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VIBERT: Boundary commission shoots for balance

Nova Scotia Electoral Boundaries Commission chair Colin Dodds addressing the media at Province House in Halifax on Wednesday.
Nova Scotia Electoral Boundaries Commission chair Colin Dodds addressing the media at Province House in Halifax on Wednesday. - The Canadian Press

Voter parity — the principle that every vote should carry equal weight — takes a back seat to more effective minority representation in the Nova Scotia legislature, in the interim report of the province’s electoral boundaries commission.

That’s not surprising given the recent history.

Nova Scotia’s former NDP government ran afoul of the courts because, in 2012, it rejected a report from a previous boundaries commission that attempted to balance the sometimes competing objectives of voter parity and effective minority representation.

The NDP wanted parity — with no riding more than 25 per cent above or below the provincial median of voters per constituency — and directed the commission to produce boundaries that meet that test. It did.

In 2017, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal found that the NDP government should have permitted that commission to make its recommendations to the legislature, unimpeded by the government’s preference. The court also raised the possibility that the current 51 seat legislature, drawn by the 2012 boundaries, denies Acadians and African Nova Scotians their constitutional right to effective representation.

Enter the current commission, chaired by former St. Mary’s University president Colin Dodds. Its interim report, released this week, contained four options for Nova Scotians to consider during consultations planned for January and February 2019.

While the commission claims all four options are still in play, its report telegraphs where it is headed when it makes its final recommendations to the legislature in April.

One option merely tinkers with the boundaries of the current 51 ridings and does nothing to restore effective minority representation, so it’s dead on arrival.

The commission wants the four “protected” seats that were abolished in 2012 — the Acadian seats in Argyle, Clare and Richmond and the African Nova Scotian seat in Preston — restored to provide more effective representation to those minority communities.

The way the commission accomplishes that is by increasing membership in the Nova Scotia legislature from the current 51 MLAs to 55.

The other two options go a bridge too far by adding — in two different ways — a fifth “exceptional” seat to the legislature, bringing the total number of MLAs to 56. That seat, in Inverness County, would be carved out to provide representation to the Acadian population centred in Cheticamp.

The Acadian seat in Inverness would be home to just 2,600 voters, while the province’s largest riding, Hants East, would contain 16,800 voters.

Representation in the legislature for the Acadian population of Cheticamp and environs is a laudable goal but, as the numbers show, to achieve it the commission needs to abandon the principle of voter parity altogether.

Even under the 55-seat option, two ridings — Argyle and Clare — would contain fewer than half of the median number of voters in ridings across the province.

The commission claims that voter parity is “the prime factor for establishing electoral boundaries,” but deviations are justified for geographic reasons — like when a rural riding is just too big for one MLA to represent effectively — and to account for historical, cultural, or linguistic settlement patterns.

The tricky bit for the commission is striking the right balance.

Voter parity — taken to the extreme — would carve the province into a certain number of ridings all with the same number of voters. Minority communities would be completely subsumed and, in thinly populated, rural parts of the province, ridings would be simply too large to permit adequate representation.

Likewise, an overemphasis on effective representation risks creating ridings — like Cheticamp — where a single vote would have the weight of six votes in Hants East.

That all votes are roughly equal is a central tenet of most democracies but shouldn’t be pursued at the peril of effective representation for minorities.

And, as much as this commission wants to deliver for Cheticamp, where the Acadian population has been un- or under-represented for most of the past 150 years, to make that work it needs to toss aside all fidelity to the principle of voter parity.

The smart money says when Nova Scotians next vote in 2021, they’ll do it in 55 ridings, ranging in size from 16,800 voters in Hants East to 6,700 in Argyle. That’s as far as the commission can push effective representation without completely disregarding voter parity.

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