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Lessons for Canada from a U.S. election that is indeed rigged

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Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

A year ago, Canadians gave Justin Trudeau's Liberals a majority on the basis of a long list of ambitious promises.

In its first year, the new government fulfilled at least some of those promises.

It set up an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women, for instance.

But the Liberals have yet to do much about the big First Nations files, including education, health, infrastructure on reserves (including clean water) and control of natural resources.

In large measure, that seems to be the pattern.

The Trudeau Liberals have good intentions, but, so far, they have mostly harvested only the low-hanging fruit.

The hard stuff, the really tough challenges, are still out there.

Among those challenges is one to which we pointed in this space a year ago. We said those voters who placed their faith in the Liberals should keep their eyes on a key Trudeau pledge, the potentially game-changing promise of electoral reform.

Still time, even if it is late, to reform electoral system

Trudeau was unambiguous and quite categorical when he said the 2015 election would be the last one conducted under our current first-past-the-post voting system.

But it is an open secret that there are many in his own party, even in his inner circle, who argue that he and his government should not feel bound by that pledge.

They tell the Prime Minster that voters, by and large, do not care about the way we vote. Indeed, most Canadians, as they see it, are fairly content with the system we have. Why rock the boat for nothing?

For a while, it seemed the Prime Minister was heeding that cynical counsel.

His government waited nearly too long before setting a reform process in motion, and only did so at the eleventh hour, last spring.

Given the complexity of the task, there is now barely time to come up with and put in place any new system, whatever shape it might take, before the 2019 federal election.

But there is still time.

And those who would like to encourage their fellow citizens to see electoral reform as a matter of some urgency --and not just a gratuitous and ill-conceived election promise -- might direct Canadians' gaze southward.

The U.S. employs a demonic version of first-past-the-post to elect presidents

There is something fitting in the fact that we in Canada are seriously considering changing how we elect our federal government while the Americans are in the process of electing theirs.

If you want to see a true horror show of a dysfunctional electoral process, just look at the current U.S. campaign.

We’re not talking here about the ugly rhetoric, the calls to hate and resentment, and the lurid revelations that have characterized the scariest campaign in recent memory.

Our focus is the U.S electoral system, both in its design and in the way that design is implemented in practice.

First, readers have probably noted that the current U.S. presidential campaign takes place entirely in a small handful of states.

Hillary Clinton may come from Chicago and Donald Trump may live in New York, but neither campaign in their home cities.

There have been no major campaign rallies, for either side, in Los Angeles or Houston or Boston or New Orleans or Buffalo or Seattle, or scores of other major and minor cities and towns. That's because all of those places are in states that are considered safe for one side or the other. They are in what Americans call blue (Democratic) or red (Republican) states.

Americans elect their president on the basis of a weird variant of the first-past-the-post system, a variant that produces truly perverse incentives.

Each state has a fixed number of electors, which is the same as the number of its senators and members of the House of Representatives combined. Those are the members of the Electoral College.

The largest state, California, has 55 electors, two for its two senators and 53 for its members of the House. Seven states are too small in population to have more than one House member, but, of course, they still have two senators each. Thus, they each get three electors, as does the District of Columbia, even though it does not have voting representation in the Congress.

With the exception of Nebraska and Maine, all states give all of their electors to the candidate who gets the most votes, regardless of the margin. When there are more than two candidates, the winning margin can be well below 50 per cent. (Nebraska and Maine apportion their electors according to congressional districts.)

Since both parties concede that the vast majority of states -- including many of the most populous ones, such as Texas, California, New York and Illinois -- are sewn up in advance, they do not bother to invest resources in those states.

For the winner of a state there is no benefit in racking up a big vote plurality; and, for the loser, getting lots of votes, but not coming first, gets them nothing.

And so all campaign resources are poured into the very few swing states where both sides believe they have a fighting chance.

Those swing states change over time.

Illinois was once a swing state. It is now safely Democratic. Colorado was once reliably Republican, but now swings back and forth.

