City File: Gerrymandering

Elected representatives should never have the power to decide their own constituency boundaries.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted November 01, 2017 in Essays (Last Updated None)

On January 1, 2001, the new City of Hamilton came into existence after the Progressive Conservative government under Mike Harris amalgamated the old city with its five neighbouring suburbs: Ancaster, Dundas, Flamborough, Glanbrook and Stoney Creek.

Amalgamation was that special kind of political compromise which leaves everyone infuriated. The resentment of suburban residents at being forcibly joined to Hamilton is well-documented. Yet old city residents have been equally frustrated with a ward composition that gives disproportionate weight to suburban voters.

Old city wards 1 through 8 average 41,262 residents per ward, while old suburban wards 9 through 15 average 29,548 residents per ward - a 1.4 times variance. Those averages hide even more glaring disparities. Flamborough ward 14 has just 15,995 residents while central mountain ward 7 has 60,770 residents - almost four times as many!

With eight old-city wards representing 330,000 residents, seven suburban wards representing 207,000 voters and the mayor with one vote, one-third of the city effectively has the power to veto the other two-thirds. Council routinely deadlocks on policies and initiatives designed to address specific challenges of its urban population, often helped by Mountain councillors who identify more with the suburbs than their erstwhile urban colleagues.

This unfair arrangement was imposed through amalgamation as a sop to angry suburban voters who feared having their interests swallowed by the larger Hamilton population, but the solution has simply turned the tables against urban residents.

After ignoring the issue for years, Council was finally spurred into action in 2015 by a petition demanding a ward boundary review to recommend a fair ward distribution that balances population, accessibility, topography, communities of interest and effective representation. The City hired Watson & Associates to undertake the review, a $270,000 project that consulted extensively with residents across the city and applied the consultant's expertise to ensure that its recommendations meet the legal standards of political boundary selection.

The review presented two balanced options to Council: a modified 15-ward system and a 16-ward system to reflect the city's increased population since 2001. Instead of choosing among these professionally-vetted options, Council decided to put on their expert hats and redraw the ward boundaries themselves, despite the consultant explicitly recommending against this. What could possibly go wrong?

Naturally, Council's version preserves the incumbency advantage sitting councillors have with their constituents while totally failing to address the gross discrepancies in representation by population. It's classic gerrymandering, the practice of manipulating boundaries to protect political or class interests.

In Hamilton's case, Councillors are protecting their desire to be re-elected while also maintaining the disproportionate voting power of the city's mostly white, mostly affluent suburban residents by packing larger numbers of less affluent residents in urban wards. Council wants, in the words of a 2016 Globe and Mail editorial, to "get to pick their voters."

Two Hamilton residents, Mark Richardson and Rob Dobrecki, appealed Council's decision to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). The OMB generally follows the recommendations of Carter v. Saskatchewan, a 1991 Supreme Court case on a Saskatchewan law allocating a fixed number of urban and rural ridings that disproportionately favoured the rural ridings. (Sound familiar?)

In typically Canadian fashion, the Court determined that voting districts must balance equal population with "effective representation" for "representation of community interest" like rural communities - but the size discrepancy should not exceed 25 percent.

Council's selected ward boundaries don't come close to satisfying the Carter standards, even when taking projected future growth into account.

OMB appellant Richardson reached a settlement with the City that entailed shifting part of Ainslie Wood from Ward 1 into Dundas (so much for preserving "communities of interest") among a few other small tweaks. Dobrecki, a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada, rejected the compromise and pushed through to the OMB hearing, which took place in October 2017.

Thanks to excellent live reporting by Joey Coleman of The Public Record, that hearing is accessible to anyone who wants to learn more about how the OMB decides such issues.

City lawyers and their selected witnesses awkwardly sought to defend Council's decision on the basis of preserving rural, affluent, conservative-leaning and culturally Anglo-Saxon "communities of interest." The testimony revealed some disturbing facts. For example, an analysis by Rachel Barnett and Karen Bird of McMaster University found that "packing" of visible minorities in urban wards produces significant "dilution" of minority votes in comparison to white voters, and that Hamilton is among the worst of the cities they compared.

The OMB needs to rule on this before December 31, 2017 so that the final decision can take effect before the next municipal election on October 22, 2018. Whichever way they rule, there's a deeper issue here: elected representatives should never have the power to decide their own constituency boundaries.

Since 1964, Canada's federal constituencies have been designed according to the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act by Elections Canada, an independent, arm's length body using non-partisan experts to ensure that the ridings are fair. (In Ontario, provincial ridings copy their federal counterparts.) Prior to that, the House of Commons decided electoral boundaries directly and gerrymandering was rampant.

In Hamilton today, City Council still gets to set its own ward boundaries. Municipalities exist as a creation of provincial law, and Ontario's Municipal Act delegates the responsibility to set municipal ward boundaries to the municipality. This has always been an inherent conflict of interest and a recipe for gerrymandering.

We can decry Council's refusal to accept the non-partisan recommendations of the consultant they hired to do that job, but the decision should not be theirs in the first place. It's time the Provincial Government established an independent commission to set municipal ward boundaries.

First published in Hamilton Magazine, Fall 2017.

Note: the OMB issued a ruling in December 2017. You can read my take on the decision here.