Canadians should cheer as new U.S. government pushes sweeping election reforms

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U.S. Capitol Hill ahead of 2021 presidential inauguration. Image credit: ehpien/Flickr

The now former U.S. president and his frenzied supporters claim U.S. elections, and especially the most recent one, are corrupt and rigged. Strange as it seems, they are correct -- although not at all in the way they mean.

The fundamental flaw in U.S. elections is not that dead people vote, or that voting machines change votes, or that mail-in ballots are fraudulent. All of those claims are examples of big-lie politics. They would be laughable were their impact not so deadly.

What is wrong with the U.S. election process is that it makes it extremely difficult for a good many citizens to exercise their right to vote, especially the young, Black people, and people of colour. As well, U.S. election laws give self-interested political officials the power to creatively draw electoral boundaries in ways that suit their purely partisan interests.

There is now a chance -- if, perhaps, only a slim one -- the new U.S. government will reform those anti-democratic practices.

Environment and energy are priorities for Canadians

A new president has assumed office, pledging a return to civility and respect for truth, and promising to restore and repair democracy in the U.S.

Of more immediate interest to Canada is that President Joe Biden has also re-joined the Paris accord on climate change, and begun the task of restoring multiple environmental regulations Donald Trump scrapped.

Those regulations relate to fuel standards, air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, national parks and forests (including some on the Canada-U.S. border), offshore drilling, Arctic drilling, and much more. Most have direct and consequential impacts on Canada.

The other side of the environmental coin, as we all know, is Biden's revocation of the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. That's a blow to Alberta's fossil-fuel industry. Perhaps it will motivate Albertans, and, indeed, all Canadians, to look harder at sustainable, less polluting, renewable forms of energy, such as wind and tidal power.

Environment and energy are key elements of our relationship with the U.S. They have been for many decades.

But we Canadians should also care about Americans' democracy agenda, in particular, as it relates to the way in which they conduct their elections.

A big piece of reform legislation

As Biden and the new vice-president Kamala Harris take office, both houses of the U.S. Congress are considering a massive bill called For the People. If passed, this bill would have a near-revolutionary effect on the U.S. practice of electoral democracy.

For the People's stated aims are: "to expand Americans' access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and implement other anti-corruption measures for the purpose of fortifying our democracy."

It's heady stuff.

In Canada, federal and provincial governments are separate and distinct when it comes to their elections. Each order of government runs its own show. Not so in the U.S. There the states manage and regulate all elections, even for president and other federal offices.

For the People seeks to get the states to run fairer elections, through federal financial incentives and the federal government's authority under the 14th amendment, which gives it the duty to "protect the right to vote."

One of the bill's main goals is to abolish age-old practices that impede the right to vote for members of minority groups. Among those is some states' practice of "purging" citizens who failed to vote in at least two elections from their electoral lists. For the People would put a hard stop to that.

For the People would also oblige the states to automatically register all voters, and would end gerrymandering, by establishing non-partisan redistricting commissions. Among the bill's other requirements would be 15 early voting days in all states and equal access for all Americans to voting by mail.

Many of these reforms would mirror decades-old electoral practices in Canada and most other established democracies.

In Canada, for instance, we have had a permanent voters' list for nearly 25 years. Even before that, at election time a non-partisan agency, Elections Canada, would assure that every eligible Canadian was registered to vote.

Canadians have never had to personally go to a local government office and register themselves, which is still a widespread U.S. practice.

There is one measure in For the People which is sure to incur much vociferous opposition. The bill would restore the right to vote for U.S. citizens with past criminal convictions. Many U.S. states now ban convicted felons from voting, even after they have served their time.

Again, the U.S. is very much an outlier in this regard. Very few democracies deny the right to vote to former prisoners who are out of jail and living in the community. In fact, Canada even extends the vote to citizens who are currently incarcerated.

And there's more.

This major U.S. democratic reform bill would guarantee the right of citizens to same-day voter registration, would assure that all voting machines provide a paper version for each ballot cast, and would prohibit state election officials from taking part in partisan political campaigns.

There are also some crucial non-election-related provisions in For the People.

For instance, the bill would require U.S. presidents and vice-presidents to provide full public financial disclosure (including their tax information) and to divest themselves of holdings that could engender conflicts of interest. A future Donald Trump would not be able to conduct private business while president, and would have to publicly release all his tax returns.

Electoral chicanery and attacks on Elections Canada

Canada took its time to establish a fair, open and universal electoral democracy.

In one province, Quebec, women did not get the right to vote until 1940. And it was not until 1960 that Progressive Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker saw to it that the franchise was extended to First Nations people (who, at the time, were known, officially, as status Indians).

However, for many decades we have benefited from a well-managed voting system, with entirely non-partisan and professional Elections Canada taking the lead.

Mercifully, there have been few incidents of chicanery during Canadian election campaigns. One such rare case was the so-called robocall affair, during the 2011 campaign. That was when pre-recorded fraudsters, claiming to be from Elections Canada, called voters to falsely tell them their polling locations had been moved.

Only one government in recent memory openly tried to undermine Elections Canada, the government led by Conservative Stephen Harper. It happened in 2014, when Harper's democratic reform minister Pierre Poilievre brought in the oxymoronically named Fair Elections Act.

Among other outrages, Poilievre's legislation weakened Elections Canada's capacity to investigate electoral abuses. As well, his act created onerous new ID requirements, which made it more difficult for many to vote.

The Trudeau Liberals rolled back most of those undemocratic electoral measures.

U.S. has never fully democratized elections

In the U.S., the current Congress and the newly elected president must confront more than a century of well-established anti-democratic practices.

As the drafters of For the People put it in the preamble to their bill:

"Congress finds that racial discrimination in access to voting and the political process persists. Voting restrictions, redistricting, and other electoral practices and processes continue to disproportionately impact communities of colour in the United States and do so as a result of both intentional racial discrimination, structural racism, and the ongoing structural socioeconomic effects of historical racial discrimination."

And that's only a small part of an old, old story.

The Democratic party has a majority in the House of Representatives, enough to pass this legislation, even if no Republicans agree. In the Senate, however, to limit the time for debate on a bill, and end a filibuster which can effectively kill any legislation, you need 60 votes.

There are 50 Democrats in the Senate, meaning, if the Democratic senators all support For the People, they will still need the help of 10 Republicans to get the bill to President Biden's desk. Getting those 10 will be a tall order, but not necessarily impossible.

Stay tuned. This fight has only just been joined in earnest.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image credit: ehpien/Flickr

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