2012 Presidential Election: The Canadian Perspective

As a Canadian citizen who’s lived in the United States for more than six years, I’ve encountered plenty of things that I find puzzling about the land of the free. Why do you spell “colour” and “neighbour” without a “u”? Why do you look at me like I have two heads when I say, “Pardon?” or “Sorry!”? And why on earth does the national election dominate headlines for such an excruciatingly long time?

A little backstory on my homeland: Contrary to popular belief, Canada is an independent country and a constitutional monarchy. Yes, we love the Queen and her face is on our money, but we elect our own prime minister and the Royal Family merely hops the pond for ceremonial occasions. We periodically hold elections in Canada to find our prime minister, but they are relative non-events, especially when compared to the hoopla down here.

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing to me about the American election process is the polarization caused by having two main parties. I’m not a very politically active individual, so my interpretation comes purely from whatever makes mainstream news headlines, but the constant “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” mindset is troubling.

There’s no middle ground. What if John Smith supports gay marriage and abortion rights, but also supports decreased government spending? Should he vote Democrat or Republican? What if Suzy Q believes in having a strong military presence, but also believes that the U.S. should open its doors to more immigration? Should she vote Democrat or Republican?

I find this black or white thinking dangerous, as it completely divides a nation that’s supposed to be “one nation under God, indivisible.” In Canada, we have five main political parties with seats in parliament: Conservatives, New Democrats, Liberals, Bloc Québécois and Green. Though the issues that dominate the national conversation in Canada may not be as polarizing as gay marriage or healthcare (both of which, incidentally, are non-issues up north), it’s possible for middle-ground opinions to rise and, shockingly enough, for two or more parties to actually agree on issues.

Another aspect of the U.S. elections that I am tired of already is the multi-year campaign circus. In Canada, while there is no official law that caps campaign periods, the longest ever election campaign in the country’s history lasted a mere 74 days. In fact, we have legislation that sets a minimum campaign period of 36 days, as parties prefer to limit spending and stumping.

Consequently, the prime minister and members of parliament spend most of their time governing rather than trying to get you to vote for them so they can govern longer. How much of Obama’s time as president has been spent trying to get another four years, and how much has been spent actually doing his presidential duties? Actually, I don’t want to know the answer to that question.

A third difference between our countries’ election systems is the format for determining who gets elected. In Canada, there are 308 members of parliament, each elected by popular vote in their riding, or district. The party that garners the most members of parliament then installs its party’s leader as prime minister.

This means that rather than voting for a person to lead the country, you’re voting for the person who will be governing closer to home, which will inform who rises to prime minister. The decree “representation by population” is ingrained in all of us when we study Canadian history, but in the U.S., you have the winner-take-all Electoral College system, which I find completely puzzling. I’ll let the debacle of the 2000 presidential election speak for itself.

Some other differences in the Canadian election system: news outlets are not allowed to report election results until polls have closed across the country, and there is no cap on the length of time a prime minister can serve if he or she keeps getting elected.

So if the results on November 4 frustrate you so much that you’re threatening to move to Canada (you wouldn’t be the first), stop on by and take a look around Ottawa. It would be so nice to have you, eh?

September 12, 2012
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