Riding changes, lack of incumbents make for confusing election for voters

There has been much griping about the length of the current election campaign, but there is a bright side: voters have longer to get to know their candidates. That may be a good thing this election cycle as it's the first since a major redrawing of riding boundaries.

Addition of 30 new ridings and lack of incumbents mean many voters will be voting for unfamiliar candidates

Changes to riding boundaries and a lack of incumbents mean many people will be voting for an unfamiliar candidate or casting their vote in a new riding this election. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

There has been much griping about the length of the current election campaign, but there is a bright side: voters have longer to get to know their candidates. That may be a good thing this election cycle as it's the first since a major redrawing of riding boundaries.

The redistribution that occurred in 2012 saw the addition of 30 new ridings and the carving up of existing ridings in ways that may leave some voters confused.

Add to that the more than 60 MPs who are retiring, and you're left with a record number of open seats, says Alice Funke, who runs the Pundit's Guide website.

According to her calculations, more than a third of the 338 House of Commons seats up for grabs on Oct. 19 will be new or have either an unfamiliar or no sitting member of Parliament on the ballot.

Some of those unfamiliar faces will be incumbent MPs who have chosen to run in a different riding because the new boundaries have shifted the makeup of their district.

That will leave their old seats vacant and see some MPs running in ridings in which they don't reside.

Several sitting MPs have also switched parties and are running under a different banner than in the 2011 federal election, and that, too, will muddy the waters for voters.

Old riding, new name

Voters, too, may find themselves in a different riding altogether or in an old riding with a new name.

"For a lot of people, they might have very unfamiliar candidates simply because of how they moved around on the electoral map," said election poll analyst Éric Grenier, who runs the ThreeHundredEight.com website and CBC's Poll Tracker.

ÉricGrenier, election poll analyst

"It might be confusing for some people who might think the incumbent MP is the guy they voted for in the last four elections, and then they show up, and they don't see his name on the ballot."

The downtown Toronto ridings of Trinity-Spadina and Toronto Centre, for example, have been carved up and redrawn into University-Rosedale, Spadina-Fort York and Toronto Centre.

Candidates generally don't count for much in federal and provincial elections, but there are exceptions. The New Brunswick riding of Acadie-Bathurst is associated more with Yvon Godin, above, than his party. Now that Godin is retiring, it's unclear whether the riding will stay NDP. (The Canadian Press file photo)

"Moving (the affluent neighbourhood of) Rosedale from Toronto Centre into University-Rosedale has changed the complexion of the riding of Toronto Centre quite substantially," said Funke in an interview with CBCNews.ca.

"If you looked at the (2013) byelection results in the non-Rosedale parts of that riding, Linda McQuaig substantially increased the NDP's vote share, but in the Rosedale part of the riding, the Conservative vote collapsed and went to Chrystia Freeland (of the Liberals). ...

"You take Rosedale out of that scenario, and it, ironically, makes Toronto Centre the most winnable of those three downtown ridings for the NDP."

Party incumbency hard to determine

Population growth in urban centres like Toronto and Vancouver and their suburbs is what drove the redistribution.

Unlike in the U.S., where state legislatures often cobble together disjointed federal districts of varying size and population to serve the interests of the state's majority party, Canada's approach to redistricting is free of political interference. Boundaries are set by provincial commissions comprised of a judge appointed by the chief justice of the province and two experts appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons. The process includes input from the public.

"This is the way in which we try to have one person's vote equal to another person's vote," said Andrew Sancton, a political science professor at Western University in London, Ont., who helped redraw Ontario's electoral boundaries ahead of the 2004 election. 

"If we didn't change the boundaries, there would be huge disparities in the value of each vote, and that would be a very bad thing."

The riding changes, however, make it difficult to talk about party incumbency in any meaningful way this election.

