Electoral District Names in Quebec

Mr. Justice Allard, Mr. Doyon, Dr. Hudon,

(Members of the Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Quebec.)

I am here today speaking as a private citizen and elections administrator on a strictly non-partisan basis.

I have played a role in the impartial organization of every federal and provincial election since I earned that right by virtue of age. I was the Returning Officer for the provincial electoral district of D’Arcy McGee from 2006-2012, the Assistant Returning Officer for the federal electoral district of Mount Royal from 2007 through the 2011 General election, and have been involved in various management positions at the municipal and school board levels.

Most recently, I participated on the Canadian government mission to Ukraine as an observer of their parliamentary elections this past October 28th.

My elections career began as Chief Electoral Officer of student association elections at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. I mention this experience because it motivates my participation in elections administration to this day. What I learned in this first elections management position is amazingly simple. It’s about the voter. Canadian university election turnout is stagnant at approximately 8%. My goal was to increase that – dramatically. By working hard at keeping the elector’s participation as a central focus, my team and I were able to average over 25% in 4 consecutive university-wide votes, defying all expectations over a very short time period.

I am deeply committed to ensuring the highest possible participation rates from our citizens, and that is why I am here today. My intention is to share some of the impacts that I see from your decision to dramatically change the way our electoral districts are named.

I will not mince words. I believe that it is an unqualified mistake to move away from the common practice of naming electoral districts after the regions they represent in favour of naming them after famous people. While I understand and appreciate the need to honour those who have served Canada and Quebec by allowing their names to live on after they pass, the cost to democracy of renaming electoral districts in this way far outweighs the societal benefit of remembrance.

I have two main concerns. First, people’s names are a source of great emotion that risks adding unnecessary bias to an election. I would assume that your commission would never propose naming a West Island electoral district after Jacques Parizeau or an East End district after Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Similarly, is it worthwhile to risk alienating a voter in your proposed Gilles Villeneuve electoral district because they oppose auto racing’s impact on the environment? Or an aboriginal voter in your proposed Elzear-Bernier district who opposes Bernier’s claim of Canadian sovereignty over the arctic? Electors have, on numerous cases, threatened in the past to not vote over much less.

Second, and this is the main focus of my presentation, the proposal to rename districts using people’s names is irrelevant to the actual electoral process, is an unnecessary move, and is one that risks causing far more problems and confusion than it promises to solve.

There are countless other ways to honour our dead without risking alienating voters in the exercise of their most fundamental democratic rights.

Let me be clear, I am positive that it is NOT this commission’s intention to drive people away from the polls by causing them to be confused about which district they live in. However, while that is not your intention, the risk of it happening as a result of this naming decision is very real.

As the former Returning Officer for the provincial electoral district of D’Arcy McGee, a riding named after a person rather than any geographic entity in the district, my staff and I are constantly shocked by some of the inquiries we receive. At least 5-10 calls each election, from electors who live on Rue D’Arcy McGee in Verdun and on Rue D’Arcy McGee in Laval. Two women even showed up to be trained to work, and were upset when they were assigned to work at a polling station in Hampstead, nowhere near their homes. Provincial elections are very well run, but this is one instance where we should not be taking their lead.

It is impossible to isolate the impact of the name of a riding on voter turnout in any scientific way as many other factors play significant roles. However, I assert here that the goal in naming electoral districts must be simplicity and clarity. Since districts are delimited by geographic factors, they should be named in the same manner.

People who live in Pointe-aux-Trembles would never be surprised to learn that their electoral district is called La Pointe de l’Ile and those who live in Outremont have it even easier. That’s the way it should be.

Electors need to know the name of their electoral district before they can carry out any reasonable research as to the candidates they will choose from. By naming districts after people, as you are proposing in approximately one third of Quebec districts, some names that many of us have never even heard of, this commission will cause an underlying confusion in the minds of most electors that will undermine the rest of the candidate research process.

