The proposed UK electoral boundary changes officially made public today are a major topic of debate. The Coalition Government proposed reducing the number of MPs in the House of Commons from the current 650 to 600, in part to save money, and in part to make the system fairer as the electorate in each constituency will be more uniform.
Normally, revision of electoral boundaries is done in order to better reflect demographic changes. This often leads to some parts of a country or province/state losing seats because the population has fallen, while other regions (normally major metropolitan areas) gain seats due to population increases. This might not affect the overall number of seats in the legislative body, but in some instances, it will be necessary to increase the number of seats overall in order to maintain a semblance of representation by population. It isn’t very often that a legislative body will set out to deliberately reduce its number of elected officials for the main purpose of reducing costs, as the UK House of Commons is doing.
In Canada, responsibility for drawing federal and provincial electoral boundaries belongs to independent agencies. At the federal level, this is overseen by Elections Canada, an independent agency which reports directly to the Parliament of Canada.
Representation in the House of Commons is readjusted every ten years, after each census to reflect changes in the population, as per the Constitution Act, 1867 and the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act.
These revisions of federal electoral boundaries are carried out by independent federal electoral boundaries commissions, one for each province. These commissions consider and report on any changes that might be required to the boundaries of federal electoral districts in each province. Canada’s three territories (the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut) have one seat each, and thus no commissions are required. Each commission is chaired either by a judge appointed by the Chief Justice of that province, or by a person resident in that province appointed by the Chief Justice of Canada. As well, the Speaker of the House of Commons appoints two other members who are resident in that province.
The proposals prepared by these independent commissions are published in the Canada Gazette, and hearings are held to ensure public input into the process. After these hearings, the commissions decide if changes need to be made and if they can be made. Once they have completed their reports, these are forwarded to the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, who forwards them to the Speaker of the House of Commons.
Members of the House of Commons have 30 days to examine the reports and file objections with a specified Committee of the House of Commons. The Committee then has 30 sitting days to review the objections for each Commission. The objections, as well as the minutes of the Committee’s discussions and the evidence heard, are sent to the Chief Electoral Officer and forwarded back to the appropriate Commission. The commissions then have 30 days to consider these objections from MPs and make their own final decisions, independent of the Chief Electoral Officer and Parliament. The final decisions rest with the boundaries commissions.
The Chief Electoral Officer refers the commissions’ final reports to the Speaker of the House of Commons and prepares a draft representation order. The representation order:
- specifies the number of members of the House of Commons to be elected for each province
- divides each province into electoral districts
- describes the boundaries of each district
- specifies the population of, and the name to be given to, each district
It should be noted that it would be almost impossible for the Canadian House of Commons to reduce the number of seats as the UK House of Commons is doing. The reasons for this are various constitutional clauses that have been adopted over the years which guarantee certain provinces a minimum number of seats.
In order that each province’s representation in the House of Commons continued to reflect its population, section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867 stated that the number of seats allocated to each province would be recalculated after each 10-year census, starting with the 1871 census. The total number of seats was to be calculated by dividing the population of each province by a fixed number, referred to as the “electoral quota” or “quotient.” This quota was to be obtained by dividing the population of the province of Quebec by 65, the number of seats in the House of Commons guaranteed for Quebec by the Constitution.
This simple formula was to be applied with only one exception, “the one-twentieth rule,” under which no province could lose seats in a redistribution unless its share of the national population had decreased by at least five percent (one twentieth) between the last two censuses.
In 1915, the first change was made to the original representation formula, by the adoption of the “senatorial clause.” Still in effect today, this clause states that a province cannot have fewer seats in the House of Commons than it does in the Senate. In 1915, it had the immediate effect of guaranteeing four seats to the province of Prince Edward Island, instead of the three it would otherwise have had. It has had four seats ever since.
In 1946, new rules were adopted which divided 255 seats among the provinces and territories based on their share of Canada’s total population, rather than on the average population per electoral district in Quebec. Since the population of all provinces had not increased at the same rate, certain provinces lost seats. Because Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan were all to lose seats after the 1951 census, the “15 percent clause” was adopted to prevent a too rapid loss of seats in some provinces. Under these rules, no province could lose more than 15% of the number of Commons seats to which it had been entitled at the last readjustment. The same three provinces, plus Quebec, however, all lost seats after the 1961 census. These same four provinces, plus Newfoundland, would also have lost seats after the 1971 census, so legislation was finally introduced to resolve this particular situation in 1974. This was the Representation Act, 1974, which, among other things, guaranteed that no province could lose seats.
This lead to the creation of a new formula, the amalgam formula, which was used only once, in 1976. The problem was that this new, complex formula, which again used Quebec as the basis for calculations and divided provinces into three separate categories based on population, would have resulted in a substantial increase in the number of seats in the House of Commons both immediately and after subsequent censuses. For example, it projected 369 seats after 2001 – there are currently 308 seats in the House of Commons. Effectively putting a hold on the process already underway to reassign seats, Parliament passed the Representation Act, 1985 which came into effect in March 1986. This is the formula still in use today.
