Fair elections: our great gift - Keith Roulston editorial
Ask most Canadians what privilege they most appreciate compared to their American neighbours and they’ll probably say our health care system. Who would have mentioned, (until recently) our fair, honest, trustworthy Elections Canada?
And yet one of the most fundamental differences in the democracies of Canada and the U.S. is our boringly nonpartisan electoral system. Come Sept. 21, no one but the most fanatically loyal political hack will question the accuracy and honesty of the voting results. There will be no violent mobs outside the Election Canada headquarters in Gatineau attempting to reverse the election results by force.
The machinery of our electoral system works away so quietly we seldom even take notice. One of the most corruptible aspects of the U.S. system is the requirement for those wanting to vote to register. Elections Canada employs 700 people to maintain a permanent voters list. Now and then someone eligible to vote is missed and must take steps to be able to vote, but most of us simply get a card in the mail telling us where to go to vote.
The agency also normally sets up 20,000 polling locations and hires some 230,000 election officials across the country to accept and count our votes. The pandemic this year has made finding people willing to work
in polling stations more difficult and as a result there will be fewer places to vote than normal.
Our system wasn’t always so colourless and fair. If you go back to the elections of 1835 and 1836 in the Huron Tract, only men who owned property (fully paid for) were eligible to vote. Everyone had to travel to Goderich if they wanted to vote. A “husting”, a hurriedly constructed outdoor stage (more hurriedly constructed in 1836 when someone burned the original stage the night before the election) where the candidates, Capt. Robert Dunlop, brother of the legendary “Tiger” for the Tories and Col. Anthony Van Egmond, for the Reformers spoke to a crowd of supporters.
Afterward, the voting began with each voter declaring out loud which candidate they supported. Gangs of bullies were apt to beat anyone who voted for the wrong candidate.
Rigging of elections played a big part in the 1837 Rebellion when William Lyon Mackenzie led rebellious Reformers who were defeated in the 1836 election when it was widely known that people who didn’t own property suddenly were given deeds so they could vote Tory.
Eventually, the secret ballot was adopted by the Ontario and federal governments in 1874.
Women weren’t allowed to vote until 1917 when only women with husbands or sons serving overseas were given the privilege, followed the next year by votes for all women.
It was a time of change. In 1920, Parliament created an independent and non-partisan office to administer federal elections by appointing Canada’s first Chief Electoral Officer. In doing so, Canada was a global pioneer—the agency was one of the first of its kind in the world. This eventually became Elections Canada.
But there were only four employees. Organization of voting at the riding level was left to the returning officer, who was often a representative of the party that was in power following the last election, who might try to make it as convenient as possible for his party’s supporters, and as difficult as possible for opposition supporters – all too similar to the U.S. system.
Between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and the early 1960s, racial and religious barriers were lifted, as were restrictions on voting for Inuit and First Nations peoples. In 1970, the voting age was lowered from 21 years to 18.
When we vote in Canada, we generally decide one position per election – our MP federally, MPP provincially or municipally, in the most complicated voting, councillors and heads of council. It makes our voting simpler and paper ballots work well. In the U.S., where people are voting for federal, state and local officials – even judges and sheriffs – voting is so complicated voting machines are often used. Generally, even unmechanized, our results are known within a couple hours of the polls closing. In the pandemic, greater use of mail-in ballots may slow that process this year.
There can still be concerns for the integrity of the vote. The Elections Canada website notes the administration of elections has faced threats from outside actors through disinformation and cyberattacks and says it collaborates with federal security agencies to thwart them.
There’s one bad flaw in our system – us. We don’t appreciate enough the gift of our democracy. Only 67 per cent of Canadians voted in the 2019 federal election with 37 per cent of those who didn’t, saying they had no interest in politics and 20 per cent claiming they were too busy. So help make the system better. Vote.