Imaginary lines are surprisingly sensitive. Adjusting Alberta's 83 electoral divisions touches on many delicate issues: rural versus urban priorities, political favouritism and fair, relatively proportional representation of Albertans. It's impossible to address every political issue evenly when it comes time to redraw Alberta. The many conflicting interests create a difficult route to navigate.
The Elections Border Act requires the borders of the 83 electoral divisions to be reexamined after every second election or, if eight years haven't passed, between eight and ten years after the last commission. The last commission was assembled to map out a fair electoral representation of the province in 2002. The commission finished its recommendations in Feb. 2003, giving Alberta the current divisions. After this election, the borders will need to be looked at again, but since eight years haven't passed between commissions, it won't be until 2010–12.
The EBA lays out several requirements for the divisions. Using the most recent census data, the commission finds the average for each division (Alberta's total population divided by 83) and must create borders where each electoral division has a population within plus or minus 25 per cent of the average. In 2003, using Alberta's population data from the 2001 Canada-wide census, the average population per riding was set at 35,951. The allowable range for the 2002–03 commission was 26,963 to 44,939 per division. But, the EBA also allows up to four ridings with as little as 50 per cent of the average population as special cases if it's a particularly large division-over 15,000 square kilometres-far from the Alberta Legislature building or has no town with a population greater than 4,000 people, among other considerations.
The 2002–03 commission set a target of only allowing variations within 15 per cent and picked only two special districts with populations, at the time, around 27 per cent
below the average, but noted strongly that in the future even the 25 per cent range may not be feasible. Alberta's population is becoming increasingly concentrated in the Edmonton-Calgary corridor, drawing in seats from rural areas.
"A considerable number of submissions to the Commission indicated that this population concentration is giving rise to feelings of marginalization in areas of Alberta outside the corridor," the commission's Feb. 2003
final report said. "This was reflected in the comment by the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties: 'It seems that every few years, we're back trying to defend the right of rural citizens to have a meaningful voice in provincial decision making.'"
Because of the EBA's current stipulations, this migration of representation to the corridor is inevitable. According to the 2006's census data, there are seven ridings with populations higher than the plus
25 per cent limit due to rapid growth since the lines were drawn. Of those seven, six are in the corridor. The only exception is Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo.
Over 1.88 million people live in Edmonton and Calgary, compared with 1.41 million in the rest of the province, according to the 2006 census.
By the time of the 2011 census and two-year window for the next commission, this ratio between Edmonton-Calgary and the rest of the province will increase. Within the two-year window, when the commission is formed, it will change what census data is used. If the government waits until after the mid-2011 release of the census, the population would likely be even more concentrated in the corridor. A 2010 commission would use the most recent Canada (2006) or detailed Alberta census.
Beyond conflicting rural and urban issues, the political element enters into the border problem when the voting habits of urban and rural ridings are taken into account.
The Progressive Conservatives have traditionally swept rural ridings. In the most recent province-wide election in 2004, only two ridings outside of Edmonton and Calgary went to a non-PC candidate, Cardston-Taber-Warner where Paul Hinman won over PC incumbent Broyce Jacobs by a narrow margin and Lethbridge-East where Bridget Pastoor beat PC Rod Fong by 637 votes. Outside of Edmonton, Calgary, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and Red Deer, 68.8 per cent of the popular vote went to the PCs in 2001, and 55.4 per cent in 2004 compared with the PCs capturing 61.9 per cent of the popular vote province-wide in 2001 and 46.8 per cent in 2004.
However, even between the two urban centre caps of the populous corridor, Calgary and Edmonton, there is a difference. The majority of the popular vote in Calgary in the last two elections has gone to the PCs. In 2001, 69.5 per cent voted PC, giving them all of Calgary's seats. There was a significant drop in 2004, but the Conservatives still captured 50.5 per cent of the popular vote, giving them all but three of the seats.
Edmonton voted 47.8 per cent PC in 2001 and 34.4 per cent in 2004, where the PC party lost the popular vote in Edmonton to the Liberals, who received 39.7 per cent.
Though it would be a mistake to assume that any movement of seats from rural ridings, where the PCs are strong, would affect their seat totals in following elections because of numerous other variables, the strong base of consistent rural support for the PCs is important to note.
Between the 2001 and 2006 censuses, the fastest growing areas, excepting the Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo riding, were in the Calgary-Edmonton corridor. Ten ridings experienced a growth rate greater than 30 per cent. Six of those were in Calgary proper, one in Edmonton. Seven of those 30 per cent
growth rate ridings caused the population to rise above the legislated
25 per cent threshold.
According to the 2006 census, the average population per riding in Alberta was 39,786, giving a plus-minus 25 per cent range of 29,839 and 49,732. The current legislation forces the next commission to adjust those ridings, ignoring any more growth between the most recent census and 2011. Calgary's current average population per riding is 42,952 and adding a riding to Calgary may be the solution to bring down the average and to compensate for that growth.
There are still two years before a commission can be appointed to redraw Alberta's electoral boundaries. Two years of legislation and two years of growth other than that projected would change everything. But there are no indicators that the ratio between the Edmonton-Calgary corridor and the rest of the province will change in that time. Any more seats shifting to the major cities increases the rural/urban divide issue and may require the government to consider alternative methods of representation to fix it. In the final report from the 2002–03 commission, several changes to Alberta's system were noted including introducing proportional representation, which was a part of the electoral system in Alberta until 1950, and allowing special districts where the population is greater than 50 per cent above the average instead of just districts where the population is less than 50 per cent below the average.
Imaginary lines dividing a province are sensitive and represent more than just electoral divisions. They touch issues of population density disparity, political shifts and, ideally, accurately and fairly representing a diverse population.