Making B.C. electoral boundaries commissions more independent

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      By Dennis Pilon and Stephen Phillips

      Last month, the B.C. legislature gave first reading to important amendments to the B.C. Electoral Boundaries Commission Act.

      The political response has been predictable: B.C. Liberal partisans claimed it was an attempt to gerrymander the electoral map, that it was a politically motivated attack on rural areas and a bid to reduce their representation in favour of the province’s more populous urban areas.

      But such claims are not justified. 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.  

      As B.C.’s population increases, it becomes necessary to revise the boundaries of the province’s electoral districts from time to time to better reflect where people live and to maintain a rough equality of population between them.

      To accomplish these aims, an Electoral Boundaries Commission (EBC) is appointed every decade or so. Typically headed by a judge, it consults widely across the province before making recommendations about changing the province’s electoral map. To be truly independent, the EBC must be permitted to reach decisions based on principles and facts, free from partisan self-interest or government influence. That is what the government’s proposals seek to ensure.  

      The proposed amendments to the act are an overdue response to past political interference. In 2007, the Cohen Commission issued an interim report recommending a minor reduction of seats in some rural areas due to population changes. The B.C. Liberal government of Gordon Campbell balked, refusing to accept any reduction in rural representation—a position that was echoed by the opposition New Democrats.

      Indeed, the government threatened to bring in new legislation (Bill 39) that would have forced the commission to retain the seats in question. Although the government withdrew the bill in the face of opposition from the NDP, which objected to the use of such strongarm tactics, the commission ultimately bowed to the government’s wishes.

      In its final report of 2008, the EBC submitted its recommended map along with a second one, which the commission expressly did not endorse, that retained the disputed seats. 

      In 2014, the B.C. Liberal government of Christy Clark passed legislation prohibiting the EBC from considering any reduction of seats in three rural regions—North, Cariboo-Thompson, and Columbia-Kootenay—which between them hold 17 seats. Having won 11 of those seats in the 2013 election, the Liberals were undeterred by opposition voiced by the NDP and Greens.

      To its credit, the NDP government’s new legislation removes this limitation on an EBC’s ability to make recommendations about the changes necessary to create an equitable and fair electoral map. Contrary to some media commentary, these changes are not some "gerrymander" by the NDP government. Indeed, they are just the opposite. The legislation prevents any government, NDP or Liberal, from interfering with the work of an independent EBC. 

      The next EBC will have its work cut out for it. B.C.’s current electoral map is wildly out of balance, dramatically underrepresenting burgeoning urban enclaves like Surrey while overrepresenting some of the more sparsely populated rural areas of the province. At present, there are 13 constituencies that deviate from the provincial quotient (voter equality) by more than 25 percent, with 10 overrepresented and 3 underrepresented.

      For example, the riding of Stikine, with a population of 21,000, is fully 64 percent below the provincial quotient; meanwhile, Surrey-Panorama, with a population of nearly 80,000, is 34 percent above the quotient. Such gross deviations from representation by population devalue the votes of citizens residing in underrepresented ridings.

      Combined with the current act’s shackling of the EBC’s role, they open the province to a potential constitutional challenge.  We should remember that in 1989, the B.C. Supreme Court found the pervasive malapportionment of B.C.’s electoral map to violate the right to vote under Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  

      To be clear, the Electoral Boundaries Commission Act does not mandate strict voter equality, nor do the proposed amendments. Leading court decisions allow a variance from absolute voter equality of plus or minus 25 percent to accommodate geographic features, community interests, and other concerns. Indeed, the courts even make allowance for deviations in excess of 25 percent in exceptional cases.

      Nevertheless, as the Supreme Court of Canada has averred, voter equality is the dominant value to be adhered to and deviations from it must be justified. Not only is voter equality a bedrock democratic value, it also advances representational equity. As B.C.’s urban areas tend to be more racially and ethnically diverse, underrepresenting those locales adversely affects the representation of ethnocultural communities in the provincial legislature. 

      The challenges of representing vast constituencies are real, especially where population centres are widely dispersed. But denying voter equality and limiting political representation in growing, more populous areas is not an appropriate response.

      Fortunately, there are viable alternatives. First, proposed changes to the act allow the EBC to increase the maximum size of the legislature from 87 to 93.  In this way, additional seats can be allocated to areas of population growth while minimizing the effect on representation in existing constituencies.

      Map of the 87 provincial electoral districts as of the 2020 B.C. election.
      Wikimedia Commons

      Second, the task of connecting voters to their MLA across great geographic expanses could be addressed through enhanced MLA funding for satellite or mobile offices, higher travel allowances, and increased staffing levels. In addition, greater use could be made of Internet video platforms to meet with constituents.

      There is no reason why the next EBC should not be able to carry out a redistribution that sharply reduces population disparities while enabling MLAs to represent their constituents effectively. After all, the last federal boundaries commission for B.C. in 2012 devised an electoral map in which the populations of all but one of the 42 ridings fell within 10 percent of the provincial quotient.

      Mind you, unlike its provincial counterpart, the federal EBC’s discretion was not fettered by its enabling legislation. To do its job properly, and in accordance with the law, the next provincial EBC must regain its independence.

      In particular, it must be allowed to determine the validity of deviations from voter equality in all regions of the province. No region should be beyond scrutiny.

      In short, it is time to restore the integrity and nonpartisanship of provincial redistributions in British Columbia. 

      Dennis Pilon is an associate professor at York University while Stephen Phillips is an instructor at Langara College. Both are contributors to the edited collection British Columbia Politics and Government.