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Gerrymandering is not just an American problem

Quebec, Canada voting
Photo by ALEXIS AUBIN/AFP via Getty Images
A voter drops a ballot into a box at the Church of Saint Andrew and Saint Paul during Quebec’s provincial elections in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on October 3, 2022. – Francois Legault, the nationalist leader of Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), is favoured to stay in power with a bigger margin in the Canadian province’s election next week, promising to cut middle class taxes and protect the province’s official French language. (Photo by Alexis Aubin / AFP) (Photo by ALEXIS AUBIN/AFP via Getty Images)

The gerrymandering bug is not solely an American problem, it also infects Canadian provincial map drawing.  

Much like the United States, the Canadian parliamentary districts are redrawn after each decennial census.   

The total number of United States congressional districts is fixed at 435, so with apportionment, the process used to allocate districts to states, some gain a district or two, while others lose.   

In Canada, the total number of parliamentary seats can change, although losing a seat is rare. In 2021, Quebec became the first province in over half a century to do so, due to a slower-growing population relative to the other provinces.  

At the provincial level, Quebec redraws its 125 electoral divisions as frequently as every two election cycles. They outline a process that involves public hearings, with the goal of achieving what they term “effective representation.” Many of the goals cited align with how states in the U.S. draw their congressional and state maps.  They also cite keeping “natural communities” together, which is the same concept as “communities of interest” used in the United States. 

Gerrymandering is rampant in the United States. The recent provincial election in Quebec suggests that the same malignancy exists there. 

Much like how political analysts use the term “blue (Democrat) islands in a red sea,” Montreal, the second largest city in Canada, l has become a “red island in a sea of blue powder”. 

So, what has been gained by isolating the largest city in the province, where the majority of province’s native English speakers live, to ensure that their voices are quieted and influence suppressed?   

Not much.   

Given that Montreal holds around 20 percent of the province’s population, giving them fair and equitable representation would not have compromised the outcome of the election and created substantially different results for the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), the province’s party in power since 2018.  

But what have they lost? 

Much like how gerrymandering in the United States creates divisions and resentment, the same sentiments permeate Montreal, likely most amongst native English speakers and some native French speakers who appreciate the benefits of harmony rather than unrest. 

Population growth is the oil in the political power engine. Quebec has one of the lowest population growth rates among all the provinces. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this situation

In 1976, Quebec’s population was just over 6.2 million, while Ontario’s population was 8.4 million. In 2020, Quebec had grown to 8.5 million, an increase of 37 percent, while Ontario had grown to 14.6 million, an increase of 73 percent. 

When the proportion of representatives is wildly off-kilter with the proportion of the popular vote, people notice. The net effect is a more disgruntled population.   

The CAQ, much like Republicans or Democrats who gerrymander in their states, win the battle but eventually lose the war. They retain or gain local power but lose the trust of the minority who are gerrymandered against.   

One way to measure the civility of a society is how it treats its minorities. In this case, the native English-speaking minorities in Quebec are being dissed.   

People eventually vote with their feet when they are not treated in a respectful manner. This may be advantageous for the majority, as they become even more dominant, but less attractive to immigrants unless they share the same values, and in the case of Quebec, the same dominant language. 

Any shades of gerrymandering will eventually harm those in power, as it does in the United States. More critically, it creates disunity that is unnecessary during these polarizing times. 

I left Montreal in the 1980s to further my education in the United States.  I then stayed to build my life and my career. The U.S. has many problems and issues of concern that Canada does not have. For example, affordability of health care percolates high on the list.   

After seeing what has come of the political affairs in Quebec, sadly, I see that little has changed since my departure. More significantly, it may even have become worse.   

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He uses his expertise in data-driven risk analysis to inform issues in public policy. He is the founding director of the Institute for Computational Redistricting at the University of Illinois, committed to bringing transparency to the redistricting process using optimization algorithms and artificial intelligence.  

Tags Canada Congress congressional districts Gerrymandering International lawmakers representation Sheldon H. Jacobson

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