Belize to correct its egregious malapportionment

The Supreme Court of Belize has brokered a consent order that will lead to a redistricting to correct the country’s extremely high malapportionment.

Co-Counsel Michelle Trapp stated that [Sean P.] Trende’s report, among other things, found at the time it was written, only five of Belize’s 31 electoral divisions met the international standard deviation of registered voters, generally between five to 15 percent with allocation made for sparsely populated areas.

Trende’s report itself indicates some districts have around five times the voters as some others.

The country has had some lopsided results in the past, including 2020 when a party with almost 60% of the votes won 26 of the 31 seats. Of course, FPTP in a very small assembly will tend to do that, but presumably it has been exacerbated by the malapportionment. (By the cube root law, Belize would be expected to have around 75 seats in total given its population.) Several other elections have been similarly lopsided.

Farther back, it even had a majority reversal. In FPTP systems, plurality reversals happen from time to time–defined as when the party with the plurality of votes does not win the plurality of seats–but majority reversals are rather unusual. Yet in 1993 the People’s United Party won 52.1% of the vote but only 13 of the 29 seats parliament then consisted of. The UDP-NABR alliance won the other 16 seats, despite just 48.7% of the vote.

Looking at the 2020 election at district level, I see one constituency, Ft. George, that had only around 1,500 votes cast (and the PUP nabbed with just 983) while Stann Creek West has over 7,600 votes cast and several others have more than 6,000. There is another around the voter base of Ft. George, as well as several in the mid two thousands or around three thousand. So it is indeed severely malapportioned.

The 1993 majority reversal did not take place under malapportionment this severe, but it was substantial. At that time Stann Creek West was among the relatively lower-population districts (just over 2,000 votes cast) while a few other districts had over 3,000. There were others with only around 1,500. So the problem is not new, but has got worse. And there seem to have been some really significant internal population shifts in the past thirty years. Fortunately, this will be corrected. They still should increase the size of their assembly, too–or adopt some sort of PR. But at least they will improve their small-assembly FPTP.

Finally, now that I’ve poked around Wikipedia pages on Belize constituencies a bit, I want to go see the Belize City Swing Bridge, one end of which is in Ft. George constituency, and which requires four operators to manually crank it.

19 thoughts on “Belize to correct its egregious malapportionment

  1. Also, in preparing this I noticed that Adam Carr has an egregious mal-presentation of results. He has the seat totals in the 2020 election reversed. Now, if that had been the actual outcome, it would have been truly remarkable!

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  2. Canadians could only dream of the international standard variation of 5-15% in population/registered voters by district! The Supreme Court of Canada has only once spoken about this variation, and set 25% from the average as a rough guideline, with exceptions allowed. The population (2011) used for the most recent representation order had the districts with the highest population/most registered voters be 4.95/5.60 the size of the least. Within a province, you have districts 2.36/2.40 times the size of others (Ontario).

    Even if you account for some of the special cases (sparsely populated, large geographic area, differences between provinces based on apportionment), it is common to have similar districts (urban/suburban/rural) within a province have 30%, 40%, 50% more population than each other. And as of the May 2021 census, we now have a district in Edmonton, elected in September 2021, where the population was over 8 times larger than the smallest district in the country, and over double the size of another Edmonton district. New districts won’t go into effect until April 2024, so it’s constitutionally possible there wouldn’t be elections in the new districts until 2029! Michael Pal at University of Ottawa recently went on a podcast and did not mince words about Canada’s need for reform in its redistricting.

    Not to get too far off topic, but Canada needs to stop patting itself on the back for its redistricting just because it doesn’t have overtly partisan mapmakers like some of the US.

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    • I was hoping someone would bring up the Canadian case! I had the same thought, and it was on my mind after having recently listened to an excellent The Writ podcast (also on YouTube) by Eric Grenier on redistricting and malapportionment tolerance in Canada.

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        • “A great podcast” — Everyone is saying. I agree the whole conversation was fascinating. So much discretion is given to each provincial commission with very little guidance, so you can get very different maps depending on what criteria they prioritize. You need a big overhaul, which is hard, and many of the tweaks to provincial legislation so far have been to protect depopulating areas (Northern Ontario, Gaspésie/Bas-Saint-Laurent, etc.) at the last minute. I think the timeframes are also too long: 10 years between redistributions, and 3 years from census day until new maps go into effect, and up to five years after that before people vote on those new maps. Part of the time is hiring new returning officers, which has to happen more frequently because they have to live in their district. Quebec redraws the map every two elections and takes less time to implement it, and returning officers can live in adjoining districts, or up to a certain distance away. With everyone moving to “fixed date” four year terms, we need to be moving quicker. (Or, you know, adopt a form of PR so this matters much much less.)

