Canada is a huge country with a density of population that varies a lot across its territory. According to the 2011 census, there were 24.7 people per square kilometre in Prince Edward Island but only 0.01 people per square kilometre in Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. When population density is 2,470 times greater in one place than in another, there is an important impact on how the geographical boundaries of electoral districts are set. To ensure democratic equality, electoral districts need to be similar in population. And so, in places where the population density is high, districts will be smaller, and vice versa.
This geographical particularity has never been thoroughly analyzed by political scientists. However, the size of electoral districts in Canada likely has a substantial influence on the quality of representation and how well citizens feel represented. I investigated the relationship in two ways.
First, I looked at the relationship between the district size and the citizens’ level of satisfaction with the way democracy works. Do voters in districts of different size display similar levels of satisfaction with democracy?
Second, at a more practical level, it is intuitive to believe that people in larger districts are less likely to hear directly from political parties seeking their vote. My question was the following: Are citizens in larger districts as likely to be contacted by political parties as citizens in smaller districts?
To answer these questions, I used survey data from the Making Electoral Democracy Work project. This survey with 5,200 respondents was conducted during the last two weeks of the 2015 Canadian federal election.
The two variables of interest are satisfaction with democracy and “party contact.” The former was captured by the question “On a scale from 0 to 10 where 0 means ‘not satisfied at all’ and 10 means ‘very satisfied,’ how satisfied are you with the way democracy works in Canada?” The latter was captured by questions asking voters if they were contacted by political parties in various ways: mail, phone, in person, leaflet or email.
The analyses display strong support for the claim that the size of the electoral districts matters in political representation. All else being equal, the mean level of satisfaction with democracy is 6.3 in the smallest electoral districts but 5.5 in the largest: a gap of 0.8 point out of ten, which is substantial.
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Furthermore, citizens in larger districts are a lot less likely to be contacted by political parties. Voters from small districts have a probability of 60 percent of being contacted. This likelihood drops to 45 percent in the largest electoral districts. The gap is even greater than in the figures related to satisfaction with democracy.
Canadians have heard a lot of discussion related to electoral reform lately. Some have expressed concerns about retaining the territorial link between the representative and the district. Among the various proposals on offer, some would double the size of electoral districts in order to favour proportionality.
My analysis suggests that satisfaction with democracy and the extent to which citizens are contacted by parties are at stake when districts are enlarged. The statistical relationships are robust and the magnitude of the impact is substantial. Citizens in larger districts are almost 10% less satisfied and are 15 percentage points less likely to be contacted by political parties. Any debate related to the size of electoral districts should take these considerations into account.
The author is thankful to the Making Electoral Democracy Work project for the data. The project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
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