With an unwanted yet necessary federal election campaign now underway in Canada, viewing Matt Kohn’s Call it Democracy provides much food for thought and shared angst as to how our two countries elect their political leaders.
Much was made of the Florida chad follies in 2000 when many felt, argued or—through a Supreme Court decision that was light on signatures and “author” credits—legislated George Bush into the White House. But the furor over the “theft” died with hundreds of others as the first plane hit its target the following September. Pathetically, some must have been relieved at the awful distraction.
Through archive tape and present-day historians, Kohn reminds everyone that close-call elections (Kennedy squeaking by Nixon in 1960) and “win the popular vote, but not the presidency” (several times in the nineteenth century) are no anomalies. They will continue to happen until the Electoral College is either abolished or reformed. Senator Birch Baye (D-IN) convinced the U.S. Congress to make changes in 1969 but the Senate killed his amendment a decade later. “If it ain’t broke, don’t amend it,” became the rallying cry of the largest states who had most to lose.
In Canada, we never elect our “president.” The prime minister must first convince his fellow party members to let him lead, then he/she must (a) win a seat in the House of Commons, (b) emerge from a general election with more seats than any other party. With four major parties and another half-dozen or so on the fringe, it is more common than not for Canada’s chief politician to assume power with much less than 50% of the popular vote.
Seen from that perspective, the notion of having the free world’s commander-in-chief take office with less votes than his rival doesn’t engender much outrage north of the 49th parallel; election fraud and systemic discrimination most certainly do.
Kohn lets his subjects speak for themselves and, with careful editing (Kohn and Chris Boscardin) reveals the irony, injustice and flaws of the modern electoral process.
“Let every vote count,” is the mantra espoused by politicians, judges and media of all stripes. Blacks and women have had to fight long and arduous battles for their voting rights. The irony of Electoral College reform (which gives well-populated states greater clout than their smaller cousins) is if the current system becomes truly representative of the popular vote, then many African Americans and Jews would lose some of their “extra” power. Four-hour line-ups, varying requirements for proof of identity (often racially motivated), exit polls that don’t match the tally are but a few examples of the system’s failings. Clearly, there is a crisis in the lack of equality in how America votes.
The Help America Vote Act is a very Canadian solution: throw 4 billion dollars at the problem and let the states come up with their own “improvements.” The errant punch cards are replaced by paper-trail optional, touch-screen computers whose encryption protocol is child’s play for undergraduate computer science students. But no worries, Walden O’Dell, the CEO of Diebold Election Systems, states that he is "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." Who better to assist the outcome?
Here in the provinces, we still favour old-fashioned, technology-light pencil and paper for our ballots. Sure, the dead have been known to rise from their graves and exercise their civic duty but at least there is something to actually recount when required. Asking a computer to add up what it’s already been captured with ones and zeroes does little to clarify the result.
The film’s closing moments are equally instructive. Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, speaks passionately about the need for an amendment to “guarantee everyone the right to vote.” More telling is the credit roll. The backdrop is the White House driveway where a workman is expending precious energy with a gas-powered leaf blower, which, temporarily solves the problem, but is no permanent solution.
Kohn missed one major point that could well change the course of history in the political makeup and results of elections in both countries. In the June 2004 Canadian general election, 60.9% of eligible voters trekked to the polls; a few months later, just 54.5% of America’s citizens participated in shaping their future. Imagine the chaos if everyone showed up! JWR