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What Canada can teach the United States about Voter Registration

October 28, 2008

Tonight on CBC Radio’s As It Happens, a piece aired examining voter registration and voter suppression in the United States 2008 Presidential election. Unlike many European countries and in complete contrast to Canada’s federally administered national elections, America cleaves to a “States’ Rights” version of voter franchise. Across each of the fifty states irregular practices abound.

The recent brouhaha over ACORN – the non profit consortium dedicated to community building and anti-poverty advocacy – there are even Canadian chapters – regarding alleged voter registration “fraud” illustrate a chaotic and non-standardized system.

In a country where a Florida anchor woman asks the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate if his running mate for President is a Marxist based on her understanding of his centrist tax policies, perhaps such an allergy to systemic, nationally sponsored and administered systems should come as no surprise.

In startling contrast to Canada’s Chief Election Officer, in the U.S., the votes of each eligible citizen are determined by processes overseen by a Secretary of State who is either a partisan Democrat or Republican. An example of the risk of this practice is no better exemplified than in the person of Indiana’s Secretary of State, Todd Rokita. He is infamous in the world of political hackery as a GOP operative in earlier Florida presidential elections under then Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Ms. Harris, the scion of one of Florida’s wealthiest “old” families (Griffin cattle and citrus) gained notoriety for questionable practices such as an overly expansive “sweep” of “felons” in order to suppress their votes.

In California, private for hire companies get paid “by the card” to “bring in” registered voters.  In Canada’s regulated voting system voter enumeration, registration and poll conduct on election day are nationally mandated and by paid Federal civil servants and their local agents. Many of us have perhaps been poll clerks or even District Returning Officers and yes, we often adhere to a political party. But we swear oaths to a non partisan Chief Officer and to the Crown. Compared to the chaos of the U.S. piece meal system, the “red tape” of regulation never looked so good.

What might not be widely understood is the line threaded from voter suppression in 2008 in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and the Commonwealth of Virginia to the legacy of slavery. In comparing Canada’s  Elections Act to that of the patchwork in the United States which lacks any such central law, what we see is an aversion to federalist power rooted in a very old concept: States’ Rights, most famously enunciated by the Confederate, John C. Calhoun. You cannot understand today’s screaming headlines of the Republican Party, claiming “voter fraud” without also thinking about slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, the Black Codes (Wynton Marsalis, in the liner notes to his album of the same name, explains things very well) the terrible era of Jim Crow and segregation and the subsequent Civil Rights Act of 1964.  In the coming weeks, American should look away from Dixie and train their sights north, to see how to properly enshrine and deliver on one person, one vote.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. reneethewriter permalink
    October 30, 2008 9:36 pm

    Dear Derrick, d’wayne, Tim and Cor: many thanks for the comments. Derrick, your detailed note – fascinates! Thanks for taking the time to share your always thoughtful comments on the “drill deep” level. You are talking my language. Tom DeLay! What a dangerous man…some while back Vanity Fair did an in depth look at Mr. DeLay and his “Rapture” movement.

    I very much agree (although i don’t know if the following would ever successful pass both house and senate) re: “a new, massive democratic congress should send to president obama a bill that would create a federal, non-partisan elections agency that would have responsibility for both voting processes and re-districting. this is one of the most simple ways to restore confidence in government.”

    I believe this issue will emerge in next few days As the One to Watch etc.

    Cor, thanks for a good reminder – re States’ Rights – my memory of reading The Federalist Papers is pretty dim. I’ll have to follow up on your interesting suggestion that perhaps States’ Rights allowed Northern states to opt out of slavery…and you are of course quite right about Canada’s checkered record re the federal v provincial balance.

    Thanks guys. Well. I’m off to enter the National November Novel Writing Month – DH – good luck.

    I’ll try and post in November, post U.S. election etc

    over and out, R

  2. corsullivan permalink*
    October 29, 2008 8:40 pm

    Thanks for another informative post – I hadn’t realised that electoral systems in the U.S. were quite so variable across states or quite so vulnerable to partisan influence. Of course, our system has flaws of its own, especially at the level of nomination contests within parties.

    Also, I don’t think there’s anything inherently sinister or even misguided in the idea of States’ Rights. Slavery and segregration are prominent examples of the idea in action, but I wouldn’t be surprised (although I’ve never looked into it) if States’ Rights actually made it easier for northern states to outlaw slavery in the first place. If they’d had to push abolitionist legislation through at the federal level in the early 1800s, they would have run into all kinds of southern opposition.

    Ultimately any country with federal system needs to decide where the balance of power should lie between central and local government. America and Canada have made different choices, but our preference for a stronger centre also has its disadvantages.