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    • If there are going to be special cases they should be explicitly laid out in the constitution or legislation, not delegated to redistribution commissions as exceptional circumstance discretions. The Norwegian constitution.. for example, takes area as well as population into account and specifies the calculation. The Australian constitution gives every original state 5 seats in the house regardless of population.

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  3. The Electoral Boundaries Commission for the province of Saskatchewan has invoked the “extraordinary circumstances” exception of a Supreme Court ruling. It proposes that the sparsely-populated northern-most district – roughly one-half of the area of the province and consisting largely of boreal forest – should be allowed a deviation of -53% from population quota. An alternative, essentially keeping the district unchanged at 358,338 square kilometers rather than the proposed 327,958 km2, would have deviated by just -11%.

    The Commission devotes almost 7 pages of the report
    [redecoupage-redistribution-2022.ca/com/sk/rprt/sk-rpt_e.pdf]
    to giving its reasons for their choice. These include communities of interest, a long-standing administrative boundary defining “the North”, knock-on effects from equalizing populations in districts to the south.

    The Commission has leaned very far in the direction of giving residents of the province equal “effective access” to their MP and away from giving each person an equal voice in deciding which party should form the government.

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    • My god. I shudder at the thought of how bad it could get if certain American states were able to have “equal access” to their elected officials instead of equally sized election districts.

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      • I should have made it clearer that the commission is drawing boundaries for 14 federal electoral districts. A different commission for the 61 seats in the provincial legislature put 2 districts north of that north-south dividing line.
        (Sask. has 3% of population in half its area, half its population in 2 cities).

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    • I do worry about shenanigans, but I do understand these geographic exceptions. This riding, under current and proposed lines, is larger than Italy. (Ungava would be the 34th largest country in the world.) I can also see the argument that if you draw the map to the south to pick up some larger towns, much of the population will be in those towns, and so politicians might just spend time there and rarely travel to the sparser parts of the districts. (Ungava used to include Abitibi, so all the candidates were from there and rarely travelled to these northern villages.)

      Other countries directly prioritize minority representation, having seats dedicated to groups or allowing parties to win seats below the threshold. It’s not unreasonable for the second largest country in the world by area, where 90% of the population lives in a small band at the far south, to prioritize geographic realities. But the number of exceptions keep increasing, and the latitude meant for these areas is more and more getting used for regions and districts where it has no place, often for political reasons. There’s really no excuse for districts in metropolitan areas to have variations of more than 5%, and even that is too high. And for the same level of government, we should have the same rules.

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      • There is a big difference between allowing parties to win seats below the threshold and geographical malapportionment. In one case, an anti-democratic mechanism is suspended to allow voters’ opinion to count which would otherwise be ignored, whereas in the other an anti-democratic mechanism is introduced to favor certain voters’ opinions against others. They’re really not alike. If M=1 doesn’t work for its alleged purpose of giving local communities a voice, then surely it’s time to come up with a solution that does work. (Even just allowing the malapportionment but adding say 50% balancing MPs to swamp the partisan effect. Mixed Malapportioned Proportional, it could be called.)

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        • I don’t know if it’s as clear-cut as all that. Not having a threshold for some parties but for others clearly does favour some voters’ opinions against others (specifically, voters from a particular ethnic background), and in a lot of cases malapportionment is part of minority representation (see, for example, Slovenia, where the representatives for the Italian and Hungarian minorities were elected by 1867 and 3509 voters respectively, compared to a ratio of about 13000 electors per voter for the other 90 seats).

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        • Yes. I think of cases like Kosovo that I puzzled over a while back. Or even Germany, where currently a party sits in the Bundestag with a vastly smaller vote share than others that were left out. Or even the New Zealand case where the New Zealand First Party was out of parliament once despite around 4% of the vote while others were in with far less, simply because they won a single-seat district.

          In other words, many electoral systems cause voters to be treated differently on account of either where they live or how the parties they vote for (or the voters themselves) are classified. It is not just a single-seat district malapportionment thing.

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    • Canada’s Electoral Boundaries Commissions are mostly being stricter than the international standard deviation of registered voters, the guidelines adopted by the Venice Commission at its 51st Plenary Session (Venice, 5-6 July 2002): “The permissible departure from the norm should not be more than 10%, and should certainly not exceed 15% except in special circumstances (protection of a concentrated minority, sparsely populated administrative entity)”

      This year, the four largest provinces are still reconsidering their proposals after public hearings, but their initial proposals were too strict. I expect their final reports will be better.

