Today's episode is hosted by guest host Kirby Ferguson.
Canada is a whole different country
If you've ever visited Canada, it doesn't seem that different. The money's different. They're obsessed with hockey. And they exclusively drink a coffee-like concoction called a "double-double" from a franchise called Tim Hortons. Who's Tim Horton? A former hockey player, of course.
Overall, Canada and the US are indeed a lot alike. I say this with authority because I spent most of my life in Canada, but I've lived the last dozen years in the US. The US and Canada have way, way more in common than not.
But the massive difference that clobbered me in the face upon my arrival in the US... was politics. This is one of the major ways the countries differ. Of course, Canada has universal health care, it has a parliamentary system of government inherited from the United Kingdom, and it's more left-leaning overall.
But Canadian elections are very, very different too... and they're different in interesting ways.
So my focus today is going to be on what we can learn from Canadian elections. My point here isn’t to argue that the Canadian system is superior. I’m going to focus on Canada’s advantages because they perhaps hold some insights into how we can solve some long-standing problems in US elections.
Most Americans don't even know that Canada has an election this year. All the Canadian politics we get down here is the occasional Justin Trudeau meme flashing through our timelines. Y'know, they're usually a joke about how Melania and Ivanka are hot for him.
But yes indeed, there is an election going on and it's a close one. You might think the liberal dreamboat Justin Trudeau would be running away with this contest, but in Canada, the reviews are mixed on Trudeau. Plenty of people think he hasn't delivered on his promises and he's also had a pretty major ethics scandal on his hands.
The polling is currently a dead heat between Trudeau's Liberal party and the Conservative party, lead by Andrew Scheer. A distant third is the New Democratic Party, led by Jagmeet Singh, who is Sikh, and he is the first non-Christian, person of color to lead a major political party in Canada. All these candidates are very young... by political standards. Trudeau is 46, Scheer and Singh are both 40.
Election season in Canada is just getting rolling... and yet the election is scheduled to take place next month… and Canadians are just starting to think about the candidates.
Canadian elections are short. American elections are long. And for many voters, way too long.
59% of Americans suffer from election fatigue
American elections are grueling marathons. This might not bother you and me so much. After all, you're listening to an election podcast over a year before an election, and I'm writing said podcast. But I think we can still concede: it's long. It's weirdly long. And we seem to be in the minority in enjoying this drawn-out affair.
A 2016 Pew Research poll indicated that 59% of Americans felt fatigued by the election... in June. With about five months left to go, they'd already had more than enough.
As John Oliver told reporters in 2015 QUOTE: “I have no interest whatsoever in the 2016 election, at the start of 2015. There’s a time and a place for that, and it’s in 2016.” END QUOTE
A popular bumper sticker of 2016, which looked like a campaign slogan, read “Giant Meteor 2016—Just End It Already.”
The entire campaign length in 2016, from the time of the first candidate's announcement up to the election, was 596 days. Okay. Let's all take a minute with that. 596 days. About a year-and-a-half. That's a year-and-a-half in which some of the nation's best and brightest -- we hope anyway -- are dedicating most of their precious time and energy to an election campaign.
As Emma Roller wrote in The New York Times: "In the span with which we’ve been paying attention to the same presidential campaign, we could have instead hosted approximately four Mexican elections, seven Canadian elections, 14 British elections, 14 Australian elections or 41 French elections."
How did we we get here? Why American elections are so long?
Why American elections are so long
The actual general presidential election -- the contest between a Republican and a Democrat -- that won't fully get rolling until about Labor Day of next year. The election is in early November, so that period is really only a couple months.
It's primary season that has exponentially expanded. Surprising to me, this only started about forty years ago -- it started within my lifetime. Before 1976 there wasn't that much campaigning before the primaries. Campaigns started in the same year as the election.
Things started to change in 1968. That's when Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination despite never entering any of the primaries. This was a scandal and arguably cost Humphrey the election against Richard Nixon.
As political columnist Kathy O'Bradovich told NPR: ...after the 1968 Democratic National Convention, The Democratic Party nationally and in Iowa decided they wanted to change their process to make it more inclusive."
Soon both parties adopted rules that you must hold primaries. Nobody gets to skip this step.
In 1972, Iowa moved its caucuses to January, almost a year before the election. The Iowa caucuses are unusually complicated so they chose to hold theirs earlier. The GOP moved their Iowa caucuses to January for the next election.