  3. reneethewriter permalink
    October 29, 2008 4:08 pm

    Good to hear from you, d’wayne. I tend to agree…this just in from Daily Kos:
    While Florida Extends Voting Hours, Georgia Refuses to Follow Suit
    by georgia10
    Wed Oct 29, 2008 at 01:55:05 PM PDT

    As kos noted yesterday, Florida Governor Charlie Crist extended voting hours in that state, citing huge early voting lines and waits of up to five or six hours in some areas.

    But in neighboring Georgia, Secretary of State Karen Handel is refusing to do the same. On Monday, some voters waited eight hours to vote because of machine glitches. There were other reports of voters waiting an average of three to four hours to vote in heavily Democratic and urban areas.

    In response to a request from the state Democratic Party to extend voting hours in light of these long waiting times, Handel said no:

    Handel said Georgia law includes no such mechanism that would allow her, or Gov. Sonny Perdue, to do it.

    Handel also said she doesn’t think it’s necessary, and called Kidd’s letter emblematic of an “orchestrated effort of that political party across the country.”

    Handel is referring to the fact that Georgia law apparently “doesn’t allow for voting on the weekend or the Monday before Election Day.” But that second comment, blaming Democrats for politicizing the situation?

    That’s Handel still smarting after been slapped silly by the courts yesterday for her attempted purging of the voter rolls:

    ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia should have sought U.S. Justice Department approval before implementing a new process of using Social Security numbers and driver’s license data to check voters’ immigration status, a three-judge federal panel ruled Monday.

    The 27-page ruling ordered Georgia election officials to make “diligent and immediate” efforts to notify voters flagged as ineligible because of the checks that they can still cast paper ballots on Nov. 4. The paper ballots can later be challenged by state officials if a voter is believed to be ineligible.

    The state also is not allowed to remove names from lists unless voters say in writing that they are ineligible.

    Will the Georgia Democratic Party take its request for extended early voting hours to the courts? We’ll see.

  4. Tim Gallagher permalink
    October 29, 2008 1:37 pm

    It is unfortunate that Canadians take their voting rights for granted. Our recent election turnout of 59% will more or less match the U.S. count even though it is much easier to vote in Canada. To date voter intimidation techniques are not the norm in Canada as they are south of the border. Yes 41% of Canadians did not vote.

  5. d'wayne marsonis permalink
    October 29, 2008 1:23 pm

    Sadly, I think the chances of the U.S. adopting a federally supervised voting system are not good.

  6. derrick permalink
    October 29, 2008 1:11 am

    an issue very close to me is similarly mangled by partisan shenanigans in the US: congressional boundaries. i believe deeply in maps and am very interested in how we draw districts for political representation. in the US, congressional boundaries, which are redrawn every decade to equalise population following census results, are drawn up and controlled directly by elected state legislatures.

    the issue came to light in 2006 when tom delay, super-corrupt majority leader of house republicans, and rep. for TX-22, poured tons of money into electing a republican majority in the texas state house. he succeeded, and the new republican house redrew texas’ federal boundaries to maximise republican votes and split reliably democratic areas between multiple districts. the term is ‘cracking’: crack a one-party precinct between other precincts until its votes are sufficiently diluted. it is possible to turn a 2/2 partisan split into a 4/0 sweep through careful cracking. 100% of the representation with 51% of the votes.

    both parties are bad on this. democrats are currently looking at which state legislature they can swing in 2010 so as to stack the redistricting commissions and gain a permanent congressional majority. in fact, two of my favourite examples are democrat: IL-6( and NC-12 (

    the latter two districts, although their shapes are instantly offensive to the canadian mind, so used to districts mapped along civic boundaries and river valleys, have been crafted specifically to create “majority-minority” districts. i.e. 60%+ hispanic in IL-5 and 60%+ black in NC-10, thus ensuring that these otherwise minority communities have a majority vote when it comes to congress. there are a lot of assumptions made here. 1) a majority ‘white’ district will never vote for a ‘minority’ candidate or take a minority’s interest into consideration. 2) ‘minority’ voters have homogenous interests, and 3) these interests supersede others, such as geographic proximity.

    furthermore, just to poke, are conventional boundaries such as counties, states, townships effective or relevant anymore? who is to say that ‘earmuff’ districts are any more or less representative than our blocky ridings?

    in canada, we go to great lengths to appoint non-partisan, independent commissions to redraw maps. the maps are sent out to the populace and political parties for comment, and are traditionally accepted at face value. the major values included in boundary deliberations are those of equal population (a value enforced by a supreme court ruling, in fact) and ‘communities of interest.’ i.e. commissions will go to great lengths to mirror existing civic boundaries when drawing up provincial or federal districts.

    the canadian system is, in my opinion, worlds better. a new, massive democratic congress should send to president obama a bill that would create a federal, non-partisan elections agency that would have responsibility for both voting processes and re-districting. this is one of the most simple ways to restore confidence in government.

    the term gerrymander comes from a massachusetts politician named gerry, who redrew his district for political advantage such that it resembled a salamander. ergo, ‘gerrymander.’

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