We don't know how lucky we are - Keith Roulston editorial
Canadians are pretty cynical about our system of government. It’s only when we look at the rest of the world that we realize how good we have it.
For instance, as Americans prepare to elect a president this coming November, to Canadians their system seems terribly inefficient. For the vast majority of Canadian voters, for example, casting a ballot is as easy as taking the voter card mailed you, showing up at the polling station listed on the card and marking your ballot. Elections Canada keeps a permanent voters list and only if you’ve recently moved or become a Canadian citizen might you find you have to make an extra effort to get on the list. If you have the right documents, you can even do this right at the polling station.
Things are more complicated south of the border where, before you can vote, you have to register as a voter. Right off the bat this makes casting a ballot more complicated, but over the years this has also been used to deny people their democratic rights. During racial segregation in southern states right up until the fight for integration in the 1960s, voter registration was used to prevent black citizens from voting. One of the requirements to be a registered voter, for instance, was to be literate. The test to prove your literacy if you were a black voter might be reciting the entire Declaration of Independence correctly. White voters, meanwhile, would have a literacy test that even an illiterate could pass.
Last week, when Americans in 14 states took part in the Democratic Party’s primaries on “Super Tuesday”, some voters in Texas had to wait up to six hours before they could vote. It turned out that the number of polling stations is controlled by the county governments. A 2013 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court gutted provisions under the Voting Rights Act that made it easier for people to vote. In the years since, counties in Texas have closed 750 polling places, 542 of them in areas with increasing Black and Latino populations that tended to vote Democratic. In case you were wondering, these counties are governed by Republicans.
The partisanship doesn’t go only one way. While Republicans control many southern states today, there was a time when
Democrats were in control and Republicans accused them of redrawing the lines of electoral districts to try to make sure as many
Democrats were elected as possible. Today, the shoe is on the other foot. The boundaries of some electoral districts look like jigsaw puzzle pieces as borders are engineered to include as many of your party’s supporters in a district, and perhaps exclude the other party’s voters.
Thankfully, we have a non-partisan agency to decide electoral boundaries in Canada so sitting governments have no ability to give themselves an unfair advantage to be re-elected.
Then there’s our ability to believe governments. Back in January, when the Iranian government shot down Ukraine Airlines Flight 152 killing 167 people, 138 of them travelling to Canada (63 of them Canadian citizens), for several days Iranian officials denied Canadian government claims that the plane had been shot down. Only later did they admit culpability. Watching this, I wondered what it would be like to live in a country where you couldn’t trust your own government.
Canadians often doubt their politicians are telling them the truth, or at least the whole truth, but we have the benefit of having an independent media and reporters who like nothing better than to embarrass politicians by printing or broadcasting the truth. That disciplines politicians who may be tempted to stretch their version of the truth. Other countries aren’t so lucky.
University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab recently released research showing the Chinese government started censoring internet communications about the COVID-19 coronavirus as early as Dec. 31. The government did not admit the seriousness of the outbreak until Jan. 20. Even general terms such as “unknown Wuhan pneumonia” and “Wuhan Health Commission” were deemed taboo in the early weeks of the epidemic. Medical professionals trying to communicate with each other about this unknown disease found their electronic message just disappeared from the internet. Even today, Citizen Lab says, the Chinese government is censoring internet communications about the disease.
It’s not that some leaders of democracies mightn’t wish to have the Chinese government’s ability to simply make bad news disappear. Leaks from within the White House say U.S. President Donald Trump was furious recently at public health officials and the media for making the COVID-19 outbreak sound as serious as they have.
That’s why we have limits on the power of leaders in democracies, so those with megalomaniacal tendencies can’t get carried away.