The Nov. 3 presidential vote in the United States is being subsumed by predictions of calamity. It is Donald Trump, as usual, who is stoking the fears. Behind in the polls, he casts almost daily doubt on his willingness to respect the result. And the pandemic exacerbates everything, since mail-in voting and varying state rules about how and when votes are counted may mean that the final tally – and the winner – will not be known for days, or weeks, after.
So could something similar happen here, in our land of peace, order and boringly competent elections?
On many issues – voter disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, the twisting of electoral rules for political advantage – the U.S. seems a world apart. We’ll talk about some of those differences in the coming days, looking at how Canada’s system is better than that of the U.S., and how it can be made better still.
But let’s start with the question that is going to be uppermost on the night of Nov. 3. Voters are accustomed to knowing by evening’s end who the president-elect is. In the U.S. this year, things could be very different.
Canada has also seen knife’s-edge elections – but not immediately knowing who has won has never been a problem. In the parliamentary system, where government rises out of a majority in the House of Commons, and where it can any moment lose the confidence of the Commons and fall, the question of who gets to form government, or how long they will govern, doesn’t provoke a crisis.
That a government’s legitimacy is always contingent, and that it can be booted by the legislature, is a feature of our system. It’s very different in the U.S. presidential system, where the president heads the executive but is entirely separate from the legislative branch. There is no single head of power.
When Canadian voters are divided, the parliamentary system comes to the fore.
After the 1972 federal election, with narrow margins in numerous ridings, the next morning’s Globe and Mail banner headline was: “A Minority – But Whose?” Another headline wondered, “Outcome in doubt for weeks?”
The Progressive Conservatives held a one-seat lead and leader Robert Stanfield urged Pierre Trudeau to resign as PM. But then recounts in close races began, and three days after the vote, the two parties were tied. Mr. Trudeau said he would test the confidence of the House. A Globe editorial concluded: “Mr. Trudeau takes the proper course.” In one judicial recount two weeks later, the Liberals were awarded a seat previously in the PC column, ahead by just four votes. The Liberals, supported by the NDP, gained the confidence of the House, and formed a minority government that lasted two years.
British Columbia saw a similar extended limbo in 2017. That, too, was par for the course in parliamentary government. On election night, the Liberals appeared to have won 43 seats, with the NDP and Greens at 41 and 3, respectively. But because B.C. law dictates that absentee ballots are not counted until 13 days after the election, some leads risked changing hands.
In the end, the final count did not change – and that was just the start of the parliamentary jousting. The NDP and Greens struck a deal, the Liberals tried to hang on and, after duelling visits to the Lieutenant-Governor, the NDP formed government – seven weeks after the polls closed.
This fall, B.C. faces another postvote limbo. More than 600,000 people so far are planning to vote by mail, closing in on a third of votes cast in 2017. Mailed ballots must be received by the Oct. 24 election date, but since they’re not counted until two weeks later, election night likely won’t provide a final answer.
The same could happen in Saskatchewan. The vote is Oct. 26, but counting of mail-in ballots doesn’t start until two days later. Federally, mail-in ballots have been part of the tally on election day, although a proposal for the next national vote could produce a one-day lag, or longer.
The unusual measures taken to hold a pandemic election may prevent the usual near-instant result. But in Canada, delay has not spelled upheaval. The opposite is true right now in the U.S., though absent Mr. Trump, it need not be.
An election day victory – or lack of it – is only one electoral fissure between the two countries in 2020. This page will look at others in the coming days.
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