But the ongoing 2020 U.S. election process is a reminder that some of the remonstrations are on the mark. It’s clear that U.S. democracy is structurally damaged and in need of repair. In this case, duct tape won’t suffice; the mending will require heavy equipment and a willingness to tear the place down to the studs. And at least some of the instructions for getting the job done can be found in the constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy up north.
Canadian elections are among the most secure, reliable and legitimate in the world. They are run by Elections Canada, a national, nonpartisan body that reports to Parliament. On election day, each elector goes to their polling station to vote according to rules set by a federal act and agency procedures that govern everybody. The process is far less politicized and unpredictable than the model of state-by-state responsibility in the United States. Moreover, voting technology in Canada is as simple as it is elegant: paper, pencil, cardboard screen. No voting machines. No punch cards. No Florida in 2000. No Ohio in 2004.
In Canada, federal electoral districts are recalculated and redistributed every 10 years, after the census. The process is led by electoral boundaries commissions in each province, chaired by a judge and undertaken by the chair and two other members. It isn’t without the occasional controversy, and some Canadian ridings are home to considerably more electors than others, but the outcome of seat redistribution in Canada doesn’t suffer from the same partisan — and sometimes racist — failures of the state-based redistricting model that allows for gerrymandering. Contrary to the impulse of the uber-democrat who believes that democracy means chaining each element of the state to an elected office, the Canadian system recognizes that the further politicians are from the process of determining electoral boundaries, the more fair and legitimate elections will be.
The influence of money might be the single most significant shortcoming in U.S. electoral politics — and beyond it. In Canada, elections are affected by money, but parties are forced to rely on small, individual donations by citizens and residents — currently capped at 1,600 Canadian dollars (about $1,200) per year for each party, and the same amount for candidates or riding associations, independent candidates and leadership contestants — since corporate, association and union donations are forbidden. Public funding helps level electoral contests through reimbursement for some election expenses and tax rebates, while strict and modest election spending limits further constrain the corrosive force of money.
In 2015, Canada held its longest election ever — 11 weeks. During the contest, third parties spent about $4.5 million while the winning Liberals spent about $32 million, just a shade more than the Conservatives, who finished second. The 2016 presidential and congressional elections cost Americans $6.5 billion, of which the Hillary Clinton campaign spent $768 million and the Trump campaign $398 million.
In the United States, most of that campaign money ultimately went toward funding the ambitions of oligarchy. As political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page found in a 2014 paper, the economic elite dominate U.S. political life. Those with the means to spend their way to policy and law get the outcomes they want. Sometimes, average Americans do, too. But when the two clash, the outcome is exactly what you’d expect in a country in which money governs — and that makes the model used by a country such as Canada, with laws in place to constrain at least some of these impulses, look all the better.
The rules of the game will determine how it is played and who has a chance at winning. No rule set is perfect. But some are better than others. The United States should have a look around for a new rule book. It may not have to look far.