Voting in Canada: It’s NOT Like on TV!

That’s it the writ is dropped and Canadians are headed to the polls. So are the Americans really it just takes them a lot longer. I’ve had this post on the to do list for well over a year now and it turns out this is the perfect time. I have an extensive background in Canadian Studies and actually worked as a poll person for elections Canada before. Here’s the thing lots of Canadians know most about voting systems based on American TV. Our systems are ideologically the same but not very similar in practice. So how are our systems, different the same and some other weird stuff you might want to know.

How is the Canadian government system the same as the USA

At their root both are electing governments based on representational citizen voting and neither represent proportional representation. The Canadian system was a mimic of the British system with a house of commons and a senate and is a first past the post system. The American system isn’t a direct copy of the British system but… there is a lot of heavy inspiration. It’s an electoral collage system with a house of representatives and a senate. Both governments have two houses. In both cases bills are introduced in one house and have to be approved by both before they become law. Each government also has a judicial arm in the supreme court which can supersede the houses and the president and declare a law unconstitutional. Each government also has a head of state the prime minister in Canada and the president in the USA but how they are elected is very different. In both cases there are local, state (provincial) and federal levels of governments and a constitution. In both countries candidates can run as independents outside the party system though they rarely get elected. The two actually function somewhat similarly for all of the differences were going to get into in a minute.

How are they different?

Well Americans vote for all three levels of government individually meaning they tick a box so to speak for their representative, their senator and their president. Canadians only tick one box for their house of commons member. In Canada the senate is appointed and not elected. That process is pretty straight forward for the senators in the US and the house of representatives and house of commons member in Canada. In Canada there are at least three official parties these days sometimes more and in the states it’s democrat or republican and that’s it. In Canada certain pockets do tend to vote one way or another more often but really nothing is set in stone. While that’s possible technically in the states many always vote one way or the other and certain states go either way those are called swing states.

So what about the head of state, well in Canada technically that’s the queen but that’s just for the money really. The prime minister is the head of the party that elects the most seats in the house of commons. You never vote for the prime minister directly in Canada unless the party leader that wins happens to be running in your riding. Even then you are just casting your vote for them as your representative. In Canada the prime minister is really just a member of the house of commons and has no ability to introduce a law just because he or she is the prime minister. However… this can lead to majority, minority or on rare occasions coalition governments. A majority government is when one party holds over 50% of the seats in the house of commons and can really push any bill through, a minority government doesn’t hold half the seats plus one and must cooperate with another party at least to get bills past and a coalition government happens when two (or more) loosing parties have more seats than the party in first place and decide to make an attempt to form government working together. This almost never happens but one of the party leaders in the coalition would be the prime minister.

In the US the president has more power than the prime minister. They can give pardons but more notably sign bills and veto bills approved by the houses. Unlike in Canada the president isn’t a member of either of the houses and as such isn’t present typically when they are in session. However the prime minister is expected to be in the house of commons when it is in session most of the time.

 In the USA you tick a box for the president and your state has a certain number of points in the college. Whichever candidate has the most points at the end of election night becomes the president. It can and does happen pretty often that the president is of one party and the majority of representatives or senators or both are from different parties. This means that individuals have to vote outside party lines sometimes to get presidential bills past so this is more common in the US than in Canada.

In both cases the senate acts as a chamber of ‘sober second thought.’ So if a truly terrible bill pass the first chamber then the senate can strike it down before it becomes law. In the US those people are elected for a term too in Canada they are appointed to lifetime gig which has recently become controversial. They technically have been part of the party of the prime minister that appointed them and really still are. However the current liberal government has ‘released’ their senators and told them to vote with their conscience but this might yet be temporary. A wide array of people are appointed from different provinces some are doctors, lawyers, teachers, activists, business people and others. However there is less of an expectation that bills will actually be voted down by the senate, it can happen but more often they are passed or changed slightly along the way. 

Let’s round up some of what’s left then. 

Isn’t this supposed to be about voting though?

It is but it’s pretty important to know who your voting for and how they get elected. What we do in Canada is pretty simple, well really simple and it works. Canada is viewed as one of the least corrupt voting systems in the world and our permanent elections staff often council and help set up voting systems in other countries. There is no easy way to game the system mostly because it is so simple. The same is not always true of the states always though.

