Sometimes the things we should be most thankful for are so routine as to escape notice. Take Canadian democracy. Voting in this country works, without most of us ever worrying about its hidden mechanics.
That is no accident. It took a lot of history to build our system, while sensible laws preserve it and unseen bureaucracies tend to its health.
In the United States, with predictions of calamity attending the Nov. 3 presidential election, American democracy’s weaknesses are exposed and vulnerable. The issues are many, from the possibility of a chaotic election night to gerrymandering to restrictions on voting.
In a series that began this past weekend, this page is looking at how things differ in our land of peace, order and boringly competent elections.
In Canada, a federal election is staged under national rules, overseen by non-partisan Elections Canada. The provinces have similar bodies for provincial elections. The federal national register of voters is carefully curated, and you can ensure you’re on the list by doing such simple things as checking a box on your income tax return. Ahead of last year’s federal election, 96.4 per cent of Canadian voters were automatically registered.
A U.S. presidential election, in contrast, is essentially 50 separate votes. In some states, registering is easy; in others, it is not. And local counties may also set their own rules and design their own ballots and voting systems. The result is a degree of voter-suppression, intended and unintended.
In Texas, the governor recently ordered that each of the state’s counties offer no more than one place to physically drop off mail-in ballots. Some Texas counties are the size of small states. Some are cities of millions of people. In Wisconsin, absurd voter ID rules have disenfranchised 300,000 people. And some U.S. states have long denied the vote to anyone convicted of a crime, even after release from prison. Two years ago in Florida, a referendum returned voting rights to more than a million former felons. But Republican lawmakers created a rule ordering that any outstanding fines, often thousands of dollars a person, must be paid before someone can vote.
In Canada, not only can former convicted people vote, so can those behind bars. As a country, Canada is a successful work in progress, building on the achievements and smart decisions of the past. That is especially true when it comes to elections. It may currently be easier for Canadians to vote than Americans, but there is still a lot Canada can improve.
Last year, ahead of the federal vote, this page called for turning the traditional election day into election week. Canada has already made big moves in that direction. Just look at British Columbia. This year, its Oct. 24 provincial election is preceded by seven advance voting days, one more than last time. And election day is a Saturday, rather than the traditional weekday, a change made last year.
Federally, there are only four advance voting days. Even though there’s been an increase in advance locations – more than 6,000 in 2019 compared with about 4,000 a decade earlier – that is still fewer than half the 15,500 or so on election day. Canadians can vote early, and it’s less difficult than ever. But it’s still not as easy as it should be.
Elections Canada this month proposed to Parliament a two-day election for the next federal vote, owing to the pandemic, to be held on a Saturday and Sunday, instead of a Monday. That’s a step in the right direction, but an overly timid one. Parliament should give Elections Canada the mandate and the money to be more ambitious. The national register makes sure most people are already on the voting rolls. That’s good. Greatly expanding the number of places to physically vote is the next step.
The more voting locations there are, the shorter their distance from each voter’s home, and the longer the voting hours and shorter the lines, the more people will vote – pandemic or not.
Voter turnout in Canada has been stuck below 70 per cent, often well below, for decades. That’s why expanding Canada’s voting infrastructure is a good idea. The temporary pandemic provides impetus for permanent changes.
Some U.S. states are becoming more like Canada, with automatic and same-day voter registration. We are a model. Canadians should be thankful. But in giving thanks, we should aspire to do better.
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