America’s Big Election Night

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Photo and Article by Blair Bobier

Although a number of important—and under-reported—elections just took place in the U.S., the election that might ultimately matter most to Americans happened last month in Canada. There, the Liberal Party executed an ’08 Obama-like ousting of the governing Conservative Party.

Three aspects of the Canadian election are particularly notable and inspiring—if not downright revolutionary. One is the Liberal Party’s promise to change Canada’s winner-take-all elections; two is the re-election to Parliament of Green Party leader Elizabeth May; and three, is the inclusive Cabinet appointed by the new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.

Canada, like the U.S., is one of the few remaining countries to still use winner-take-all elections. In both countries, a candidate need not earn a majority of the vote in order to win election. The candidate with the most votes wins. That, on the surface, might sound fair enough until you consider a three way race where a candidate can with 34% of the vote. Winner-take-all, in a situation like this, means that 66% of the voters—the vast majority—will vote for a losing candidate. That’s hardly democratic and it happens with an alarming frequency in both countries.

Elections in the U.S. and Canada take place in hundreds of electoral districts (known as “ridings” in Canada). In each individual district, a candidate can win with less than a majority producing a distorted result. When you aggregate the vote totals of all the local districts, the combined results can create an even greater distortion at the national level. That’s how Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party won a majority of seats in Canada’s Parliament with only 39% of the vote. That’s also how the Republican Party won a majority of seats in the U.S. House in both 1996 and 2012 despite losing the national popular vote to the Democrats.

One of Trudeau’s campaign promises was that the recent election would be Canada’s last using winner-take-all. Two alternatives that will be considered to replace winner-take-all in Canada will be Ranked Choice Voting, also known as Instant Runoff Voting, and Proportional Representation. Although there are a variety of proportional election systems, the basic idea behind all of them is that a political party’s share of seats in the legislature should correspond to the share of the vote that party received. In other words, if a party receives 10% of the vote, it should be awarded 10% of the seats in the legislature. Most of the world’s democracies use some form of Proportional Representation.

Ranked Choice Voting is used to avoid “vote-splitting” or the “spoiler” dynamic as well as to more accurately reflect the will of the voters. With Ranked Choice Voting, instead of voting for just one candidate, you rank the candidates in order of preference—“1” for your first choice, “2” for your second choice, “3” for your third choice and so on down the line. If a candidate wins a majority of first choice votes, that candidate wins. If no candidate receives an initial majority, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated and the votes for the eliminated candidate are redistributed among the remaining candidates according to the voters’ second preferences. The process repeats until one candidate has a majority. Ranked Choice Voting is used in a number of U.S. cities including Oakland and Minneapolis; in Australia and Ireland; and by the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—in other words by the folks who award the coveted “Oscar.” Many places which use Ranked Choice Voting experience greater voter turnout and more civil campaigns.

The prospects of our neighbor to the north radically revamping its national electoral structure within the next four years is a political earthquake that the U.S. cannot ignore. America’s archaic electoral institutions will come under even greater scrutiny and pressure to reform.

The re-election of Canada’s Green Party Leader, Elizabeth May, to the national Parliament is another reason for pro-democracy activists in the U.S. to cheer. May is seemingly universally recognized in Canada as a conscientious and diligent legislator who works across party lines to get things done. Many Canadians—whether Green or not—look to her as the voice of the environment and some consider her “Canada’s conscience.” Her stature will only be boosted when she attends the upcoming U.N. Conference on Climate Change later this month in Paris. May’s accomplishments demonstrate that a small political party can have a big voice. When Canada changes to a more inclusive electoral system, the Green Leader’s hard work may translate into an even greater role for the Green Party. These developments will hopefully illuminate the potential for a genuine multi-party democracy in the U.S.
The U.S. could also learn plenty from Prime Minister Trudeau’s cabinet appointments: Trudeau just appointed the most diverse cabinet in the history of Canada. Half of the appointees are women and the cabinet also includes two aboriginal individuals and three Sikhs. And, for the first time, the environmental minister carries the new title of Minister of the Environment and Climate Change.
With an amazingly inclusive cabinet, a focus on Climate Change and the promise of transformative election reform, Canada is demonstrating what democracy in the 21st century should look like.

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