Capping off this sequence, the relatively obscure Jimmy Carter won the Iowa caucuses in 1976 and sailed onward to the presidency. Ever since, most Democratic nominees have won Iowa. Less so for Republicans -- remember that Ted Cruz won Iowa in 2016. But still, almost all Republican nominees have had a strong showing in Iowa.
Seth Masket writes in Pacific Standard: "Primaries went from optional to essential for winning the nomination. This meant that jumping in early, as George McGovern and Jimmy Carter did, to raise money and public awareness could give one an edge over one's competitors. Ever since, candidates have been entering earlier, and campaigns have been getting longer..."
So now the template is set. Everyone needs to hold primaries, these primaries begin almost a year before the election, and an Iowa win or at least a strong showing is considered mandatory. The Iowa caucuses are in January or February, so your campaign better be in full swing by then. And of course, you have the best chance of generating maximum momentum by starting as earlier as possible.
Mix all that together and let it set and you've got a campaign season that lasts a year-and-a-half.
Why Canadians have short elections
Now Canadians, they have short elections for a very simple reason: it's the law. According to the Elections Act, the minimum length of a campaign is 36 days and the maximum is 50 days. End of story.
Canada has a strong federal government and the provinces do what it says. The United States, with its bias towards States' rights, has no such law and not only that, it's not even clear we could have such a law. That would require a constitutional amendment, which requires a whole mess of approvals by several layers of government. And that hasn't happened since 1971.
But are these marathon elections really a problem?
There are certainly advantages to elections being so long. The entire political process, from announcement, to primaries, to the general election is subjected to loads of public scrutiny. The issues are discussed at great length. The public gets to know a lot about the candidates. One could argue that all this is moredemocratic than other systems. You might even call it extreme democracy.
And I would agree with all these points. But I would also argue that these year-and-a-half long elections have one serious problem: they must be paid for. The sheer duration of American elections is one of the reasons they're so expensive. If you want to mount a serious political campaign, you need to raise millions of dollars -- I'm talking tens of millions of dollars.
In the 2012 election, the spending for each party -- the candidates, the national party and outside spending -- was over 1 billion dollars --- each! For Democrats it was 1.1, for Republicans 1.3.
Jill Stein spent almost 4 million. Gary Johnson spent 12 million.
Let's compare this to Canada. Canada's last election was 11 weeks. That was the longest one in almost a century... and plenty of Canadians are still complaining about it.
Each of the major parties in Canada spent about 40 million. If Canada had the same population as the US, the Canadian election would have cost about $400 million, versus the 2 billion-plus we spent last election. Again, US 2 billion, Canada the equivalent of 400 million.
But wait. It's worse than that. It's much, much worse than that.
A Canadian election also produces all of the country's federal representatives. They also elect their members of parliament. (Because you don't actually vote for the prime minister, you vote for your local party presentative. Then the leader of the party with the most seats becomes prime minister.)
So in other words, in a Canadian election, it's like you're voting for the president and all the members of congress at the same time.
Well, guess what -- all those congressional races cost more than the presidential election. According to OpenSecrets.org, the 2018 US congressional elections cost 5.7 billion. The 2016 elections cost 6.5 billion. Those numbers have more than doubled since the late nineties.
Needing all that money for an election means one of the foremost jobs of any candidate and their team is fundraising. Rather than learning about the country's problems or meeting local residents or getting their ideas out as broadly as possible, Job Number One is bringing money in the door. For a year-and-a-half.
As Alexander Fouirnaies, professor of public policy at the University of Chicago, told FiveThirtyEight: "...it becomes normal for campaigns to spend higher and higher amounts, fewer people run and more of those who do are independently wealthy. In other words, the arms race of unnecessary campaign spending could help to enshrine power among the well-known and privileged."
That's pretty consistent with the results we get. Quartz reported that in 2015: "..the median member of the US Congress was worth at least $1.1 million. That is more than 12 times greater than the net wealth of the median US household. And that doesn’t tell the whole story, since the chambers of congress are not equal in wealth terms. The median net worth of a senator was $3.2 million, versus $900,000 for members of the House of Representatives."
Oh, and one final way that Canadian elections aren't such a money-suck: there's a cap on how expensive elections can be and the campaigns also get some public funding.
