A photo of rioters storming the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021.
Rioters storming the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021. Credit: TapTheForwardAssist / WikimediaCommons

On Thursday evening, June 9, a select committee of the United States House of Representatives started to tell the world the full story of former president Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. 

Trump’s relentless efforts reached their climax on January 6, 2021, with the violent invasion of the U. S. Capitol Building, home to the two houses of the U.S. Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives. 

The select committee’s first evening of public hearings provided evidence of a level of anger and violence those of us who watched events unfold on live television did not fully grasp.

Caroline Edwards, a police officer tasked with protecting government buildings, described what she witnessed as a scene of “carnage and chaos”. 

The mob attacked and injured her, but she continued to work side by side with fellow members of the Capitol police force. They tried – unsuccessfully – to hold back a mob that was running amok. 

At one point, Edwards said she found herself “slipping in peoples’ blood”, the blood of her fellow officers. 

Here in Canada, a few days prior to the first night of U.S. televised hearings, two professional, non-partisan election officials submitted reports to the federal parliament.

Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer made a series of recommendations to enhance the integrity of the electoral process. 

At the same time, the federal Commissioner of Elections, the official responsible for investigating and prosecuting election-related crimes and misdemeanours, proposed measures to strengthen his office’s capacity to keep elections fair and clean.

Parliament will now consider both sets of recommendations, and there is a good chance it will enact most, if not all, of them. 

The dramatic Washington hearings and the low-key, non-partisan Canadian reports are connected in ways that might not seem obvious at first blush.

For complex historic reasons the way U.S. elections are run is tightly interwoven with partisan politics. In Canada, over the past century and half, the electoral process has become increasingly professional and non-partisan. 

Slavery at the heart of U.S. electoral practices

U.S. officials responsible for managing and overseeing the vote are almost all party-affiliated politicians. Their Canadian counterparts are almost all non-political public servants, insulated from partisan pressures.

The U.S. constitution puts the state governments in charge of all elections, including those for federal offices. The Canadian system provides for separate bodies to manage provincial and municipal votes and those at the federal level.

Many of the features of the U.S. system derive from the toxic institution that was at the heart of the new republic at its foundation: slavery. 

The 18th century framers of the U.S. constitution made eloquent and oft-quoted references to high-sounding democratic concepts such as liberty and equality. At the same time, however, they went to great pains to render legitimate and accommodate the practice of slavery. 

In six of the original thirteen U.S. states slavery was legal and widely practiced. In most of those, the exploitation of enslaved people’s labour was the basis of the economy. 

Representatives from slave states insisted that their state’s official population numbers include their enslaved people. That was because with population came power. Each states’ population would determine its quota of members in the House of Representatives.

Those 18th century politicians did not want to give enslaved people the right to vote – or any other rights. So they came up with an ingenious solution. The new country’s constitution would be to count each slave as three-fifths of a person.

This clever device had a big influence not only on the composition of the House but on the way presidents would be chosen. 

Some of the republic’s founders wanted their presidents to be elected directly by the people entitled to vote – who in the 18th century were white, property-owning males. 

Slave state representatives balked at that idea. They pushed for an option the country ultimately adopted: the electoral college system.

Each state would get a number of members of the electoral college (called electors) equal to the number of its House members plus its two senators. Each state got two senators, thus even the smallest state would get a minimum of three electors. 

To this day, when U.S. citizens vote for president, they in fact vote for the electors for their candidate. 

In all states save two, Nebraska and Maine, the candidate who wins a plurality (not necessarily a majority) of the votes wins all of the electors. 

That’s why in two of the six elections since 2020 the candidate who won the overall popular vote still lost the election. (As most of us know, the two losing candidates were Al Gore and Hillary Clinton.)

Revisionist commentators have come up with the bogus theory that the purpose of the arcane, jury-rigged electoral college system was to assure presidential candidates would pay as much attention to small states as they do to big ones. 

Fair to small states was not a consideration for the U.S.’s founders. Their principal aim was to design the system which gave maximum power and influence to slave owners. 

Ironically, in recent times the electoral college system has had the opposite effect to that put forward by the revisionists. Presidential candidates these days concentrate only on those states where they believe they have a chance. Those are the so-called swing states. 

