In the fury of the US election in November, many of us learned about voter suppression and gerrymandering. We even heard about the complexity of counting the vote when it is not a simple X on a paper ballot.
Canadians were reassured that our system is so straight forward, but they forgot to think about municipal elections. No we do not vote for deputy sheriff, county judge or dogcatcher, but we do have a complex group of choices. In Ottawa we vote for Mayor, for Councillor and for School Board Trustee. The fact that we have four different school boards adds to the complexity.
For federal and provincial elections the electoral district boundaries are revised regularly (after a full census) and there is a central independent body to conduct the election. At the municipal level the provincial government sets the rules for the municipalities to follow.
Under the previous Liberal government at Queens Park, Ontario municipalities were allowed to have ranked ballots. You could indicate your first, second, third etc. preference for Mayor or Councillor. In 2018 that system was applied in London and apparently worked well. Under the current Conservative government that option has been removed from Ontario municipalities.
But each municipality has the authority to establish its ward system to elect Councillors and for the past ten or eleven months Ottawa has been considering its ward boundaries. The last time Ottawa determined its boundaries was in 2005 for the 2006 election. You could say that review was overdue –four elections, in 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018, were conducted with the same ward boundaries.
Because so much time has passed, variation among wards in terms of population (or numbers of voters) has grown ever bigger. For example, the population of Barrhaven has swelled since 2005.
Why does it take so long to rectify electoral districts in Ottawa? One excuse is that it costs money. Ottawa retains outside consultants to come up with proposals to be considered by City Council.
But the reason things are so slow is not that Ottawa is a sluggish town where nothing happens. It is because it is inconvenient for the decision-makers. If we make any change to the ward boundaries, it is a pain for the incumbent Councillor who will have to adjust his/her electoral machine and get to know new people with new interests and issues. Against such a background it is easy to let things slide – everyone goes along to get along, as they say.
To be frank, one problem with looking at electoral districts is that it involves numbers. Many are numbed by numbers and this discussion produces tables with lots of numbers. If the people in wards RW-10 or RW-23 have half the voting influence of the muscular folk in RW-3, this is hidden in the numbers. (These figures appear in the latest recommendations by the consultants.)
Those who study such matters consider that a variation of 15% plus or minus from the arithmetic mean in terms of population or numbers of eligible voters is reasonable in drawing up electoral districts. Ottawa’s wards have never conformed to such a rule.
Here it is worth dismissing a counter-argument. There are cases in which voters in democracies have long endured inequity because of events in history. For example, PEI has four senators; Wyoming has 3 electoral college votes. We should view such argument with skepticism in thinking of Ottawa municipal affairs. None of the components in the amalgamated City of Ottawa bargained for special rights of representation – they were simply welded together by the Province.
However we do have a bit of history that is worth considering. The vast amalgamated City of Ottawa we know today was created, as were other amalgamated municipalities, by the Mike Harris Conservative government under the deliciously-named “Fewer Municipal Politicians Act”. The then-infant City of Ottawa needed to establish a governance structure and retained consultants to draw up recommendations for a ward structure.
But that structure was appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board by rural activists who objected to the plan to have electoral districts which combined suburban and rural voters in the same ward. The assertion was that the rural population of Ottawa constituted a community of interest – a concept derived from judgements by the Supreme Court which usually means that a community should not be arbitrarily cut in two in drawing boundaries for electoral districts.
But having had its first ward boundary determination thrown out by the OMB, in 2005 it was decided to retain three exclusively “rural” wards to the north-west (West Carleton-March), south-west (Osgoode) and south-east (Rideau-Goulbourn) of the city core and to have a fourth “half-rural” ward to the east (Cumberland). At the same time the number of Councillors was increased from 21 to 23.
In determining ward boundaries there are two prime factors to consider. One is to have some equitable political power for voters in each ward – in other words approximately the same number of people or voters in each ward. The other is to consider communities of interest, ensuring that no interest is arbitrarily excluded from having a voice.