Every province has their own way of naming districts but none of them have gone the personal-name route like the one proposed by Quebec, and there is no popular movement in favour of this change. Virtually every district outside of Quebec is, and will remain named in favour of geographic features. Sure, it might seem boring to have multiple districts which begin with the word “Vancouver”, “Edmonton”, or “Calgary”, 10 in fact on their proposed map, up from the previous 8, but each one is clearly and simply identified using local geography as a reference. Sure, the proposed district of “Calgary-Spy Hill” is named after a landfill, but if you live near that site, you know that’s probably your district.

We must remember who these names are truly for. This is not a competition to see which province can come up with the coolest names or honour the most people. As nice as it might sound, this is not an education tool to educate the current population about famous past Quebecers. This is about the current and future electors of Quebec. We separate electoral districts as an administrative and representative requirement, not for show. We must maintain simplicity and clarity as our objectives.

In the last 5 elections I have managed, I have received countless complaints from those who, for various reasons, were not able to cast their vote. The top three reasons as to why people were “unable” to vote are:

3 – “not enough time to vote” – despite 30+ days of being able to cast one’s vote at the Federal level, using many different possible voting methods.

2- “went to the wrong polling station” – despite being sent information to their home address outlining the exact location where they can vote.

And the number 1 reason relates to various legal and administrative issues such as getting onto the voters list, bringing proper identification, etc…

Again, these complaints persist despite continuously greater information provided to electors with each passing electoral event about their rights and their responsibilities.

I mention this because it shows that most people, including and especially those who do not automatically vote every election, cannot be counted on to seek out information on the process. If we want them to participate, we must make it as easy and as intuitive as possible for them.

Voter turnout is dropping at an alarming rate. In 2011, 61.1% of Canadians cast ballots despite the most voting opportunities ever available. In 2008, that number was a shocking 58.8%. When we have a federal election where, most recently, approximately 4 of every 10 electors decided, for whatever reason, NOT to participate, something must be done to reverse that trend, to encourage participation. At the very worst, no decision must be made that will push (or WILL RISK) pushing that trend in the wrong direction. The confusion that your proposed naming structure will almost certainly cause is counter-productive to what our elections administration goals need to be in order that people have the best chance of being included.

I grant that many will take this in stride, but certain age, ethnic, linguistic, and other groups are especially susceptible to being disenfranchised by this unnecessary renaming. And, if EVEN ONE PERSON IS TOO CONFUSED BY THIS NAMING DECISION TO CAST THEIR VOTE, then this renaming plan should be aborted immediately. Since I cannot see even one democracy-related benefit to this naming plan, if you agree that there exists the possibility that at least ONE person will be negatively impacted by this change, then I submit you are morally obligated to not proceed with it. If you truly believe in the fundamental democratic rights of Canadians and Quebecers, I ask you to please return to the previous method of naming electoral districts based on significant geographic names that will be much more familiar to those people who live in the respective areas.

I should mention that I firmly believe in personal responsibility. In theory, it should not matter what name you give to an electoral division. People should be responsible enough to do the minimum research required to exercise such an important democratic right. If the world worked in theory, I would not be standing here right now making this plea. Our elections experience shows that unless we make voting hyper-easy within the limits of the law, many will stay away. This name change is unnecessary. It needlessly risks confusion and thus alienation of voters. As such, it must be reconsidered.

I live, eat, and breathe elections. Most who know me will not hesitate to say I am obsessed. Even as I write this, after thinking about it over many hours and taking many notes over the last 4 months, I still have not managed to commit your proposed name for either the electoral district I managed or the one I currently live in, to memory. And it is not for lack of trying. It is for a lack of a connection. You are trying to create an unnatural connection that simply does not exist, between a famous person and an election boundary. “Mount Royal” is easy to remember when you know that the “Town of Mount Royal” makes up a large portion of your territory and “Pierrefonds-Dollard” is brilliantly simple as a descriptor of an electoral district that is made up of Pierrefonds and Dollard des Ormeaux.

I am reminded of a simple, yet, very famous expression – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Thank you.

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