Monday, February 17, 2014

History of Voting

The Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder, recently proposed that almost 6 million Americans who have served out their sentences for a criminal conviction but remain stripped of their right to vote should be re-enfranchised. The United States is in a small minority of democratic countries in which ex-convicts can remain permanently stripped of their right to vote.

It is striking how hesitant support for this measure is, even among progressive commentators. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones declares that the right to vote is as important as free speech and the rule of law -- but he'd negotiate a cautious, maybe after five years, restoration of the vote to ex-cons. He's aware that disenfranchising ex-cons is most an anti-black, anti-poor, anti-Democrat voter suppression tactic, but he also senses behind the rules a deep visceral tough-on-crime sentiment that is politically popular, so he temporizes.

In Canada, voting is a right of citizenship. It is not just ex-cons who vote, incarcerated prisoners vote while they are in prison. They have a sentence and they have to serve it, but that doesn't make them non-citizens.

It's further evidence, I think, of how politicized everything about voting is in the United States. It is relatively easy there to gerrymander constituency boundaries, suppress voter turnout, and tinker with election rules -- as long as you do it democratically. That is, the winners of elections get to make the rules for the next one, and even those who talk about the right to vote mostly propose only the reforms that might have some traction with legislators.

It makes the 1920 Canadian legislation that established the Chief Electoral Officer and led the way to depoliticize election rules (after a very gamy nineteenth century) look extraordinarily wise and beneficial. And it's in that context I find myself looking at the Harper government's recent "Fair" Elections Act. A lot of its vote-suppression measures are actually pretty small and cautious (by comparison with US practice, at least), but the plan to hobble the Chief Electoral Officer, discourage get-out-the-vote projects, and return more control of election rules to politicians -- well, you can see where it is going. They have not disenfranchised Canadians with criminal records yet, but if our electoral rules were determined what was politically useful, no doubt we would have seen it here long ago.

In 1997 Elections Canada published its own History of the Vote in Canada (maintained online here), which I find useful on these matters. But it's a survey and pretty whiggish about how we get better and better forever.

Has anyone published a solid study of history and politics of the Dominion Election Act, 1920?

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