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How to Have an Election (Hint: We’re Doing It Wrong)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011, 16:01 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Elections CanadaEvidently, there was an election yesterday north of the border. I’m trying to figure out exactly what happened, but I am hampered somewhat by the fact that Canada’s parliamentary system has always perplexed me, steeped as I am in the United States’ constitutional principle of separation of powers.

For my non-American readers, here’s a quick lesson in U.S. government. The President (head of the Executive Branch) is elected by the states via what we call the Electoral College. Basically, the candidate that gets the most votes in a state wins all that state’s Electoral College votes, which are equal in number to total of the state’s Congressional Representatives and Senators. By contrast, members of Congress (the Legislative Branch) are elected directly by the people in the district (for House members) or the state (for Senate members) they represent. (There’s also the Judicial Branch, but that isn’t germane to this particular conversation.) So, in 25 words or less, the elections of the President and of members of Congress are essentially unrelated, except for the occasional “coattails” effect that can happen when either the President/candidate or the majority party in Congress is unusually popular or unpopular. (That was more than 25 words. Sorry.) If the President’s party loses control of one or both houses of Congress in a mid-term election (or if his/her party never had control in the first place), it does not diminish the President’s powers, even though it might practically make it harder for him/her to accomplish anything requiring legislation. This is part of what we call the system of checks and balances.

Because the power of the President does not derive from the partisan make-up of Congress, we simply have a Presidential election every four years and Congressional elections every two years. And because the timing of our elections is mandated by our Constitution, we know exactly when every federal election will take place from now until the end of time. Which is about how long the campaigns last. Eighteen months ahead of our next Congressional/Presidential election, politicians (including the incumbent President) are already beginning to quasi-campaign, if not declaring their candidacies outright. Because a term in the House of Representatives is two years, each member spends roughly six months actually doing his/her job before kicking into campaign mode for the next election.

Contrast this with Canada, which has a parliamentary system that, as I said before, I don’t quite get. From what I can gather, they elect a government, i.e. members of Parliament, and the leader of the party in the majority in Parliament gets to be the Prime Minister. (By “Parliament,” I mean the House of Commons. The Canadian Senate is appointed and is thus roughly analogous to the U.S. Senate as it was before the 1913 ratification of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, except that it was the individual state legislatures that elected its two Senators and they serve a six year term at a time.)

From what I can gather, the maximum term of office for a Member of Parliament is five years. But in reality, it could be a much shorter amount of time. That’s because the Prime Minister can ask for a new election before the five years are up. Once that happens, the election takes place not less than 36 days hence.

Did you see what I just wrote? 36 DAYS, people! Thirty-six days before a Presidential or Congressional election, American voters are already so sick of the campaign that they’d vote for General Zod if that would make the candidates, their ads, and their stupid robo-calls just go away. And to emphasize the point, our next federal election is 553 days away. Suddenly, I’m feeling a little queasy.

But back to Canada. It seems that the Conservatives won big, which means Prime Minister Stephen Harper gets to keep his job for a while longer. The Liberals, who had hoped to take control, got trounced, as did the party’s leader, Michael Ignatieff, who lost his seat outright. Sources (OK, just one) tell me Ignatieff is a horse’s ass, but I can’t attest to that myself, nor can I say whether or not Harper is a strong leader or, as any American liberal would say of any American conservative, tortures puppies and steals old ladies’ hats. As a side note, I see that the Bloc Québécois, the party best known for wanting Québec to secede, won only enough seats to fill a table at a bridge game. Sucks to be them.

I have now written everything I know about the Canadian national government, plus probably a few things that I thought I knew but aren’t quite accurate. And our good friends and border-mates now have themselves a new functioning government, and it took only a couple of months of campaigning. I wish I could figure out how to emulate that part of their system, but the only way I can think of is to make it illegal to solicit or receive campaign contributions earlier than, oh let’s say, 120 days before an election. Four months is still a long time to endure a campaign, but it’s better than eighteen months.

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