Sample Canadian Ballot via CBC

In Canada you get one paper ballot with three (or more) names on it and the party they are affiliated with. You go behind a cardboard screen, mark you ballot clearly (or spoil it if you want), fold it or and put it in the box in front of two people. You are not allowed to take pictures or post them of the process although no one takes your phone and it’s rarely prosecuted. The people sitting there are hired by elections Canada but full disclosure one is usually associated with the liberals and the other with the conservatives although it might be a very loose association as in my case. They watch each other and you to make sure there is no funny business going on. But we watch each other in a very polite Canadian way by making chit chat and possibly reading or knitting to pass the time.

In Canada you can be on the voting list and vote or you can have some one vouch for you that you are who you say you are and live in the riding, swear it instead or bring in a utility bill with your address on it. Even though you might be asked for your ID, it’s just easier that way, you don’t actually have to have it. Here’s what you need to vote in Canada next month.

At the end of the night the two poll workers open the box and anyone else who has registered to watch arrives (usually someone from the third place party in the last government) and whether there is an x, check mark or smily face as long as it’s clearly indicated for one candidate only the vote is counted right there. There is rarely a disagreement but if there is it goes into a contested ballot envelope too. Then the results are called into elections Canada and everyone present signs the seal on the box. One poll worker then takes it to the larger local returning office where the process is repeated at least once over the next few days, more if need be. Save for one yahoo or two running in and stealing a box not a whole lot can go wrong that can really effect the vote. Federal, provincial and municipal elections are held on different days so it’s not overwhelming and rarely you might get a second ballot for a local or provincial issue. Like maybe once every 10 years. If it’s a really big deal question like leaving the country in Quebec that vote is held on a separate day. Some municipalities do allow online voting now.

In the US it can be a VERY VERY different physical process. Many states use different methods even for federal elections. On the same day you are voting for the president and the house you might also be electing state and local government representatives as well. You may also be voting on several new or continuing spending measures for local and state governments, but wait there is more. You might also be voting for plebiscites on certain issues like whether recreational pot should be legal or not. I think many states have a thing where if they get enough signatures on a certain issue it forces a state wide vote at the next election.

Those votes might be cast on paper ballots, punch out ballots, using a series of mechanical levers (sounds crazy but it was very common at 50%), scan forms, touch screens and raising hands. Plus there is no limit to the number of questions you might be voting on. Which is to say it might be very complicated and can lead to mistrust and in some cases election fraud more easily. The thing is we consume lots of media in Canada that can make us feel like our voting system is more complicated than it really is. On average there are 22 questions and decisions to make on ballot in the states and federally we’ll only ever have one.

Also in the states there can be many different restrains on who can vote most often related identification. Even if you are allowed to vote certain measures can be in place that are widely regarded tp try to limit certain groups from voting. For example if migrant workers are allowed to vote in a certain region the requirement for an English ID might prevent them from doing so. This can very state to state over time. In Canada the law of who can vote is the law and nobody can change that besides a sitting government. When some have tried it has caused quite a backlash.

Why write this then?

I wanted to write this because there is a lot of influence by the US system on information getting to Canadians that is incorrect. Even if we’re not talking about a specific facebook post there is a lot of misinformation in the greater collective conscious now. Even episodes of the good wife made it seem like voter fraud was a real thing and could lead to conspiracy theories and mistrust in the electorate. Maybe it is fair in the states but our system is pretty good, very simple and really does encourage you to cast your vote no matter who you are. If you see something that enrages you please, please look into it. Obviously what enrages you might differ. For example if the idea of refugees voting upsets you a little digging an you’ll find that only Canadian citizens can vote so those with refugee status or permanent residents even can’t vote in Canada. If you think those with criminal records should be allowed to rest assured they can here. There are even polling stations set up in prisons. Our system isn’t perfect but it is very, very good and pretty fair really. If there is something you see or something tells you that seems just crazy about the Canadian voting system it probably is, just look into it for yourself. If it’s your first time voting and the spill over from the states makes you think that it’s super complicated and hard. Rest assured it is not. It’s literally as simple as it can be in Canada plus you’ll have lots of help while you’re there. Also in Canada at least you’re allowed time off from work to vote so get out there on October 21 st!

It’s not to say that our system is perfect really nothing can be. But on election day this year you can be very confident that your vote will count as it should.

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