Are fixed-date elections better?

By John Gray
CBCNews.ca | Updated Sept. 7, 2007

With a fixed election date, the theory is the citizens of Ontario will waken in a few days and say, gee whiz, it's coming up to election time. So it's time to think about politics; time to consider the political parties and what they have to offer; and of course it's time for the politicians to swing into action.

And — again according to the theory — a lot of those citizens are going to say, I didn't vote in the last provincial election, but, golly, I'm going to vote this time because, well, now we have a fixed election date, so I'm going to vote. And the result will be a much more democratic government.

Whether the theory is right or not remains to be seen but Oct. 10 is indeed voting day in Ontario — a date decided by the legislature three years ago.

In the past, voting day was always decided by the government in power for its own maximum advantage. Now, that playing field at least is level.

Elections 'do not belong to the party in power': McGuinty

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, whose Liberal government introduced fixed-date election legislation in 2004, offered a simple explanation for the change: "Elections are democratic events that belong to all of us. They do not belong to the party in power, to manipulate for its own partisan advantage."

In the same speech McGuinty worried aloud about the decline in the number of Ontarians who bother to vote in provincial elections. That was one of the main reasons that the Ontario government was committing itself to fixed election dates. It was all part of the effort "to restore people's faith in our democracy."

McGuinty is not alone in his concerns and in his solution. The first Canadian legislation fixing election dates was adopted by British Columbia in 2001 and took effect for the 2005 poll, while the Northwest Territories set its first fixed-date election for Oct. 1, 2007, and Newfoundland and Labrador for Oct. 9, 2007. Meanwhile, Parliament passed legislation in 2007 that set federal election dates for the third Monday of October every four years, with the first to be held in 2009. Other provinces are studying the idea.

Every study comes up with the same conclusions.

For a start, the studies say, it is grossly unfair that the party in power sets the election date — unfair because the government can to some degree influence events around a date that it alone decides and knows in advance. It can call an election when it is riding high in the polls or it can delay an election when it is out of favour.

Obviously, fixing an election date would eliminate this advantage for the party in power.

Studies also seem to agree that ending the capricious choice of election dates would reduce public cynicism about politics and strengthen public confidence in elections and election campaigns. That, at least, is what the studies seem to hope.

Will lessen cynicism about elections: analyst

Henry Milner, professor of political science at Laval University, has researched voting systems around the world and written a study for the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

He is an enthusiast for fixed election dates.

For Milner, fixed election dates take on almost magical dimensions. Fixed election dates make it easier for people to make themselves available to vote, whether seniors or students, and easier to attract certain kinds of candidates such as women.

Reducing the ability of governing parties to manipulate the system "should strengthen public confidence" and "should contribute to reducing the prevailing cynicism toward elections and election campaigns," Milner said. Efforts to get students to vote "could also only be enhanced."

And, he says, "with election dates known in advance, efforts of governments to buy voters with their own tax money are obvious. Under fixed systems, it is only after the election is called that such efforts become apparent."

Touted benefits not borne out by U.S. example

Unhappily, it is easier to admire Milner's enthusiasms than to share them. He lists many things could or should or might happen with fixed election dates, but that is one step away from wishful thinking.

Many share the belief that fixed election dates are the magic solution to low voter turnout.

But the short answer to that is that the United States has always had fixed election dates — and one of the lowest levels of voter participation of any of the so-called democracies.

Fixed election dates are supposed to mean shorter election campaigns. But even a casual glance at the United States would suggest that the next election campaign begins as soon as the last one is over.

Milner said that under a regime of fixed election dates, it would be obvious if a government tried "to buy voters with their own tax money." The fact is that governments always try to buy voters with their own tax money.

Besides, politically astute voters have always known, at least in very broad terms, when an election will be called. As for buying voters with their own money, voters seldom complain. It seems they like to be bought.

As for fixed election dates discouraging such spending practices, you cannot prove that by the example of Ontario. With its eye on Oct. 10, McGuinty's Liberal government has spent the past summer papering the province with spending announcements and policy initiatives with a price tag in the billions.

The wistful prediction of Milner and other political scientists is that somehow the level of public discourse will be improved if you remove from governments the power to call elections whenever they want:

"Fixed election dates would also obviate the need for speculation and analysis of potential election calls that fill so much of our print and broadcast media, allowing more room for public discussion of policy issues."

The fact is that political scientists might regard wall-to-wall discussion of policy issues as the best of all possible worlds. But, sad to say, there is no evidence that their passion is shared by politicians, by journalists or, for that matter, by voters.

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John Gray

John Gray has worked for a number of Canadian newspapers, including most recently more than 20 years with the Globe and Mail, where he served as Ottawa bureau chief, national editor, foreign editor, foreign correspondent and national correspondent.

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