Transforming regional representation in democracy
Dec 10, 2011

Transforming regional representation in democracy

First Past the Post Ballot
For reasons purely of pragmatism, our democracies are actually representative democracies where we elect a relatively tiny portion of our population as leaders to represent us in government. In principle, there might be many different ways to go about choosing where these representatives come from and how we select them. However, the solution overwhelmingly adopted in western democracies have been to adopt the principle of representatives chosen by geographic proximity. That is, we divide jurisdictions into ridings or districts and each geographic region selects its own representative.

There was a time in western countries, when the world was more local and less interconnected, that this made a lot of sense. People were more engaged in their local communities and had more homogeneous values and political beliefs within small regions. There was a very real sense in which an representative actually was quite broadly representative of that region's interests and values.

Today, much less of our identifications are based on where we live. Instead we live in a globalized, interconnected and diverse world. Families, like my own, are spread all around the country. The place where one works and where one lives might be an hours commute away. All sorts of communities that one might be a part of are no longer tied to a specific geographic region and may form on a geographically disparate medium like the Internet. Once the mainstay of community expression, regular religious observances are declining.

Regional importance hasn't disappeared. Whether one lives in rural agricultural town in Alberta or in downtown Montreal remains about as reasonable a predictor of political outlook as one could expect from such broad demographic information. Many ridings are solidly members of certain parties and will consistently vote the same way with overwhelming pluralities. So I don't think we can simply eliminate regional representation. It also remains important for people to have access to their representatives, and their representatives to them, which despite the Internet is still effectively done in such forums as the classic community hall debate.

Other demographic indicators remain relevant indicators of political persuasion such as age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and the like. Some ridings and districts are relatively homogeneous on these kinds of factors. Others are very diverse with respect to these factors. Imagine what it might mean to choose representatives based on groups on some of these other demographic differences outside of geographic proximity.

However, even if it was true that, say, age was just objectively the best measure of political beliefs and values, there isn't any obvious pragmatic way to make this the way we select representatives. And even if something bizarre was undertaken (such as giving x representatives to the 18-22 group, y representatives to the 23-27 groups , etc) one would lose all the benefits that do come from geographical representation or any other competing demographic factor we might like. 

There has also been a change in the kinds of programs that federal governments provide. Some issues are still tied to a specific geographic region - such as the issue of asbestos to the one riding that manufactures it in Quebec. But most issues like healthcare or education or macroeconomic policy is quite general and things like society economic status or age are simply better indicators than geographic region. Even things like major threats such as external economic problems a la the European debt crisis or Global Warming are things that apply at larger geographic scales and there is less advantage to solving them through smaller geographic representation. 

Electoral Reform:
The answer, such as it is, is to attempt a balance. British Columbia tried, and failed, to pass an electoral reform referendum that was based on the idea of having larger super-regional ridings where multiple representatives would be selected for each larger region but the multiple candidates would be chosen through proportional representation within that larger region.

This still allows for the basic idea of geographic representation with the advantages that come from that and without moving to an entirely new untested model. But it also allows for some stratification of representation along other lines within a region. Different groups - perhaps identifiable in aggregate by some demographic description, perhaps not - can vote for candidates from differing parties and have a distribution of parties representing each super-regional area. 

Other countries:
Often in third world countries, elected representatives overwhelmingly are chosen to represent distinct ethnic or religious groups. There is a correspondence between identity and democracy, and most other political factor become less important than having representatives of your own core identity whether that is ethnic or religious. However, in societies with high levels of ethnic and religious differences, there also tends to become geographic stratification along these lines. A village in Kenya may be overwhelmingly of the Luo ethnicity while a neighboring village may be overwhelmingly of the Kikuyu ethnicity but with relative homogeneity within each and because these divisions are so important that people move to be in places of their own group. Because of the homogeneity, regional representation makes a lot of sense. As these basic demographic indicators decline in relative importance, as heterogeneity increases, and as political considerations outside of geographic proximity increases, the relative importance of a democratic system based entirely on small scale geographic proximity also decreases. 

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