Day 6

Lessons for the 2015 election from the long, strange campaign of 1872

What we can learn from the longest election in Canadian history? Day 6 talks to Richard Johnston, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia about the marathon 1872 election that lasted 89 days.
Sir John A. Macdonald (Library and Archives Canada)

Canadians head to the polls October 19th in what's being hyped as the longest election in 142 years. You have to go all the way back to 1872 to find a longer Canadian election than this one. It might be a sprint by American standards, but a 78-day-long campaign is a marathon for Canada. 

There's no ballot, there's no booth. Your vote is by voice. So you are required to announce your preference out loud.- Richard Johnston, political science professor, University of British Columbia

For a look at what we can learn from that 89-day-long race, Day 6 guest host Laura Lynch spoke with Richard Johnston, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Laura Lynch: So this election longest since eight hundred seventy two. Why did that election need to be that long.

Richard Johnston: Well it didn't necessarily need to be that long, but you should understand that it was a completely different world of electioneering. It was only the second election in post Confederation history. The country was still in many ways a fictitious country and voting took place in different constituencies at different times.

LL: Why was that?

RJ: In those days an election wasn't necessarily conceived as a contestation between two roughly equally-sized alternative parties. It was really more the government of the day trying to see whether it could get the electorate to endorse its general policy. So in a sense the government was much more in control than we think of it now, at least before this election. And there was no particular expectation that it be a kind of neutral arena between competing alternatives. So the government would in effect stage the election so as to maximize its chances of re-election . It would issue writs of election first of all in those constituencies where it was surest of gaining re-election, basically starting with the strongholds and working out. So part of what they wanted to do then was create a bandwagon.

LL: In fact provinces were still being added and I understand that was a challenge as well?

RJ: Well between 1867 and 1872 we added two provinces, British Columbia and Manitoba. There was no physical connection between either of those provinces and the rest of the country. There was no railway and there was no telegraph, so if you wanted to send a message to Victoria or Winnipeg you had to send it through the United States so ou didn't have the means of a quick efficient delivery of any of the materials for election.

LL: How did the parties or the government get the message out across the country?

RJ: Basically through speech-making and picnics, public events - that sort of thing. In Quebec there was a tradition of "Assemblée Contradictoire" in which the two candidates would would go around the constituency debating each other, if there were two candidates. But basically it was a word of mouth story with very modest amplification through newspapers. The newspapers basically had local circulations.

LL: OK so that explains some of the reason why this was so long. It was a long campaign with a staggered vote. Let's talk about the actual process of voting. Walk me through what it took the average Canadian to vote in 1872. First of all, who could vote?

RJ: Well it wasn't the average Canadian. It varied subtly from province to province, but basically it was people who had outright possession of property at some threshold of annual income related to that property. So it was a property franchise, it was a male franchise and the total number of votes cast was a few hundred thousand.

LL: Where could you vote?

RJ: You voted at hustings.

LL: What do you mean by hustings?

RJ: Well we use the word hustings now as a kind of term of art, kind of a general reference to electioneering. But in those days the hustings were actually the polling place. You didn't have a whole bunch of different local polls in the nearby elementary school or United Church or whatever. You basically voted in a single place over the space of about two days and so if you wanted to cast your vote you had to get to the hustings.

LL: The fact that there was only one place for the hustings, did that mean it might be difficult? I'm thinking people were living in far-flung places, and it might be difficult for them to actually get to the hustings or the polling place?

RJ: You bet. And indeed that was part of the strategy. To the extent that the government controlled matters, they would erect the hustings in the part of the riding in which their support was strongest.

LL: Wow. OK, so it's Election Day or election days as you just described. How does a person go in and cast a ballot? Did they get the ballot and then go in the booth?

RJ: There's no ballot, there's no booth. Your vote is by voice. So you are required to announce your preference out loud.

LL: No such thing as a secret ballot.

RJ: No.

LL: That seems to be a bit problematic for people who might be open to intimidation.

RJ: Absolutely, and so Election Day was a carnival of bribery treating and violence.

LL: Really? Tell me more.

RJ: Well it's the old saying of 'if you buy someone you want to know whether or not they've stayed bought'. Well that's not a problem in a voice vote situation. Lots of people had their preferences and were perfectly capable of announcing them and never felt particularly intimidated. But then you had people who had the right to vote and who were for sale.

LL: There is another detail of the 1872 election that I found fascinating. The election process went on for so long, and you've talked about the staggered voting dates, and candidates would actually have a second chance to run if they lost. Tell me about that.

RJ: That's right. If you lost in one place you could secure a nomination in another place and so for example a couple of important conservatives who lost their elections back east wound up sitting for B.C. constituencies - these constituencies that they may never have visited in their lives.

LL: Did they win the second time around?

RJ: Yes.

LL: This is a bit philosophical maybe, but what lessons could a candidate today learn from the election of 1872?

RJ: I don't know that there's much because really that's another planet. What I would not want us to do is draw negative lessons from 1872. So for example, this is a very long campaign, but you know it's not an order of magnitude longer than campaigns before or since. The 1980 campaign for example was sixty days long or so, the 2006 (which was really the 2005-2006 campaign) was quite a long one. Campaigns generally used to be longer, even in a kind of garden variety election where everybody was expecting that the campaign would last fifty days or so. There's actually something to be said for having a stretch over which the issues can actually be exercised and argued.

LL: Richard Johnson, so interesting. Thank you very much.

RJ: You're welcome.