Social inclusion and electoral boundaries: ensuring all voices are heard

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By Sara Mayo

The recent debate about changes to school board electoral boundaries has brought to the public agenda important questions of equity and inclusion. But missing from the debate has been the potential risk of diluting of the votes of Hamilton’s lowest income neighbourhoods, marginalizing their voices even further.

A recent Spectator article quoted opponents to the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board’s plan to create an electoral district made up of Wards 2 and 3, the wards with the highest poverty rates in Hamilton. I would respectfully suggest that a social inclusion approach is compatible with the proposed boundaries, but in making this argument, I’m not endorsing any specific set of boundaries, rather setting out an important factor in decision-making for any boundaries.

A social inclusion lens applied to electoral boundaries would consider marginalized groups as  communities of interest and take deliberate steps to ensure boundaries make it easier for their voices to be represented where political decisions are taken. Given different rates of electoral participation and incomes across the city, some boundary maps would risk denying this representation, by diluting some of Hamilton’s lowest income communities (where voter turnout is often lower) with the votes of wealthier neighbourhoods (where voter turnout is often much higher) in combined districts.

The 2012 Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Quebec raised the issue of declining voter turnout in the introduction of its report and suggested that in context of voter apathy it is especially important that boundaries ensure an adequate representation of electors, that is to say all citizens eligible to vote, not just those who show up at the polls.

The SPRC’s 2010 report, Hamilton’s Social Landscape [PDF], devoted some attention to the issue of voter turnout, and mapped electoral participation across Hamilton for the previous provincial election (the most recent data available at the time of publication).

These were some of the findings:

Most of the polls with the lowest voter turnout rates are concentrated in the areas closest to the industrial areas in north and central-east Hamilton, areas that also have higher rates of poverty. As noted in the Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Centre’s No Community Stands Alone [PDF] report “there are many obstacles to civic participation and community involvement when you are poor.”

[…]

Lower voter participation among residents who are struggling on low incomes creates a negative feedback loop: our city’s most vulnerable aren’t represented at the tables where policies that affect them are discussed and civic and political leaders don’t hear their voices when making decisions, then those on the margins feel that the political system does not reflect their priorities and they become more disenchanted.

This decline in political and social trust, is further worsened by growing income inequality, as examined in the SPRC’s recent report: The Rich and the Rest of us: Trends in Hamilton’s Income Inequality and Why They Matter

This isn’t to defend or celebrate concentration of poverty. Many groups in Hamilton are working to create more mixed income neighbourhoods across the city and others still are working to eliminate poverty entirely. Concentration of poverty in any city is a reflection of private real estate market trends, lack of investment in affordable housing in more desirable neighbourhoods, and an absence of inclusionary zoning policies to make sure all income groups are welcome in all neighbourhoods.

Until these issues are tackled in a comprehensive way, many marginalized groups, especially residents living in poverty, will continue to be connected by geography and not solely income. As long as concentration of poverty exists in Hamilton, residents living in these neighbourhoods remain a community of interest that should be considered when electoral boundaries are set, so they get a fair shot at fair representation in our elected bodies. These communities of interest reflecting current low income patterns are at least as important as other communities of interest in wealthier neighbourhoods. (“Communities of Interest” is the term used in the legislation to describe how federal riding boundaries should be set, but can be applied more generally to the creation of electoral boundaries provincially and municipally as well.)

The SPRC successfully used this argument at the hearings into federal riding boundaries in Hamilton in November 2012. The final boundaries kept a Hamilton Centre riding, made up primarily of many of Hamilton’s lowest voter turnout and lowest income neighbourhoods, and the Commission reversed their plan to split this riding in two and dilute this community of interest with higher income neighbourhoods in Dundas and Stoney Creek.

The School Board this week decided that there wasn’t enough consensus for changes to electoral boundaries and put off any changes to their boundaries for now. Soon after the 2014 election, the City of Hamilton is planning to realign ward boundaries to better reflect population changes. So this debate is far from over, and there will be many opportunities in the years to come for the school board and the City to more explicitly apply a social inclusion lens to changes to their electoral boundaries.

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