprisingly, a Times-Colonist editorial casts the bill as politicizing the political process, arguing that the governing NDP stands to benefit if the current “legislative finger” on the scale is removed. But, as political scientists Dennis Pilon and Stephen Phillips point out, this characterization is unfair:  

“What the changes actually seek to do is restore the autonomy of the commission to design and revise constituency boundaries in the province to best represent voters, informed by established principles of population equality and effective geographic representation.” 

We agree.  In our view, removing a biasing and discriminatory clause and restoring the power of the independent Electoral Boundaries Commission to do their work guided solely by the principles articulated and affirmed by the courts should not be equated with imposing a discriminatory clause in the first place, even if the party removing the clause stands to do better on the resulting level playing field than on the one currently tilted against them. 

We therefore encourage you, as this bill makes its way through the legislative process, to let your MLA know that you support Bill 7’s goal of restoring a fair electoral boundaries-setting process.