Electoral Reform in the United States: Lessons from the Canadian Experience
John Courtney, Woodrow Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar;
Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Science, University of Saskatchewan
Richard Katz, Professor of Political Science, the Johns Hopkins University
Donley Studlar, Eberly Distinguished Professor of Political Science, West Virginia University
The Canada Institute held a panel discussion on the Canadian experience in electoral reform and potential lessons for United States at the Woodrow Wilson Center on December 12, 2005. Public Policy Scholar John Courtney, who has been affiliated with the Wilson Center's Canada Institute since October, addressed a number of changes to Canada's electoral system, including the franchise, voter registration, electoral districting, electoral administration, and campaign financing, and then commented on prospects for similar changes in the United States. Richard Katz of the Johns Hopkins University and Donley Studlar of West Virginia University offered their own analysis and comments on these questions.
There was general agreement that few, if any of the changes to the electoral laws and practices in Canada could be replicated in the United States. Yet there were "some elements worth exploring," according to Courtney. In Canada, voting rights are widely held: every Canadian citizen age 18 or older is eligible to vote, including convicts, judges, and mentally handicapped persons. In the United States, however, each state has its own criteria for eligibility. In many states, for instance, current and former felons are stripped of their right to vote. In Canada, the state is responsible for ensuring the electoral roll is always up to date, whereas in the United States, it is often up to the electorate to register. In Canada, an estimated 95% of all eligible voters are registered; in the United States, the figure is about 65%.
Since the 1950s, Canada has had Election Boundary Commissions headed by judges responsible for drawing up electoral districts. District sizes are based on the arithmetic mean, with a margin for discretion (up to 25,000 voters). The system is widely considered non-partisan and fair, though a number of lopsided electoral districts do exist, as Donley Studlar pointed out. Studlar also noted that Canada's system penalizes fast-growing provinces (Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario), because provincial representation in the House of Commons remains the same despite populations shifts. He wondered whether this constituted "effective representation." The underrepresented constituencies in these hubs of populations growth are predominantly immigrant populations, "exactly the ones you would want to include and incorporate" into society. Courtney explained the constitutional provisions that account for this discrepancy, and Studlar argued that there was a "bias toward rural representation" in Canada.
Elections Canada, the federal electoral administration body, is also widely viewed as non-partisan, independent, and effective. The Chief Electoral Officer, the only Canadian not allowed to vote, is appointed by parliament, but is not beholden to any party. In the United States, however, the Federal Election Commission's role is limited to gathering information and issuing (non-binding) recommendations. Each state does have an electoral administration body of its own, some of which are headed by political appointees.
Canada also has a strict set of regulations and statutory provisions governing campaign financing. Candidates may only raise small amounts of money (no more than CAD$60,000 in the 2004 elections, approximately equivalent to US$46,000), which are subject to public disclosure and strict limits (CAD$5,000 per candidate from organizations, and CAD$1,000 from individuals).
Some of these differences are accounted for by differences in the role of the state; in Canada, there is a more "statist" approach to the operation of government and electoral matters. Moreover, there is a long tradition in Canada of approaching policymaking and reforms with a comparative perspective, drawing on lessons from other countries. In the United States, constitutional imperatives drive the electoral system (e.g., the Electoral College). Katz made the point that "there have never been federal elections in the United States, only state elections of federal officials (senators, members of Congress). There is also a significant disparity between the two countries in the role of the courts. The 2000 presidential election in the United States was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court. Katz noted that the unwillingness of the executive and legislative branches of government to take action has left the courts with much responsibility to adjudicate public disputes. Studlar concurred: "Litigation has become the substitute for reform." Another cause for frequent recourse to the courts in electoral matters is the weakness of political parties in the United States.
Both Studlar and Katz remarked that effecting change in the U.S. electoral system is extremely difficult. If the Florida stand-off during the presidential elections in 2000 was not enough for reform to take hold, Katz wondered how fundamental the changes in the political landscape would have to be before the public and the electorate pushed for change in the electoral system. Studlar added that "in the United States, it really takes a crisis to get electoral institution changed." If Watergate was just such a crisis, the Florida fiasco in 2000 apparently fell short.
For more information, please visit the Canada Institute's website at www.wilsoncenter.org/canada.
David N. Biette
Director, Canada Institute
Drafted by Christophe Leroy