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Media Bites: The Fair Elections Act Still Separates Us From the Yankees

02/06/2014 11:56 EST | Updated 04/08/2014 05:59 EDT

While I'm not normally the sort to play up perceived differences between this country and the United States, some of our recent deviations in election law  --  particularly those consolidated by the Tory government's freshly-unveiled Fair Elections Act  --  are just too stark to ignore.

Take voter ID.

In America, the push from a few red state Republicans for mandatory voter identification laws  --  as in, ones stating you must present some manner of government-issued identification before being permitted to cast a ballot  --  is usually framed as one of the most polarizing civil rights debates of the modern era. Liberals and Democrats oppose these "unprecedented," "burdensome" laws with ferocious intensity, fundraising and rallying against what they see as a GOP assault on the suffrage rights of poor, minority, and even transgender Americans.

No less an authority than President Obama's own attorney general has characterized such rules as a backdoor scheme by Republicans to "disenfranchise particular groups of people" who can't gain access to the required documents, and "depress the vote" accordingly.

In Canada, by contrast, voter ID laws have always been on the books and no one seems to care. In fact, back in 2007, a bill to toughen them up passed the House of Commons unanimously  --  a rare feat in those minority parliament days. And now, the Fair Elections Act aims to make them tougher still, removing the so-called "vouching exception" that previously allowed some ID-less Canadians to cast ballots so long as they had a friend on hand.

Yet amid all the squawking about the Act, this particular change merits only the smallest peeps of opposition disapproval. Maybe it's due to the fact that no party in Canada is as dependent on the votes of the underclass as the Dems are in the States, maybe it's a reflection that Canada doesn't have much of an underclass to begin with, but either way, on this side of the border, the tradition of swapping votes-for-ID remains a comparative non-event.

Continental attitudes towards campaign donations reveals a cultural divide that's no less gaping.

Though lazier commentators tend to blur this distinction, while U.S. federal law allows virtually unlimited campaign spending in its elections, it does not permit unlimited campaign donations, which remain capped at $2,600 per person, per candidate. This limit  --  imposed by the so-called McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, has long been unpopular with conservatives, who view it as an undue restraint on an individual's ability to influence the U.S. electoral process  --  as they see it, a form of free expression (the Supreme Court is expected to rule on this argument shortly).

The smallness of $2,600 has also been blamed for the distastefully large amount of fundraising American politicians are expected to do these days, especially members of the House, who face re-election every two years and (by some estimates) may have to spend as many as five hours a day working the phones as a result.

Many of these complaints originate with the right in America, but in Canada, our conservatives have taken a different tack. Under the Harper government, individual campaign donations were capped at less than half the U.S. limit  --  $1,200 per-person-per-candidate  --  and under the Fair Elections Act reforms, will be raised a mere 300 bucks.

Most commentators understand this to be pure politics. For whatever reason, the Conservatives are way better at raising small amounts of money than their competitors, and with Liberal-friendly corporate donations and NDP-friendly union cash now completely banned, cynicism suggests the Tories have no reason to contest this beneficial status quo, no matter how ideologically distasteful they might find it (and at one time, our current prime minister found it verydistasteful indeed).

Likewise, though some pundits have begun to worry that our miserly fundraising limits are turning the Canadian political class into every bit the obsessive, time-wasting money-grubbers as their counterparts in the U.S., the fact that most Canadians aren't really under the illusion that our largely powerless MPs have anything better to do with their time has prevented this concern from sowing larger doubts about our democracy.

This may change in the era of Justin Trudeau  --  a man whose disinterest in his actual job at the expense of constant panhandling has been particularly brazen  --  but by and large, I'd say a lot of Canadians are simply in denial that fundraising is even the sort of thing "our" politicians do.

The Fair Elections Act isn't just about consolidating difference, however. In at least one important way it actually brings Canada into long overdue compliance with an important American precedent: abandoning our archaic and embarrassing Depression-era criminal ban on broadcasting  --  or even blogging or tweeting  --  election results before "all the polls have closed."

This 1938 rule  --  the subject of nationwide mockery and subversion every four years --  was born from an esoteric worry that election outcomes might be "affected" in some unspecified way if British Columbians learn how Newfoundlanders voted during that brief, two hour-or-so window on election night when polls have closed in the Atlantic provinces but remain open in the western ones. America, of course, has no such rule; anyone who's watched CNN on presidential election night knows that the second voting stops in New York, Californians are going to hear about it, like it or not. Amazingly, their democracy has survived. Ours will too.

The reason I tend to be instinctively skeptical of authors or analysts who make a big show of noticing some supposedly critical "difference" between America and Canada is because such observations are usually disingenuous, and really little more than heavy-handed attempts by boosters of some cause or another to win you over through crass appeals to chauvinism. When someone claims "we Canadians" have a "different perspective" than the evil Yankees on abortion or gun control or the monarchy or whatever, chances are what they're really saying is I have a different perspective --  and you should too, or I'll question your patriotism.

What legislation like the Fair Elections Act reminds, however, is that in the realm of electoral law, America and Canada are, in fact, noticeably different. Though the reasons why are more complicated and nuanced than the simplistic narratives we're usually given.

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