Three Things the U.S. Could Learn from Canada’s Election

Some sensible election rules from our neighbor to the north.

October 23, 2015
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It’s hard not to love a dramatic election — and Canada’s federal election on Monday had no shortage of unexpected twists and turns. From last minute lobbyist scandals to weather changes and a stunning, come-from-behind win by the party that started off in third place, it certainly wasn’t boring.  

But one thing that wasn’t part of the drama was the running of the election. To be sure, the highest turnout in decades saw some polling places temporarily run out of ballots, but overall, from the standpoint of election administration, Canada had another smooth, boring election — in contrast to the spectacle at the polls that has often been a part of American elections.

Are there any lessons for Americans in the way our Canadian neighbors run elections? Consider three:

1.) National election rules. In contrast to the United States where every state sets its own, often widely varying election rules, Canadian election procedures are uniform across the country. Every Canadian voter, for example, can vote early on the same nationwide advance voting days, with polling places open for identical hours. Rules on what voters need to bring to the polls — or how to vote by mail — also are the same from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. This uniformity not only creates fairness, but reduces the potential for confusion and makes it easier to educate voters.

Compare that to the U.S., where some states have nearly a month of early voting and others, like New York, have no early voting at all. Even within states, the variances can be considerable. In Texas, for example, early voting locations in Houston are only open until 4:30 p.m. for much of the early voting period, but, in Austin, polling places are open until 7:00 p.m. and even later in presidential and midterm years.

Allowing states to set their own election rules may have made sense at the nation’s founding when conditions in frontier states made nationwide rules ill-advised. But in a world where elections have become more nationally focused, local variances are harder to justify. While having uniform rules might not work in a large, diverse country like the U.S., setting minimum standards and encouraging jurisdictions to adopt best practices would be a healthy step for our democracy.

2.) Modernized voter registration. Since the 1920s, Canada has recognized that primary responsibility for preparing permanent lists of voters should rest in the hands of government, and has harnessed technology to do the job accurately and cost-effectively. Numerous Canadian national, provincial, and territorial agencies transfer information electronically to Elections Canada, a national, nonpartisan agency that registers eligible individuals and reports directly to the Canadian parliament. Voters can have their names removed from the rolls if they wish, but 93 percent of eligible voters stay on, and most source agencies do not require voters to “opt in” to having their information transferred. Moreover, Elections Canada undertakes its own list updates through door-to-door efforts targeting areas of high mobility, thus giving people another opportunity to register. Voters also can register at the polls by proving residency.

By contrast, in most American states voter registration is left up to individuals and campaigns, often relying on error-prone ink-and-paper transactions. There are signs of a shift, however, with recently enacted laws authorizing automatic registration in Oregon and California. These states will soon use DMV transactions to register voters, transferring voter information electronically to election officials, who will register voters unless they “opt out.” Other states can learn from this shift in primary responsibility, and would do well to follow Canada’s inclusion of more than just the DMV as a source of voter information. It will put more eligible voters on the rolls and mean fewer registration errors, which create problems on Election Day.

3.) Inclusive ID requirements. In Canada, unlike in American states with voter ID laws, voters may prove their identity at the polls using a broad range of 40 forms of ID. The Canadian government has modified this list several times since its creation in 2007, adding documents to allow more eligible voters to cast ballots.. Accepted IDs include driver’s licenses and other types of government-issued ID similar to those required in many U.S. states. But voters in Canada also may identify themselves using student IDs, employee cards, and various forms of non-photo IDs, as long as one of them has a current address. Unlike many U.S. jurisdictions, Canada also allows the use of expired driver’s licenses, which many seniors and others who no longer drive continue to use for identification. The wide range of documents accepted limits the possibility of the ID requirement disenfranchising voters.

By contrast, U.S. voter ID laws are unduly restrictive in ways that can disenfranchise eligible voters. Alabama, for example, accepts only 10 forms of ID. Texas accepts only seven, including a concealed handgun license but not a University of Texas ID, which is available to over 200,000 students. Neither state accepts expired IDs.

U.S. advocates of voter ID laws often point to laws in other countries as evidence of the feasibility of these requirements. However, the Canadian experience shows that its identification requirement poses substantially less danger of disenfranchising voters because of a commitment to ensuring that identification laws are inclusive, and a willingness to make changes so that all eligible voters have a full, fair opportunity to participate. 

Political cultures are unique and no one would argue for adopting the Canadian system wholesale. But in making sure America is a world leader in running smooth elections, there might be good reason for looking north of the border 

(Photo: Flickr/MarcusHebel)