Canada’s new map of electoral ridings is only one reason why this year’s federal election is going to be a fascinating, potentially groundbreaking race—but it’s also one that has given many people pause.
The Globe and Mail ran an article back in January 2014 suggesting that the Progressive Conservatives stand to benefit the most from both the newly minted ridings and redrawn boundaries, a sentiment that has been echoed (or at least mentioned) in many conversations about the impending race. Some have even outright accused ridings of being gerrymandered, a term from US politics that refers to the establishment of electoral districts that provide a political advantage to one party (typically the one in power at the time the districts are redrawn). Gerrymandering is based on past voting preference and the assumption is that if a neighbourhood voted a certain way in a past election, they will vote the same way in future ones.
But Jim Lightbody, a political science professor at the University of Alberta, dismisses these suggestions. “We really do, in Canada, have one of the most fair ways of aligning electoral boundaries,” he says.
The federal electoral ridings are redrawn every 10 years by Elections Canada to account for population growth and movement based on the federal census; the most recent changes are therefore most significant in British Columbia, Alberta and the Greater Toronto Area. After October’s election, the House of Commons will have 30 new seats, six of which will be in Alberta: two are in Edmonton and one is in Calgary. Additionally, dozens of ridings across the country have had their boundaries redrawn, including several in Edmonton.
The changes are required under the Constitution of Canada, and the process is conducted by independent commissions working in each province, which are comprised of politically neutral people like justices and provincial electoral officers.
“They do the best they can to ensure the constituencies are roughly similar in size,” Lightbody says. “Within that framework they do a reasonably good balancing act, and it’s largely free from political meddling. It’s all in law.
“That’s one thing that Harper hasn’t got around to fixing yet,” he adds with a sarcastic snicker. “[Gerrymandering] is not impossible—nothing is—but it is very unlikely in Canadian politics. And it is not reflected in Edmonton at all.”
But while the new ridings were likely free from political interference, the Harper government has made two other moves that are blatant attempts to hedge its bets: changing the identification process at the polls and, most significantly, calling the election early.
The first item is similar to what American Republicans have done south of the border: instead of just being able to bring your voter card to the poll on election day, all Canadians must now provide proof of address. This means that people either have to show a piece of photo ID with their current address or two other pieces of ID, one of which must show the address on it. (The list of acceptable forms of ID can be found on the
“That is new, and that discriminates against certain categories of people,” Lightbody says. “That discriminates against students, certainly people with lower incomes who are highly mobile, some seniors. But I suspect that the people who are actually going to make it to the polling stations are intelligent enough that they’ll be OK.”
What the Conservatives are really banking their campaign upon—and the real reason why they called the election early—comes down to one thing, Lightbody states: money.
“That’s where the Harper government did fiddle with the rules,” he says. “They changed the law to have a fixed election date.”
Nothing in the Election Act, however, prevents the government from calling an election early. Lightbody argues that Harper did so because the Conservatives have an almost two-to-one advantage over the other two parties in terms of the money candidates have in their war chests: in the 37 days leading up to the election, the Fair Elections Act ensures that each candidate have a fixed spending cap of roughly
$100 000. But if the election campaign is longer than 37 days, the Act permits candidates to spend one 37th of that cap each day. Therefore, because the election is about twice as long, candidates can spend a total of roughly $200 000.
“Now, all candidates can do that—the Greens, the Liberals and the Conservatives,” Lightbody says. “But the reality is that only the Conservatives have the money.”
The election is still in its early days, so Lightbody cautions against anyone drawing conclusions yet. He’s looking to the post-Labour Day poll for the first true indication of what might transpire in October.
One thing to consider, he notes, is that Harper called this election without consulting his local party officials, which is exactly what Jim Prentice did a few months ago in Alberta. As well, Canada’s current economic climate will play a significant role in swaying voters’ minds come election day.
“This is a difficult time for a national government to go to vote,” Lightbody says. “The problem is the economy, and that problem is for all of Canada across the board. It’s very hard for a government to win reelection in the midst of a recession.”