Is the Canadian way better?
So is the Canadian way better? Well, Canada does have higher voter turnout. Canada's average voter turnout is 71%. In 2015 it was 68.5. US voter turnout is way more tumultuous. It was 55.5% in 2016 and tends to peak in the low sixties. So Canadian engagement seems better.
Canada also has a lot more parties to choose from, perhaps because campaigns are cheaper to pull off. Canadians don't just have Liberals and Conservatives, they have the NDP, the Green Party, the Bloc Québecois, and the People's Party of Canada.
But... none of them are going to win... so... you kinda do just have two choices.
One also might have a hard time arguing that Canada fares better with not limiting power to the famous and wealthy. After all, Justin Trudeau is a millionaire and the son of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the most famous prime minister of recent history. Being a Trudeau is kinda like being a Kennedy.
The truth is, it's not clear the Canadian way is better. And we don't know if adopting laws like theirs would work well here, in a different country, with a different culture and a different history. When you start messing around with systems like these, you can never be sure what's going to happen. That's the Law of Unintended Consequences.
As Eric Magar, professor at the Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology, told NPR: "The truth is that it's really impossible, or incredibly complicated, to create a system where the big problems can be removed without creating another set of problems..."
However. There might be one easy win we can find here. There is one Canadian idea we should definitely steal.
A Canadian idea we should definitely steal
Gerrymandering. Everybody knows gerrymandering in the United States is a serious problem. In case you forgot, gerrymandering is when you redraw voting districts to tilt the election in your favor. So you don't suddenly get more votes, but you do win more districts if you, for instance, write off massive losses in two districts and edge out wins in three. Even if you got fewer votes, you'd still win.
Gerrymandering happens for a pretty straight-forward reason: the fox is guarding the hen house. The party that is in power is determining their own voting districts for themselves. So why not give yourself an advantage if you can? Why not make your opponent’s basketball hoop bigger than yours?
Gerrymandering is a well known hack of American democracy. It's wrong, everybody knows it wrong, it's anti-democratic and yet it continues on and both parties do it. I'll explain how in a minute.
Now Canada is gerrymanderless. It's gone extinct. How did Canada do this?
Not that long ago, Canada had plenty of gerrymandering. But in 1955, the province of Manitoba started an independent commission to determine voting districts. This idea caught on and in less than a decade, Canada passed the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act. Districts could henceforth only be redrawn by non-partisan committees from each province.
Canadian political commentator JJ McCullough writes: "Today, most Canadian [districts] are simple and uncontroversial, chunky and geometric, and usually conform to the vague borders of some existing geographic / civic region knowable to the average citizen who lives there. [Districts] are given descriptive titles to reflect their geographic reality, for example the 'Scarborough Southwest’… or ‘Calgary Centre.’"
So why can't we have nice things like this in the US? Why does gerrymandering, despite its infamy, endure?
We've got this problem for the same reason we have crazy long elections: we don't have a law. Again, the US system of government biases towards states' rights, and this is one of those ugly unintended consequences I mentioned. As Andrew Prokop wrote on Vox: "... a national law requiring independent redistricting commissions in each state would go against the US tradition of state independence, and might not even be constitutional."
Six states have set up these commissions but they're not really nonpartisan because they include spots for members of political parties.
So if a solution for gerrymandering is to come, it will have to come from the party that is in power in that state. The gerrymanderers would have to do the ungerrymandering. Yes, the fox will determine the hen house’s new security measures.
But let's remember: we ultimately tell the foxes what to do. And if enough of us want to end gerrymandering, we can do it. Just like if enough of us decide we want our elections to be much shorter and cheaper, we can do that too. It's just gonna take time... and it's gonna happen state by painstaking state.
Well, that is it for one more episode of the Election Ride Home. My name is Kirby Ferguson and when I am not substitute hosting, I am a filmmaker. Years ago I made a series called Everything is a Remix. And my new series is kinda about conspiracy theories and it’s call This is Not a Conspiracy Theory. You can find that at thisisnotaconspiracytheory.com. You can check that out on the web, just search for Everything is a Remix. Chris Higgins returns tomorrow. You can always find him on Twitter @chrishiggins and you can find me @remixeverything.
Thanks for listening, and I hope you enjoyed our brief visit to Canada. Over and out.