What good are fixed election laws?

In a week which saw two provinces announce they will ignore their fixed election dates, and a third deciding not to implement new fixed election legislation, we ask what value these laws have in Canadian democracy.
A voter heads from a polling station after casting a ballot in the New Brunswick provincial election in Moncton, N.B. on Monday, Sept. 22, 2014. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

This week, elections were called in two provinces: Prince Edward Island and Alberta. Both provinces are ignoring their previously established fixed election dates, which means voters will cast their ballots six months to a year earlier than they originally planned. 

Not everyone likes the idea that fixed election dates can just be tossed aside. Edmonton lawyer Tom Engel tried to get a court injunction to stop Jim Prentice from calling an early election. He was denied the injunction, but a judge said he could proceed with his fight so he is currently awaiting a court date. 

The news out of P.E.I. and Alberta has left some people wondering why fixed election laws even exist. This week, Nova Scotia's premier cited both elections when explaining why his province will remain the only one without a fixed election rule. 

But the rules aren't always ignored: for example, the last B.C. election was held on its established date, and all signs point to this year's federal election taking place on its fixed date in October. So where does that leave the concept of the fixed election? In the spirit of our Democracy Hacks series, we asked political scientist Lori Turnbull the question: "What value do fixed election laws have in Canadian democracy?"

Turnbull says the laws can't be binding, because of the nature of our parliamentary democracy system. But, even if they're more guidelines than hard and fast rules, she says they have value. 

First, they make the administration of elections easier. With a date on the calendar, it's easier for electoral agencies to plan, hire, and organize the logistics required to pull off an election. Second, they can keep politicians in check. While there are no legal or financial penalties for calling an election before the fixed date, if a premier or prime minister send voters to the polls early, they can face criticism if the opposition and electorate think it's too soon-- and that criticism can lead to failure on election night. 

In the case of Alberta and PEI, Turnbull says there is some justification for early elections. Both provinces have new premiers, who have never lead their parties in elections. While the Canadian system of government doesn't actually involve the public choosing a leader, Turnbull says there's a cultural expectation that we should have a say-- so in cases with a new leader, and new policy, it's reasonable to give the public a chance to weigh in. 

It's a soft's that voice in the distance, that says 'You know what? We actually have a law that's asking you not to do that. We can't force you not to do that, but it's part of the conversation.'- Lori Turnbull

In the end, she says fixed election laws serve as a reminder to politician and the public that early election calls should be taken seriously, and not made without good reason.  


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