The chief electoral officer of Canada is the same person who recently ruled that having an election on a religious holiday was kosher. Politicians of all stripes complained about religious insensitivity but the election date remained. Under a law passed 11 years ago, only the chief electoral officer can change the date. That law should be scrapped.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on August 5, 2019.
OTTAWA—The fixed election date does not work.
The decision by the chief electoral officer of Canada to go ahead with a date that conflicts with an orthodox Jewish holiday is bad.
Not only will it deny some people the right to vote on election day. Three of the four advance polls also deprive the same voters of the right to exercise their franchise as they, too, are slated for religious days.
Does anyone really believe a vote would be permitted on Christmas Day? Why, in a secular society, would we not offer the same respect to other religions?
The decision to move to a fixed election date and take the power of election dates out of the hands of politicians is just wrong.
Calling an election is a political decision. In a parliamentary democracy, we do not need to be guided by American-style multi-year campaigning.
The decision to move to fixed election dates has simply plunged us into perennial campaign mode.
Our American neighbours don’t get to the polls before November of 2020, but the past year has simply been non-stop Democratic campaign mode. With 25 candidates running in the primaries, the whole focus is driven by elections. It is no wonder there is so little attention paid to what is happening in Congress. The electoral cycle is destined to dominate the news when an election is fixed so far in advance.
Since the beginning of this year, every Canadian government decision has been seen through the prism of the October election. Even in a system where the date is not fixed, there would be references to an upcoming vote.
But under the previous parliamentary process, the party that formed government had up to five years to call an election.
That prevents the election countdown from starting at the end of the third year. Even the countdown clock, running on social media for three years, would not have been possible.
Just last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau travelled to Iqaluit to announce the establishment of another marine conservation area. The Liberals have promised to set aside 10 per cent of our marine areas by 2020 and the announcement takes them to within two per cent of their goal.
However, the news item about the story did not focus on marine protection but rather on the candidates in the upcoming vote.
By setting a legislated fixed date, the government has been facing down its own self-imposed election calendar.
The countdown to the election has chewed up most of the spring federal political agenda. At the time of this column, the “NO MORE JUSTIN TRUDEAU” clock was claiming 98 days, 23 hours, 52 minutes and 18 seconds ticking until the production of the prime minister’s walking papers.
The same countdown clock in the United States is 459 days, 16 hours, 25 minutes, and 28 seconds.
Do we really need to put up with a two-year political campaign in the name of democracy?
The costs attached to the never-ending American election cycles also affect the country’s capacity to govern. Because politicians have to raise so much money, to advertise for years leading up to the election, about one-third of their total work effort is focused on fundraising.
Two weeks ago, congressional district managers for Republican and Democratic politicians visited Ottawa to get a look at our system. One issue under discussion was the difference in the amount of time required for fundraising efforts. They were shocked at the legal limitations on election spending in local constituencies in Canada.
Canada’s spending limits have been compromised recently because of the emergence of so-called third party political registrations. Third parties are supposed to be independent of any specific political party but the line between them is quite often blurred.
Elections Canada came up with an updated handbook in June governing the interactions between third parties and regulated political entities. If you view the Twitter feed of Canada Proud, it appears to move in tandem with all the activities of the Conservative Party of Canada.
Elections Canada has received numerous complaints about this, but thus far, is simply referring complainants to the chief electoral officer of Canada even though they have the authority to actively refer complaints.
The chief electoral officer of Canada is the same person who recently ruled that having an election on a religious holiday was kosher.
Politicians of all stripes complained about religious insensitivity but the election date remained.
Under a law passed 11 years ago, only the chief electoral officer can change the date.
That law should be scrapped.
Editor’s note: This column originally reported that only the commissioner of Canada Elections can change the fixed election date, but it’s the chief electoral officer of Canada who can recommend to the governor in council a change of the election date should it interfere with a religious holiday or another election taking place in a different jurisdiction in Canada. As well, it is not a ruling.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.