Anytime you talk about redrawing the electoral map in Alberta, it won’t take long before someone complains that rural areas are overrepresented in the Legislative Assembly. So, as the Electoral Boundaries Commission public hearings are set to begin I was not surprised to see political posturing over urban versus rural representation has already started.
Rural constituencies were incredibly overrepresented in Alberta’s Legislature for decades, as those areas of the province represented a powerful part of the Social Credit and Progressive Conservative parties historic voter base. As long as those parties maintained their majority governments, rural Alberta continued to play a powerful role in government.
But how lopsided was rural over-representation in Alberta?
In the 1967 election, rural Albertans were 31 percent of the population but rural areas represented 44 of 63 electoral districts in the province. That rural overrepresentation declined only slightly in the 1971 election, when rural Albertans represented 27 percent of the population and 42 of 75 electoral districts.
The blatant overrepresentation of rural areas over the province’s growing urban areas continued under the old PC government until at least the mid-1990s.
While rural gerrymandering was a hallmark of Alberta’s political history, recent Electoral Boundary Commissions have worked to equalize representation of rural and urban areas in the Assembly.
The Electoral Boundaries Act, which lays out the rules the committee must follow to redraw Alberta’s electoral map, now states that the population of an electoral division must not be more than 25 percent above nor more than 25 percent below the average population of all the proposed electoral divisions. The average population used in the 2010 report was 40,880, meaning that the allowable range for electoral division population was 51,100 to 30,660.
The last commission, which existed from 2009 to 2010, did a fairly good job moving away from overrepresentation of rural areas in the Legislature. In its final report submitted to the Assembly in 2010, 80 of the total 87 electoral districts created that year had a population that was within 15 percent above or below the provincial average and, of those, 70 electoral districts were within 10 percent of the provincial average.
The Act also states that the commission may recommend up to four electoral divisions which have a population as much as 50% below the quotient if at least three of five criteria are met.*
Two currently existing electoral districts were given this special district status in the 2010 report: Dunvegan-Central Peace-Notley, in which the population was 39.86 percent below the provincial average and Lesser Slave Lake, in which the population was 29.41 percent below the provincial average. A third district, West Yellowhead, fell 23.34 percent below the provincial average at the time, making it barely ineligible for special district status.
Eight electoral districts in Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer were above 10 percent of the provincial average and six of the electoral districts which fell below the 10 percent average were in rural areas, according to the last commission report.**
We will not know for sure which districts fall above and below the provincial average until the commission receives updated federal census data on February 8, which oddly is also the deadline the commission set for receiving written submissions.
When the commission does receive the latest data, I would like to see all electoral districts proposed for the 2019 election be within the 10 percent above or below the average population of all the proposed electoral divisions.
I would also like to see the commission keep the number of special districts to a minimum. I would prefer that no district fall below 25 percent of the average, as increased funding should be allocated to MLAs in geographically larger rural ridings for additional offices, staff and travel costs. But political necessity will likely lead to the existence of one or two of these special exceptions.
Significant population growth across most of Alberta since 2009 could mean that we are unlikely to see major changes to the electoral map in this review. I do expect the map will need to be redrawn to reflect population growth in suburban areas of Calgary and Edmonton and growth in medium sized cities like Airdrie and Red Deer.
While some rural areas have certainly experienced a decline in population over the past eight years, which should be reflected in the new electoral map, I do not expect this commission will recommend a massive decrease in rural representation in the Assembly.
* Section 15 (2) of the Electoral Boundaries Act:
The Act provides that the Commission may recommend up to 4 electoral divisions which have a population as much as 50% below the quotient if at least 3 of the following criteria are met:
(a) the area of the proposed electoral division exceeds 20,000 square kilometres or the total surveyed area of the proposed electoral division exceeds 15,000 square kilometres
(b) the distance from the Legislative Assembly Building in Edmonton to the nearest boundary of the proposed electoral division by the most direct highway route is more than 150 kilometres;
(c) there is no town in the proposed electoral division that has a population exceeding 8,000 people;
(d) the area of the proposed electoral division contains an Indian reserve or a Metis settlement;
(e) the proposed electoral division has a portion of its boundary coterminous with a boundary of the Province of Alberta.
** Electoral Districts which were more than 10 percent above or below the average population of all the proposed electoral divisions in the 2009/2010 Electoral Boundary Commission final report:
- Bonnyville-Cold Lake -15.04%
- Calgary-Cross +12.77%
- Calgary-East +14.51%
- Calgary-Glenmore +10.87%
- Calgary-Hawkwood +16.65%
- Calgary-Lougheed +10.40%
- Calgary-Northern Hills +15.70%
- Dunvegan-Central Peace -39.86%
- Lesser Slave Lake -29.41%
- Edmonton-Castle Downs +10.13%
- Edmonton-Mill Creek -10.01%
- Edmonton-South West -12.8%
- Bonnyville-Cold Lake -15.04%
- Peace River -12.03%
- Red Deer-South +12.27%
- Spruce Grove-St. Albert: +15.15%
- Vermilion-Lloydminster -11.14%
- West Yellowhead -23.34%