For many decades there have been no more than about 15 swing states, and presidential campaigns have taken place almost exclusively in those states. 

For the record, the swing states in the 2020 election, where the Biden and Trump campaigns devoted almost all their energy and resources, were: Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and New Hampshire. 

Trump exploited partisan nature of U.S. elections system

The insurrection of January 6, 2021 was all about the result in the 14 swing states. Joe Biden won ten of them. (Well, not exactly. Maine is one of two states that apportions its electors by House district and Trump won one of Maine’s two districts.)

Most of Biden’s victories were by narrow margins. In some cases advance ballots, votes by mail, and absentee ballots changed the early tallies. Because of the pandemic, many more voters than usual had chosen not to vote in person on election day.

Trump and his supporters used the pandemic circumstances as an excuse to cry foul and contest election results in most swing states through every legal means available. 

Those efforts all failed. There were scores of court decisions against Trump’s objections, including some at the Supreme Court level.

In Canada, this sort of obstructionist chicanery would be impossible. Elections Canada assures the reliability of the vote. It undertakes re-counts when the result is close. Where the margin of victory is tiny the electoral law provides for judicial recounts.

No fuss, no muss, no bother.

South of the border, when Trump failed to get the courts to keep him in office, he tried political pressure. 

The most notorious instance of that tactic was Trump’s phone call to Georgia’s elected Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. The then-president wanted the Georgia official to “find” 11,780 votes for him. 

During the current hearings we will likely hear about other similar cases that have not yet come to light. 

The harsh reality is that by the time the next presidential election happens many of the officials in charge of the vote in swing states will be Trump loyalists. When their candidate asks them to “find” votes they will only-too-willingly comply. 

The newly-elected crop of Trump loyalist officials will also do their best to prevent voters not likely to support their candidate from exercising their franchise. 

Republican state governments are busy changing election laws to favour their side. For instance, there are now rules in some states that will allow officially-sanctioned thugs, called poll watchers, to intimidate and bully people of colour and young people who show up to vote.

In 2020-21, when nothing else worked for Trump, his last hope was to get state legislatures in key states to ignore the popular vote and appoint alternate slates of pro-Trump electors. 

The angry mob in Washington on January 6, 2021 was a key part of that plan. 

On that day, both houses of Congress and the sitting vice-president, Mike Pence, were supposed to officially certify the result of the election and declare Joe Biden the winner. 

That is normally a routine procedure, but Trump wanted Pence to obstruct the procedure and refuse to sign the official document. 

The defeated president wanted time for enough state legislatures to switch electors and hand him an unearned victory. 

Hence the mob’s cry of “Hang Mike Pence”.

We will be hearing much more about all of this in the days and weeks to come. 

Cloudy future for U.S., shadow of Poilievre over Canada

It will be important to bear in mind, as we watch the U.S. hearings, that, however damaging their revelations are about Trump’s and his allies’ connivances in 2020 and 2021 might be, the future for U.S. electoral democracy does not look too promising.

Meanwhile, here in the peace and good government dominion to the north, the Chief Electoral officer has proposed there be a new electoral crime of providing misleading information about the voting process. 

The head of Elections Canada also wants that prohibition extended to all times, not restricted to campaign periods. 

In his own words, the Chief Electoral Officer has proposed a prohibition against “misleading publications that falsely claim to be by an election worker, political party, leadership contestant, nomination contestant or candidate.”

For his part, the Commissioner of Elections has proposed there be increased authority for his office to investigate not only those who actually break election laws but, as well, those who conspire to do so or who act as accessories to electoral crimes.

Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre has not commented on these proposals. He might be too busy counting his crypto-currency losses. 

Canadians should remember that when Poilievre was Stephen Harper’s Minister for Democratic Reform, he shepherded the oxymoronically-entitled Fair Elections Act, which, among many other U.S.-style toxic provisions sought to severely curtail the power and authority of Elections Canada and the office of the Commissioner of Elections.

Poilevre’s Act even sought to gag Chief Electoral Officers, to limit their right to communicate with voters on any matters other than where and when to vote. 

Poilievre’s view was that all other electoral communication should be left to partisan politicians and political parties – just as it is in the U.S.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...