Tony Keller is the editorial page editor.
In the 2014 U.S. midterm elections, the Republican and Democratic Party candidates for one of North Carolina's Senate seats, together with the various political action committees backing and attacking them, spent a combined total of $111-million (U.S.). That's more than Canada's three main political parties, including 900-plus candidates, spent in the 2011 federal election.
Canada's system of political finance isn't perfect, and it has grown slightly worse in the past year. Thanks to the Fair Elections Act, the current election's spending limits are more than double 2011's. Canada's process of figuring out who gets to vote has also become a little less perfect, again courtesy of the Fair Elections Act.
But compared to the way elections are run in the United States, Canada's system is still awfully close to nirvana.
Which explains why, if you're an American hoping to fix what's wrong with America's broken democratic process, you end up proposing reforms that look a lot like, well, Canada.
Consider Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, who is seeking the Democratic Party's nomination for president on a one-issue platform of electoral reform. He wants to get the money out of politics, empower voters through measures like automatic voter registration and end a system of institutionalized gerrymandering where, as he puts it, "politicians pick their voters."
Canada fixed all of these issues, years ago.
Take gerrymandering. In most U.S. states, the governing party gets to draw up the electoral map, including setting the boundaries of their state's districts in the House of Representatives. Not surprisingly, governing parties tend to draw maps favourable to themselves.
Look at the electoral map of Texas. Republicans control the statehouse, so in the 2011 redistricting, they created a new congressional district, District 35. It lumps together pro-Democratic voters in Austin and San Antonio – more than 100 kilometres apart – joining them via a thin strip of land running down Interstate 35. The result is one safe Democratic seat – and several safe Republican seats.
Contrast that with the federal electoral map for Saskatchewan. As happens every decade in this country, an independent commission was appointed in 2012 to reconsider the province's 14 ridings. In light of population growth and increasing urbanization, the commission created several urban-only constituencies in Saskatoon and Regina, replacing the previous urban-rural hybrids. All else equal, this new map disadvantages the Conservatives – despite the fact the Conservatives are the government in Ottawa, and the conservative Saskatchewan Party runs the province.
Registering to vote is also easier in Canada. It's almost automatic; most of us get on the list by ticking a box on our income tax return. Elections Canada says 92.4 per cent of eligible voters are included in its register of electors, with 84 per cent of these at their current address. The new rules of the Fair Elections Act will trip up people who have recently moved, a legal manoeuvre that looks like a mild case of voter suppression. It makes an otherwise excellent Canadian system slightly less so.
But it's nothing like the mess in the U.S. The Pew Research Center estimates that one quarter of eligible voters are unregistered. Pew also says America's hodge-podge registration system is 12 times as costly as that of Elections Canada.
And then there's the issue of money. In the U.S., the rich – corporations and unions – exercise a grotesquely outsized influence on both political parties. Deep pockets can buy politicians. To win increasingly expensive contests – the 2012 Barack Obama and Mitt Romney presidential campaigns each spent more than $1-billion – candidates almost have no choice but to put themselves up for sale.
In Canada, neither businesses nor unions are allowed to donate to federal political parties. And the most one person can contribute is $1,500 (Canadian) to a political party, and $1,500 to a party's candidates. Federal election rules also put tight limits on advertising by outside groups. In the U.S., these groups, known as PACs, or political action committees, are at the heart of an election. Corporations and unions are able to target candidates with supporting or negative ad campaigns.
PACs are strictly restricted during a federal election in Canada, which is why the phenomenon barely exists. It's another story in provinces with American-style non-rules – notably Ontario. The Ontario Liberal Party's long-time pet PAC is the union-funded Working Families Coalition. In the 2014 election, it spent $2.5-million attacking the Progressive Conservatives.
Ontario also has much higher donation limits than at the federal level, and unions and businesses are allowed to fully express their thanks and generosity. If you wonder why the province has long upheld the private Beer Store monopoly, consider that the company, its corporate parents and its union have over the past decade donated $1.6-million to provincial politicians.
After Mr. Lessig's presidential campaign runs into a wall of well-financed inertia, he should consider moving to Canada. Our system needs improvement, but at least we're starting from a much better place.