      Alberta has all 37 Electoral Districts within 5%. BC has 43 Districts: 35 are within 5%, while the other 8 are all within 7% except one remote northern district has 77.1% of quota. Ontario has 113 Southern Ontario districts: 94 are within 5%, while the other 19 are all within 10%, and in the North, one extraordinary indigenous district (-68.84%), while the other 8 Northern Districts are mostly within 15%, one -15.06%, and one -16.55%. Quebec has 78 districts: 72 of them are within 10%, while 5 are smaller than 15% below quota: one vast northern district, another northern and indigenous district, and the three districts (each slightly more than 15% below) in the isolated Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region.

      The other six Commissions have completed their proposals, and four had no problems. PEI’s has all 4 Electoral Districts within 3%. Manitoba is the next strictest: 12 EDs are under 5%, one is -5.12%, and even the remote Northern and aboriginal one is only -15.35%. Saskatchewan has 11 under 10%, one -10.12%, one -10.68%, and the Northern and aboriginal exceptional one is -53.22%. Newfoundland and Labrador has exceptional Labrador at −63.45% (remote, isolated and 43% indigenous), but the other 6 are all under 10%.

      Nova Scotia has a problem with its capital Halifax: the four Halifax ridings are all over 10% above quota, averaging 14.43%, with one at +18.95%. They noted “The Commission has a level of discomfort with this outcome.” The time will come when Halifax will need five EDs; but not yet. The province has only 3 under 10% deviation, while 7 are between 10% and 15% deviation, with one even higher. While Kings-Hants is 7.87% above quota, the other 6 are all below quota.

      Bilingual New Brunswick has problems balancing linguistic communities: while 5 EDs are under 10%, 2 are between 10% and 15%, one is +18.57%, one is –17.37, and one is –23.00. Ten years ago they were even worse.

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      • Thanks, Wilf. Also nice to see you comment! I think maybe it has been a while (then again, my positing is not what it once was).

        So the deviations are looking as if they will be less substantial than under current districting plans in Canada?

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        • Canada is quite preoccupied with implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Ontario Commission noted: “The Commission concluded that the sparse population throughout this remote and expansive area, and the Indigenous communities of interest that are predominant in this part of Northern Ontario, justified this one proposed extraordinary circumstances district.” “The Commission considered the location of all First Nations reserves and communities and has sought to ensure that no such community would be arbitrarily divided by an electoral district boundary. If an electoral district included a First Nations reserve that had not participated in the census, the Commission considered the population data available from the Indian Registration System as reported by Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) in proposing the boundary for that electoral district.” “in proposing district names, the Commission sought to maintain the historical connection of communities to the electoral districts, while ensuring that names are inclusive, meaningful, and connote a clear sense of location or geographic reference. In some instances, the Commission has proposed Indigenous names.” “the exceptional nature of the far North — an isolated and geographically substantial area, in large part not accessible by road, in which the majority of the population is Indigenous.” It held two virtual hearings for the North, and an in-person one in Sioux Lookout, in the far north district.

          The Saskatchewan Commission noted of the north “the cultural heritage of this area has a dominant Indigenous population. The First Nation, Métis and Dene peoples of this subarctic region share an historically distinct and contemporary northern, land-based way of life, with their own history, culture, spiritual and social values, languages, and economies. The Woodland Cree, for example, specifically refer to the north as Kiwetinohk or place of the north wind.” And 66% of the population of the NSAD identifies as Indigenous. “Canada’s increasing awareness of the situation and of the place of Indigenous peoples in the democratic process makes a strong case for acting.”

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  4. Belize is somewhat unusual, if not unique, in that its current malapportionment heavily favors urban areas, rather than rural areas.

    Of the ten constituencies representing Belize City, nine of them are the nine smallest constituencies; the tenth is the eleventh smallest, with Belize Rural North (which still has some spillover from Belize City) in between.

    These 11 smallest constituencies represent only 22% of registered voters, but 35.5% of the seats, and average 3630 voters.

    The remaining 20 constituencies (two rural constituencies in the Belize District, plus the remainder of the country) represent 64.5% of the seats but 78% of the registered voters, and average 7144 voters (almost double the average in the Belize City area).

    I’m curious as to how that happened and to whether Belize City has always been overrepresented, or whether apportionment simply hasn’t caught up with growth outside the metropolis (well, as metropolitan as a town of around 75,000 can be).

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    • Very interesting. I noticed that some of the low-population districts appeared to be in urban areas (from quick glances at maps). I do not recall now where Stann Creek West is located, but note that I indicate in the main entry that it was one of the lower-population districts back in 1993 (when malapportionment was overall not as stark) but is one of the relatively highly populated ones now. (Actually, that is voters, not population. I have no idea if Belize has a relevant non-voting-eligible population or if age profiles are substantially different across the country. The linked report by Trende surely goes into this, but I only skimmed it.)

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