Some voters might find themselves in one of the 30 new ridings that were created after the last census as a means of better reflecting the growing population in some areas. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Funke points to the example of Winnipeg North, where Liberal Kevin Lamoureux is the incumbent, running for re-election in a riding that has the same name but new boundaries. Although the Liberal is seen as the incumbent, under the new boundaries of Winnipeg North, the NDP would have been the so-called nominal winner in the 2011 election, according to a transposition of votes done by Elections Canada.

Fewer incumbents means amped up air war

The transposition is supposed to give an idea of what the 2011 election results would have looked like with the new boundaries and will serve as a point of comparison on election night, but changes in party standings and in demographics mean that it may not reflect actual voter intentions, said Grenier.

Elections Canada's calculations concluded that if everybody had voted the same way, the new ridings would have given the Conservatives 22 extra seats, the NDP six and the Liberals two.

Some of the tightest battles this election will be fought in the Greater Toronto Area, where the bulk of Ontario's 15 new seats are. (Aaron Harris/Reuters)

"If all else was equal, then the Conservatives would benefit, but when you're looking at the polls now, and they're down more than 10 points in Ontario, they're not anymore the ones that are going to benefit," Grenier said.

In some instances, such as the Greater Toronto Area, where most of Ontario's 15 new seats are, or Vancouver Island, the boundary changes have made ridings more competitive and forced parties to invest more in local campaigns. Sometimes, that's because existing seats have been made smaller or — as in the case of Lethbridge, Alta., or Cambridge, Ont., for example — more urban, says Funke.

Sancton, political science professor

"I do view this as very volatile. It'll mean the air war and the advertising is going to be that much more important, which means that the discrepancy in resources (between parties) is going to be a definite factor," Funke said.

In the close races, the absence of an incumbent will cost the party. Grenier's research suggests parties lose about two to five percentage points when they don't run an incumbent — and the penalty can be a lot higher depending on the level of support the incumbent had.

Candidate vs. party

In most cases, however, party affiliation will trump candidate recognition.

"At the federal and provincial levels, there's very little evidence that the actual candidate makes a big difference in how people vote," said Sancton. 

A candidate is "worth" about five percentage points to a party's showing in elections, says Grenier.

"There's that many people that are really thinking about that as their motivating factor (when voting)," he said.

But there are exceptions.

"In rural Alberta, it's not going to make a difference if there's no incumbent, but in a riding where it's relatively close or if the riding was tied to that person, then it can make a difference," Grenier said.

Grenier cites the example of the New Brunswick riding of Acadie-Bathurst, which had voted Liberal or Conservative provincially and federally for years but became a safe NDP riding in 1997 when Yvon Godin, a local miner and popular union activist, ran for the seat.

"Now that he's gone, is it still really an NDP riding or was it a Godin riding?" Grenier said.

Saskatchewan could see significant NDP wins

One province where redistricting might really have an impact is Saskatchewan.

There, the electoral boundaries commission chopped up the eight pie-shaped districts that mixed rural populations together with parts of urban Saskatoon and Regina into five urban and one rural-urban riding. 

"It's probably the most dramatic redistribution in a single province that we've ever had because the commission took a radically different approach than the commissions have taken before," said Sancton.

Conservative cabinet minister Lynne Yelich is thought to have lost the nomination for the new urban riding of Saskatoon-Grasslands because she was seen as representing the more rural parts of the former riding that was divided up into distinct urban and rural ridings in the redistribution. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

That change could make a dent in the Conservatives' dominance in that province for the first time in more than a decade. It was in part thanks to the merging of rural and urban populations that the Tories were able to sweep all but one riding in the 2011, 2008 and 2004 elections (and all but two in 2006) despite a strong showing by the NDP in Saskatoon and Regina.

"Those ridings were very hard for the NDP to win even if they won most of the polls in the cities, but now that there are going to be some urban ridings, they're suddenly much more competitive," said Grenier.


Kazi Stastna

Senior Producer

Kazi Stastna is a senior producer with CBCNews.ca. She has worked as a features writer and copy editor with CBC's digital news team for over a decade. Prior to that, she was at the Montreal Gazette and worked as a reporter and editor in Germany and the Czech Republic.


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