There is a simple way to separate rural from urban Ottawa. For land-use planning purposes the City has an urban boundary which is intended to limit the city’s uncontrolled sprawl into the countryside. Inside the boundary it is expected that growth can be accommodated for the next 15, 20, perhaps 25 years. The urban boundary was thus in 2005 used to map out the division between rural and urban Ottawa for ward boundary determination. Only in the eastern Cumberland ward was some of the growing suburban population of southern Orleans grouped in the ward along with the more rural folk of Sarsfield and its surrounds.
But only about 10% of the population of Ottawa lives outside the urban boundary. With only 21 seats to fill, this would have suggested that there should only be two or two and a half “rural” wards. By maintaining that the “rural” community of interest as the prime interest for which representation must be preserved, we are faced with an ongoing pressure to increase the number of Councillors.
Another feature of the 2005 ward boundary decision worth noting is that the Greenbelt was similarly interpreted as a dividing line comparable to the urban boundary. No ward straddled the Greenbelt – and as for Ottawa’s two “San Marinos”, Blackburn Hamlet was put in an Orleans (suburban) ward while Bells Corners is in a Nepean (urban) ward.
In summary, the 2005 arrangement of ward boundaries divided Ottawa into three distinct camps – urban (inside the Greenbelt), suburban (outside the Greenbelt, but inside the urban boundary), and rural (outside the urban boundary). The only unorthodox arrangement was that of Cumberland in which the ward strayed across the urban boundary.
This tripartite division – the Holy Trinity – is carried forth into the discussion about wards in 2020. Moreover proposals suggest that ward boundaries would need to be adjusted when the urban boundary is adjusted next year with a new Official Plan. And to ensure that the three tribes remain as separate as possible, now there has been much chatter about the difficulties of representation in Cumberland ward, the sole exception to the rule. Strangely, those problems were not evident during the fifteen years since the last boundary determination.
So what is the proposal for 2020? Again an additional Council seat is recommended, bringing the total to 24, one less than the number in Toronto, following the Province’s action to remake Toronto’s governance structure in 2018. At the same time, it is proposed that the number of “rural” wards be reduced.
Even so, the remaining three exclusively “rural” wards would have populations below the mean population of city wards, not only today, but for elections in 2022, 2026, 2030, and 2034. Some variation in population is normal in drawing up electoral boundaries; a common assumption is that the variation not exceed 15% plus or minus from the mean. In the proposal for adoption, one of the three would be 42.9% below the mean in 2022 and only one of the three would make it within the 15% variance range by 2034.
For many inhabitants in urban or suburban wards, this differentiation is an irritant. Some ask why some fellow citizens are given double the political muscle of others. The urban and suburban tribes come to resent the favourable treatment given to the “rurals”.
But do the rural residents really benefit from this inequity? Here it is worth considering the two classic forms of gerrymandering. One technique is to spread your opponents across the many districts so none of them is ever elected; the other method is to concentrate all your opponents in few districts so they are always elected but remain as a powerless minority in decision-making.
Before deciding which kind of gerrymandering best describes Ottawa’s wards, we should first consider whether there is a meaningful difference between people in the “rural” area and the urban/suburban dwellers. To the extent that there will be growth in rural Ottawa, this will be concentrated in the villages which increasingly will become suburban bedroom communities. If the belief is that the rural people are out of touch, living in some modern “Dogpatch” without means to communicate with City Hall and their Councillor, that idea should be dismissed out of hand. The rural dwellers are just as involved in the information society as their urban counterparts and are perfectly capable of making their voices heard. But because few Councillors have any interest in what happens in the rural part of Ottawa, such questions can be safely ignored most of this time.
In other words, rural Ottawa has been successfully gerrymandered. By insisting that the ward structure be drawn up along the urban boundary, the number of Councillors attuned to matters from the countryside is deliberately reduced. Hidden within the consultants’ recommendations on ward boundaries is the worry that there will not be enough Councillors to staff the existing Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.
Ironically, it seems to be residents in the rural part of Ottawa that have brought their limited influence on themselves. By insisting on exclusively rural wards they have perpetuated the myth that Ottawa is composed of three conflicting tribes.
Rural residents are, or should be, a vital ingredient in Ottawa’s future. It is a pity that this is unlikely to occur. And more is the pity that this rigid tripartite division also has led to urban and suburban residents failing to recognize their shared prospects.