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Elections process makes Canada proud

A few months back, I confessed to what is, for a parliamentary wonk, an almost unforgiveable weakness; namely, a shameful but implacable envy of the United States congressional committee system.

However, when it comes time to watch our southern neighbours head to the polls to choose the representatives who may eventually fill the seats around those committee tables, those pangs of disloyalty don’t just fade away but are forcibly evicted by an all-encompassing glow of smugness shared, I suspect, by more than a few Canadians, at the obvious, indisputable and almost cartoon-like superiority of our electoral process.

In Canada, it starts with the ballots, of course — made of paper, not pixels, and dropped into real, non-virtual boxes to be counted — and, if necessary, recounted — by human beings. But it goes so much deeper than that.

We have strict — and strictly monitored — limits on how much a party or candidate can spend on the campaign trail, as well as similarly rigorous caps on contributions and detailed disclosure rules.

Instead of a hodgepodge of state and local authorities, we have a single arms-length central election agency that doesn’t just oversee the vote but enforces the laws, while also running voter outreach and education programs.

We even have detailed rules on publishing opinion polls during the campaign and an outright ban on media in any room where voting is taking place, although they’re allowed to film from the door “as long as they do not impede voters or compromise the secrecy of the vote.”

When Canadians collectively exercise their federal franchise rights, the resulting E-day media coverage isn’t dominated by panoramic shots of voters lined up around the block.

For most people, there’s no line at all — and if there is, it usually moves fairly briskly — and our voter registration system has multiple built-in checks and balances to give those with the legal right to vote every possible opportunity to do so, even if they don’t have a home address or photo ID.

Perhaps most crucially, for the most part, it seems like Canadians, by and large, have a remarkable faith in the underlying integrity of the system.

That, in an admittedly oversized nutshell, is why it worries me when I see politicians turn their partisan sights on Elections Canada — or the electoral system itself.

It’s the glib assertion that, without more stringent ID rules and registration requirements, tens of thousands of valid votes will be unceremoniously cancelled out by fraudulent ballots cast by felons, illegal immigrants and other ineligibles — a theory that seems to be an article of faith for many Americans — or that shadowy, foreign-funded entities may be infiltrating our democratic system by funnelling cash to compliant shells run out of Canadian post office boxes. 

While nowhere near as prevalent a phenomenon up here as on the American hustings, we’ve seen a slow but steady uptick in such strategic fearmongering on the federal political front, particularly when potential changes to the election laws are on the table, as is the case right now with the Liberals’ omnibus bid to undo many of the most contentious measures brought in under the then-Conservative government’s Fair Elections Act. 

In no way am I suggesting that opponents of the proposed rewrite shouldn’t voice their concerns — that, too, is an essential element of our democracy, as well as the primary function of the parliamentary system.

At the same time, surely there’s a way to raise those issues without running the risk of eroding the legacy of public trust that has taken Elections Canada nearly a century to build up.

When it comes down to it, all politicians have a vested interest in bolstering confidence that our elections are run in a manner befitting a country founded on peace, order and good government. For that reason alone, they should resist the urge to engage in fear-mongering that could ultimately cast a shadow over their own — and their parties’ — democratic credibility.

Kady O’Malley is a member of the parliamentary press gallery in Ottawa and writes about politics, procedure and process for iPolitics. She also appears regularly on CBC television and radio.

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