Affirmative gerrymandering in Nova Scotia

I was not aware till I came across a Globe and Mail article from September 10 that Nova Scotia has provincial electoral districts that are drawn for the benefit of two groups: Acadians and African-Nova Scotians. These “dedicated ridings”, or what in the US would be called minority-majority districts, represent cases of affirmative gerrymandering: the drawing of district boundaries to enhance minority representation.

The article says that these districts are believed to be the only ones of their kind in Canada.

These districts were established 20 years ago. The NDP government of the province has appointed a boundaries commission to attempt to equalize populations of districts (ridings). The commission’s terms of reference require each riding be within 25 per cent of the province’s average number of electors. Nonetheless, the commission recommended retaining the affirmatively gerrymandered ridings. The commission regarded the terms as non-binding; the government’s attorney general has considered the proposed retention of the districts as “null and void.” (See map of proposed changes.)

Regarding the districts themselves:

Right now there are three Acadian MLAs representing the Acadian ridings, but there has not been an African-Nova Scotian MLA in the designated black riding of Preston (outside Dartmouth) for more than 13 years. The ridings each have about 7,000 voters, far fewer than the other 48 ridings which vary between 10,000 and 21,000 voters.

Thus the districts are not only gerrymandered–drawn for a political purposes–but also malapportioned, meaning having fewer voters per single-seat district.

A very interesting case not only of boundary-drawing for minority representation, but also commission-vs.-government conflict over the process!

5 thoughts on “Affirmative gerrymandering in Nova Scotia

  1. This is a pretty hard core example of affirmative action gerrymandering. The designated Afro-Nova Scotian riding is not only gerrymandered, but malapportioned, and doesn’t even elect Afro-Nova Scotian candidates!

    I’m not a fan of affirmative action gerrymandering at all, and if you are going to do that sort of thing in the context of single member districts, its better to handle it the same way New Zealand has handled its Maori electorate, and India handled the Anglo-Indian minority after independence. And there were fairly strong historical and constitutional reasons for both exceptions.

    I don’t have a problem with a commission drawing a majority-minority or minority-plurality district on community of interest grounds, as long as the district meets the other neutral criteria the commission has to work with, such as population variance and staying within local government boundaries, but this doesn’t seem to be the case here.

    That said, though the Canadian boundary commissions are willing to create malapportioned districts for a large variety of reasons, they are actually pretty few in number and fall in the category of the anachronisms and eccentricities within a political system that in effect are fairly harmless. Most political systems contain a few of these.


  2. Proportional representation sometimes has champions where you least expect it. In Canada, every Electoral Boundaries Commission hears complaints about the voting system, and explains that this is beyond their purview.
    Except in Nova Scotia this year:

    “Though it is not part of the Commission’s mandate to study electoral reform or to recommend changes to the current electoral system, there were a number of submissions on this topic in the public consultation process . . . as a means of improving Nova Scotia’s representative democracy, by more accurately translating voter preferences into seats in the legislature. The distortions introduced by the current system, whereby only one member can be elected per constituency, with no allowance made for popular vote totals, can be a disincentive to political participation. This happens because all votes for losing candidates are, in effect, “thrown out,” and only those cast for the winning candidate in each riding count in terms of electing a representative. Some element of proportional representation is recommended as a means to “make every vote count.”

    “Another rationale for electoral system reform concerns the difficulty of ensuring minority representation under the FPTP system. As noted above, this has become clear in the current electoral redistribution process with regard to Acadian and African Nova Scotian representation. The same point could be made for the small number of women elected to the legislature. Comparative literature on this topic clearly shows that political systems using some form of proportional representation perform better than FPTP systems in terms of minority and female representation in elected legislatures. . . As well, the dynamics of the system, which tend toward coalition building, would promote more co-operation and accommodation among parties in terms of the legislative agenda.

    “There appear to be significant democratic benefits to be gained from incorporating some measure of proportional representation into the current FPTP electoral system. This no doubt explains why this option has been recommended by commissions and assemblies in a number of provinces over the past decade. The most popular recommendation in Canada has been to replace the FPTP electoral system with some form of mixed-member proportional (MMP) system, which combines some of the advantages of the existing single-member constituencies with greater proportionality.

    “Recommendation: The Commission . . . therefore suggests that the Nova Scotia Legislature initiate a process involving both extensive critical examination and public consultation on the current electoral system as well as possible alternatives to it.”


  3. While we’re on the topic(?) of random changes in Canadian voting, has there been a post yet on Bill C-7, aka Senate Reform? The proposed system is pretty strange…


  4. The recommendation of the Bounaries Commission resulted in the Nova Scotia NDP pledging, if re-elected, to support the striking of a new electoral reform commission to consult with Nova Scotians on the way the province’s electoral system functions.

    Too late. They lost power this week. Just like the Saskatchewan NDP in 2007, who finally decided to hold a Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, just as they lost power.

    So Nova Scotia has yet another majority one-party government elected by a minority of voters while the party that came second in the popular vote came third in the seat count.

    But regional disparities continue: even while the Liberals swept mainland Nova Scotia,
    Liberal voters in Cape Breton are under-represented.


  5. Why does Canada and it’s providences do all these studies and commissions recommending PR? Why can’t the government just pass a law on electoral reform and try a system out for a few elections to see if it works?

    What was the reason that most European countries switch to PR before, during, and after WW1? Australia switch to preferential voting during this time period. I know that during this time period most European countries didn’t have universal suffrage, and many embraced it at the same time as PR.


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