This formula for representation is applied by carrying out the following four steps:
1 – Allocation to the territories: Starting with the 282 seats that the House of Commons of Canada had in 1985, one seat is allocated to the Northwest Territories, one to the Yukon Territory and one to Nunavut, leaving 279 seats. This number is used to calculate the electoral quotient.
2 – Calculation of the electoral district average: The total population of the ten provinces is divided by 279 to obtain the “electoral quota” or “quotient”, which is used to determine the number of seats for each province.
3 – Distribution of seats to each province: The theoretical number of seats to be allocated to each province in the House of Commons is calculated by dividing the total population of each province by the quotient obtained in step 2. If the result leaves a remainder higher than 0.50, the number of seats is rounded up to the next whole number.
4 – Adjustments: After the theoretical number of seats per province is obtained, adjustments are made in a process referred to as applying the “senatorial clause” and “grandfather clause.”
As stated above, since 1915, the senatorial clause has guaranteed that no province has fewer members in the House of Commons than it has in the Senate. The Representation Act, 1985 brought into effect a new grandfather clause that guaranteed each province no fewer seats than it had in 1976 or during the 33rd Parliament. (Source: Elections Canada)
The above notwithstanding, the Canadian government will be introducing legislation to add seats to the House of Commons to address the under-representation of three provinces, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.
Each Canadian province has its own process for reviewing the electoral boundaries used at the provincial level, and they all rely on some form of independent body or commission to carry out these reviews. However, this does not mean that there haven’t been accusations of politicians unduly interfering in the review process for purely political reasons. For example, in 2006, a controversy arose in the province of Prince Edward Island over the provincial government’s decision to throw out an electoral map drawn by an independent commission. Instead they created two new maps. The government adopted the second of these, designed by the caucus of the governing party. Opposition parties and the media attacked then Premier Pat Binns for what they saw as gerrymandering of districts. Among other things, the government adopted a map that ensured that every current Member of the Legislative Assembly from the premier’s party had a district to run in for re-election, whereas in the original map, several had been redistricted.Despite this, in the 2007 provincial election only seven of 20 incumbent Members of the Legislative Assembly were re-elected (seven did not run for re-election), and the government was defeated.
More recently, something similar has occurred in the province of Quebec. A review of Quebec’s electoral boundaries began in 2007 by the Commission de la représentation électorale (CRE) under the auspices of the Direction général des élections du Québec (DGEQ), as per the requirements of the province’s Election Act. A preliminary proposal was presented to the public and hearings held across Québec.
In the fall of 2010, the boundary review proposal of the CRE was submitted for the consideration to a Committee of the the province’s National Assembly (provincial legislature). At a briefing, two Liberal ministers accused the DGEQ of betraying the province’s regions (parts of the province not including the metropolitan areas) and to have performed his work in a manner beneath the dignity of the institution he represented. This prompted Marcel Blanchet, the Director General of Elections, to tender his resignation. On October 28, 2010, Premier Jean Charest announced that he was scrapping the electoral map drawn up by the independent CRE and effectively suspending the electoral laws in Quebec.
On November 23 2010, the Quebec assembly passed Bill no. 132, entitled An Act to suspend the electoral division delimitation process. Its object is to suspend, until June 30, 2011, the electoral map revision process. Due to the passage of Bill No.132, the process to revise Quebec’s electoral map has been effectively put on hold.
Presently, 27 of the province’s 125 ridings do not conform to the Quebec Electoral Law’s stipulation that the number of electors per riding can be no more or no less than a 25% deviation from the average number of electors per riding province-wide. The proposed map would have rectified this anomaly. However, in doing so, the number of seats in rural Quebec would have been reduced in favour of increasing the number of seats primarily in and around the City of Montreal. This was politically problematic for Quebec’s political parties. The rural parts of the province are overwhelmingly francophone and white, while Montreal is much more ethnically and linguistically diverse.
There is only one recent example of a legislative body in Canada deliberately reducing the number of seats, primarily to save money. That occurred in the province of Ontario in the 1990s. The move was instigated by the Progressive Conservative party, as part of its “Common Sense Revolution” manifesto. The party had make this platform public well before the 1995 general election. It contained a pledge to reduce the number of Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs) from 130 to 99. Under these proposals, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario would adopt the boundaries of the (then) 99 Ontario seats represented in the federal House of Commons, and would be adjusted every decade with the redrawing of the federal electoral map.
This process was obviously different from the one being undertaken in the UK at the moment. MPPs in Ontario knew immediately which ridings would disappear since the province would simply be adopting the same electoral boundaries (and constituency names) used for federal elections. The legislation was adopted in 1996 and the first election fought using the new electoral districts was in 1999, with the PC party winning another majority government.