Sunday, February 27, 2011

qOtd: Fixed Election Dates

qOtd: Should Alberta adopt fixed election dates?

Nation, this is an issue that's near and dear to my heart - and thus, it's the subject of our initial qOtd.

Fixed election dates are employed throughout many jurisdictions. Locally, our municipal elections are held on fixed dates (I can tell you, for example, on what date the municipal elections of 2019 will happen). Elections in the United States are held on a fixed schedule as well. Barack Obama knows exactly when his first term will end. For that matter, he knows exactly when his SECOND term will end, if the voters give him one.

The benefits to fixed dates for elections is that everyone knows they're coming. If we know there's an election in 2 months, then the massive funding announcement you made today is as transparent as the aluminum that Scotty used to build the whale tank in Star Trek IV.   If we know there's going to be an election on November 3rd, 2011, then Elections Alberta can hire people to work during the campaign, they can enumerate voters, and they'll know - months in advance - what day they'll need elections officers to be working.

In the British Parliamentary tradition, however, we don't have fixed election dates. Elections are called by the monarch or by the designate in the monarch's stead: The "writ" of election is issued, and the election begins. While putting this power in the hands of the Queen or her ceremonial representative seems anachronistic, it is always either done at the behest of the governing party (in a majority) or after a minority government loses a vote of non-confidence in the house.  The longest that an Alberta Legislative Assembly may sit without an election is 5 years - so, in effect, our legislatures DO have an "expiry date", if not a fixed date of elections. Presumably, if the Premier didn't ask the Lt. Governor to issue the writ before those 5 years are up, the Lt. Governor would do so of their own accord (it's never happened, to my knowledge).


Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.  I know people who I respect greatly who disagree with me on this, but to my mind if a legislative body is to have any democratic credibility, they need to make it clear from the outset when they will next be going to the voters.

The current system places FAR too much power in the hands of the ruling party. They can have an election called when the opposition is down in the polls. They can have an election called when another party has just changed leaders (as we saw the federal Liberals do when Stockwell Day won the leadership of the Canadian Alliance). They can set the election to suit their own agenda - and whether or not they do so, the fact that they have the POWER to do so is fundamentally undemocratic, in my view.

Now, there's a twist to this, of course: In our system, unlike the U.S. system, the opposition can "bring down" the government. If you set election dates for the first Monday on May, once every 4 years, what do you do if the opposition brings down the government halfway through its term? Or in January of the 4th year? You hold an election, of course - we need to be governed by a duly elected body. But do you then re-set the clock, and start counting 4 years from the date of the last election? Because that's essentially what we've got now - except the clock re-sets to 5 years, and no one's ever gone the distance (that I know of, anyway).

There are a lot of details to work on, I know. And I'm perfectly willing to hear you out if you disagree with me on this issue. But to my mind, we need fixed election dates in this province. It's the only fair way to hold elections. It's fair to the opposition parties. It's fair to the public. It's fair to Elections Alberta.

And if you can't win a FAIR election - you probably shouldn't be in a position to hold an UNfair one.

That's MY take - what's yours?


Julia Necheff said...

My Take: Absolutely yes to fixed election dates, for all the reasons you state.

Our current system which gives the the governing party this power stacks the odds in its favour - this is an undemocratic anachronism that has got to go!

If a govt fell before the next scheduled election date, I would think you'd have to restart the election clock from that point forward. I don't see the point in wasting taxpayers' money holding another election sooner than four years. Also, the new gov't that is elected should have the same opportunity to govern for four years. Gov'ts don't fall very often anyway (I'm not saying it never happens), so don't forsee this wrinkle being a huge issue.

Enlightened Savage said...

Julia: Thanks for your thoughts.

I'm still a little unsure about the possibility of how to make this work in case of a minority government... essentially, "there will be an election in exactly 4 years... unless it happens sooner" is pretty much the system we've GOT. And we can't say "under no circumstances will there be an election earlier than 4 years from now" in that situation (or, to be honest, in any situation - if 40 Alberta PC's cross to the Social Credit party tomorrow, they could force us to the polls by late March).

Likely? Not really. But the hassle with legislation is that we need to account for even the unlikeliest of happenings.

Again, thanks for your take!

@dollhouseyyc said...

In principle I very much agree with the logic of Fixed election dates. I would love to hear your take on whether or not it inceases the campaign cycle beyond the typical election period. I guess with Harper it could be argued we are already doing that but it has typically not been the case in Canada.

My only fear is with fixed election dates, the riches party which is in most cases the one in power would still have an unfair advantage by extending campaign period well beyond the election date.


Marc @dollhouseyyc

@JulesNecheff - Julia Necheff said...

Hello Enlightened:

Re: "there will be an election in exactly 4 years... unless it happens sooner" is pretty much the system we've GOT:

With fixed election dates, it wouldn't be same as what we've got, because the power would be taken away from governing party to go to polls at its whim, which to me is the biggest reason why we should go to fixed dates in first place. (All the other reasons you cite are good, too.)

I do agree that minority gov't scenario complicates the issue. If that happens and govt falls between fixed election dates, yes, you would hold an election at that point, sooner than four years. But after you have the "early" election, then the four-year clock starts again.

Even under this scenario, I think this would still be a more democratic process than the status quo.

Hello Mark@dollhouseycc:
Re: Lengthening campaign cycle: I think that probably would happen and it would be the downside. But many would argue that in our current system there's always an unofficial campaign going on (things are said and done with an eye to the next election). It just heats up and comes out in the open when an election is called.

Re: Advantage to richest party: You raise very good point. But don't they have the advantage regardless?

My opinion is that the upsides of fixed election dates outweigh the downsides.

Question: I seem to recall talk of fixed election dates in B.C. but don't know whatever came of it, if anything. Does anyone know if this has ever been tried in Canada?

Enlightened Savage said...

Mark: In response to your questions: What Julia said. :)

I think that fixed dates would undoubtedly lengthen the campaign cycle. Consider the U.S. Presidential cycle, where a newly-elected President governs for a year, spends year 2 campaigning for congressional mid-term elections, and then spends years 3 & 4 campaigning for his own re-election.

I don't like it... but at least we all know what's going on.

Advantage to the richest party? Absolutely. But, that's how it is now, and nothing short of fully tax-funded political parties (which makes me uncomfortable) will level that playing field.

I don't have time right now to look into Julia's question re: Canadian precedent at the provincial level. Does anyone have that information?

Please don't let today's shiny new qOtd distract you from this great discussion. ;)