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Nothing like the U.S., gerrymandering can still happen here

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Will amalgamation be shoehorned into the province’s “review” of regional municipalities? That seems likely given the government’s misplaced ideology, one that proved an epic failure under Ontario’s previous Conservative government.

But the process, which has its basis in Doug Ford’s personal vendetta against former PC leader Patrick Brown and former colleagues on Toronto council, could easily be another attempt at gerrymandering the electoral map.

Ford’s move to cut in half the size of Toronto council just months before a municipal election was based on spite, but also on attempts to water down the influence of the more urban core and give more sway to the suburban wards, the so-called 905 belt. His plan to follow federal riding boundaries, impractical given the size versus traditional municipal wards, in some ways mirrored a 2014 boundary review that rejected the idea because it was seen as not balanced and not able to provide effective representation.

The urban-suburban divide is a common theme in elections, as is the urban-rural divide, though more so at the provincial and federal levels. Political parties still look to take advantage of such gaps, with election results often indicative of the population splits: Liberals in urban and diverse areas, where there are some overlaps with the NDP, particularly in traditional working-class neighbourhoods/cities, and Conservatives in more rural areas.

Unlike the U.S., where gerrymandering is rampant, Canada has an independent review system that redraws electoral maps after each census period. That generally serves to keep the selection of boundaries free of partisanship, though that doesn’t prevent politicians from trying; Stephen Harper, for instance, was said to have been pressing to prevent riding redistribution from rural to urban prior to the 2015 election.

Still, we have avoided blatant manipulation of riding configurations for more than 50 years, as the process is essentially apolitical.

That provides Canada with some bragging rights over its southern neighbor, where there is an almost-daily battle between Democrats and Republicans – mostly the latter – to redraw/not redraw electoral districts in order to give one political party in particular an unfair advantage. There is no independent process, with the reshaping of maps done at the state level, often in a blatantly partisan manner.

Where Republicans win control of a state legislature, they act early and often to draw often convoluted maps that try to put as many Democrats/minorities into one particular districts – either stacking them or spreading them thin – in order to better ensure that Republican candidates have a better chance of winning.

This goes on constantly in the States. Just this week, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed a Republican challenge to a lower court ruling that found gerrymandering in Virginia districts were based on racial grounds. The maps had been approved under a previous Republican administration, but not pursued when Democrats took control.

Where Canada’s independent system is something of a feather in the country’s cap on the world stage, the U.S. process is one of the most egregious, even more so given the lip service paid to democracy.

Prompted in part by a speech contrasting to the two systems given by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a Washington Post story last fall crunched the numbers, indicating that there is more to crow about here.

“Trudeau has a point. In the United States, politicians are typically in charge of drawing state and federal electoral districts. That creates a strong incentive to draw the districts in a way that gives their own political party an advantage, and disadvantages the other guys — a process known as gerrymandering,” writes  Christopher Ingraham.

“Canada used to have a problem with this, as well. But in 1964, legislators passed a federal law mandating that each of the country’s provinces draw their districts via a three-person independent commission. Each commission is chaired by a judge selected by the chief justice of each province, and the additional two members of each commission are selected from the general population by the speaker of the House of Commons.”

That’s in contrast with a U.S. system where the states control a process that is largely political. Even the few examples of commission-style decision-making see appointees designated by the political parties.

The piece finds a correlation between how compact a riding/district is – i.e. whether there’s been an attempt to simply draw lines reflecting population or if the lines are drawn to group certain categories of voters – and the fairness of the process.

On a scale of 0-100, where 0 is the least compact and 100 the most, Canadian ridings had a median score of 42, with half the voting districts within the range of 33 to 52. In the U.S., the median score was 26, with half the districts falling between 19 and 36.

“[T]he geometric differences become significant when you consider the process of their creation: The Canadian districts, drawn by independent commissions, are much more compact and visually coherent than their U.S. counterparts, which are mostly created by partisan actors,” notes Ingraham.

Though not related to the War of 1812, a date of significance for Canada and the U.S., the term gerrymandering traces its roots to a political cartoon that year in which Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry approved an electoral map that would give his party a boost. When the Boston Gazette noted the resultant districts look like salamanders, the gerry-mander was born.

The two countries have been close allies in the intervening years, but they have plotted some different courses when it comes to politics and public service. With the voter maps, Canada has an advantage that makes its system one of the fairest in the Western democracies. While the country is in need of electoral reform, at least the mapping process holds up.

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