The principal incentive of this system is to encourage candidates not to build up the biggest popular vote possible, but to win enough states to get them a majority in the Electoral College, which is 270.

As in Canadian parliamentary elections, it is even possible to win the Electoral College, and thus the election, while losing the popular vote. George W. Bush famously did so in 2000. If Donald Trump were to pull off a victory in the current election, analysts say, his best chance would be to narrowly win the majority of swing states, while losing, and perhaps badly losing, the national popular vote.

Despite all the turmoil in his campaign, current polling has the real estate mogul close to or in the lead in North Carolina, Iowa, Ohio, Nevada and Florida.

One problem for Hillary Clinton is that while her support is way ahead of the usual Democratic performance in such red states such as Texas and Georgia, that increased support would, in the words of respected analyst Nate Silver, constitute "wasted votes," because the Republican nominee will still likely carry those states, albeit with a less-than-habitual margin.

If Americans had long ago done away with the archaic, first-past-the-post relic that is the Electoral College, and substituted something fairer and more democratic, you would be seeing a very different campaign now.

Rather than concentrating on Ohio, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Florida and a few other states, if every vote counted, Clinton would be working to maximize her vote both in solidly blue states such as New York, Massachusetts and California, and in red states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona.

Trump might be doing the same, although his tactical aim seems to be to depress turnout by annoying and disgusting voters, rather than encouraging them to vote.

Denying millions of citizens the right to vote

And so, in a way, Trump is right: the system is rigged. It is just not rigged in the way he says. It is rigged in a way that most likely favours his candidacy.

And if the systemic issues weren't enough, consider the way a great many states manage the electoral process.

There is no equivalent to Elections Canada in the U.S., and no overarching electoral law. Each state runs the presidential election in its own way.

One of the most frightful examples of this organized anarchy is the way a great many states deprive citizens who have served jail time of their right to vote -- for the rest of their lives.

In Canada, we bring the ballot boxes into penitentiaries. The Canadian constitution guarantees the right to vote to all citizens, without exception and without qualifications.

In the U.S., a great many states bar people who have been convicted of a crime that requires more than a year's imprisonment from voting in perpetuity. 

Since African Americans are disproportionately subject to imprisonment, they are also disproportionately deprived of the right to vote.

In Florida, the most important swing state because of its 29 electoral votes, over one-and-a-half million citizens -- 10-and-a-half per cent -- are denied the right to vote because they served time behind bars.

Arizona and Nevada deny the right to vote to four-and-a-quarter per cent of their citizens, and Mississippi to eight-and-a-half per cent -- to cite just three examples.

The numbers are much more dramatic when you look at the figures for black voters only. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that "across the nation, one in 13 African-American adults cannot vote ... "

And in  some states that percentage is much higher. "In Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, more than one in five African-Americans cannot vote," The New York Times reports.

 And if that were not cause to worry enough, over the past decade, many states have brought in draconian voter ID requirements of the sort the Harper Conservatives foisted on Canada in their oxymoronically named Fair Elections Act.

Back in March of this year, the Atlantic Monthly reported that these rules, many of which require, as does the Canadian law, government-issue photo ID, will prevent hundreds of thousands of poor, young and non-white voters from participating in the election.  

In Canada, we can feel good about the fact that our elections are run by a non-partisan, neutral body.

And we can feel satisfaction that not even the Harper government dared defy the Canadian Charter of Rights and take the vote away from entire groups of citizens.

But Harper's Fair Elections Law is still the law of the land here.

And, until further notice, we still have the out-moded, first-past-the-post voting system -- a system that produces a very rough approximation of the popular will, at best.

In the U.S., the stakes, this time, are high, and the state of electoral democracy is in more dire shape than it is here, north of the border.

The current U.S. national election is, in fact -- as one candidate likes to complain -- an unfair and not particuarly democratic affair.

But it is not rigged against the candidate who constantly complains.

If anything, it is rigged in his favour. 

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore


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