A Plea for Fixed Byelection Dates
Why we should have regularly-scheduled byelections
Voters in four ridings are heading to the polls today.
But they shouldn’t.
Yes, federal byelections are being held on this June 19th in the ridings of Winnipeg South Centre, Portage–Lisgar, Oxford and Notre-Dame-de-Grâce–Westmount. Normally, I’d have a livestream planned for tonight’s ballot counting and I’d pore over the results in the coming days. Instead, I’m outside the country.
I wouldn’t be in this mess if Canada had fixed byelection dates to go along with our fixed general elections.
And, in addition to being a self-interested argument, my plea for fixed byelections also has the extra benefit of being right.
The general goose and the byelection gander
Love them or hate them, the principle behind the fixed election date laws that now govern our electoral calendar both federally and in every province is a laudable one. Fixed election dates level the playing field between the government and the opposition.
When Stephen Harper’s Conservative government introduced its fixed-date election legislation in 2006, it argued that “fixed election dates will improve the fairness of Canada's electoral system by eliminating the ability of governing parties to manipulate the timing of elections for partisan advantage.”
The government’s press release cited transparency and predictability as good reasons for holding elections on fixed dates, pinpointing the end of October as ideal because of the generally mild weather and convenience for voters: students aren’t in the midst of moving, seniors won’t be deterred by cold or ice, “snow birds” haven’t gone south for the winter and few Canadians book their vacations for the middle of the fall.
Governments can still avail themselves of the loophole of being able to call elections whenever they like. But outside of minority parliaments (when the opposition has just about as much ability to force an election as the government), governments have rarely taken advantage of this loophole. With only a few exceptions, majority governments have abided by the scheduled election dates because it just looks cynical and unfair to do otherwise.
If we’re talking about fairness, incentivizing fixed election dates makes a lot of sense. We should be called to vote at regular intervals rather than whenever a sitting government thinks the time is opportune for their re-election chances.
But if this principle makes sense for general elections, why not byelections?
As it stands, the only limitation on a government’s ability to game the calling of byelections is that one must be called within six months of a vacancy. That still allows governments to choose the best moment within those six months to call a byelection. The potential partisan advantage might not be as great as with a general election, but it is still there.
Byelections every October
So, here’s the pitch. Byelections should be held once a year on the third Monday of October, aligning them with the general elections that are also held on the third Monday of October, four years after the last general election.
That would remove the partisan advantage governments have in being able to set the date (and slate) of byelections.
That predictability would have other benefits in the recruitment of candidates and the setting of nomination dates. As it stands, the government can time its nominations according to the byelection calendar only it knows. The opposition parties, by contrast, need to recruit candidates and hold nominations as early as possible in order to not be caught flat-footed. While awkward for the parties, it can also be awkward for the candidates — some of whom might need to make sacrifices to put their names forward, without knowing whether they will have to wait a month or six months before actually having their name on a ballot.
It would also make for easier planning for Elections Canada in hiring staff and identifying locations for polling stations.
But the main reason I like this idea is that it just might help make byelections more interesting — and interesting elections are what can get people engaged in politics.
Engaging politics = political engagement
The slate of four byelections taking place today does not scream political drama. All four are in relatively safe ridings for the incumbent parties and are taking place at a time that is not conducive to high turnout as minds turn to cottages, beaches, travel or just plain doing nothin’.
You know what would be better? Five, six, maybe as many as eight or nine byelections taking place in October, when minds turn (a little more) to politics and people aren’t packing their bags for a trip.
The benefit of holding all byelections once annually at the same time of year as our general election is that we might be able to get Canadians used to a regular political calendar.
Think of the United States. While not exactly the bright shining example of democracy at the moment, they do know how to make elections engaging. For Americans, early November is for voting and they are called to the polls every two years. Midterm elections don’t have as high turnout as presidential years, but the midterm turnout is better than most byelections here — especially when we consider that turnout in general is lower in the United States than in Canada.
Think of it: instead of four sleepy byelections that might get a brief mention on TV and a few articles on news websites, we could have perhaps twice as many byelections taking place with all the potential that brings for more attention. Perhaps I’m dreaming, but what if Canadian media actually gave these exercises in democracy the attention they deserve — live specials broadcast nationally, for example!
The greater number of byelections, the higher stakes and the potential for more drama would increase media attention and the efforts parties put into the byelections, going a long way to increasing turnout and getting people who live outside of the ridings in question to actually get engaged in our politics.
This year is a good case study of how this could play out much better.
Today, we have four contests happening, another scheduled for July 24 in Calgary Heritage and at least an additional one coming: Erin O’Toole’s riding of Durham. There’s the potential for more resignations between now and the fall, as Nate Erskine-Smith and Yasir Naqvi, two MPs running for the Ontario Liberal leadership, could add more vacancies depending on what they decide to do over the next few months.
So, we will definitely have at least one more byelection day between now and and the end of the year, and perhaps two or three. But those other byelection days will feature only one or two contests each. That’s a recipe for yawns, and they’ll be haphazardly spread out across the calendar according to the whims of the government.
This is a common occurrence. In 2018, there were two byelection days (in June and December), each featuring only one contest. In 2017, there were three byelection days (in April, October and December) spread across 11 ridings. In 2012, 2013 and 2014, there were two sets of byelection days in each of those years, held in the months of March, May, June and November.
With a limited number of contests and no predictability as to when these byelections take place, it makes it impossible for Canadians outside of these ridings (and often within them) to develop any sort of rhythm to their political calendar. That does little to help with political engagement. Rather than being part of a larger national byelection day, these are individual contests being held at random times. No wonder turnout is so low.
The issue of representation
There’s one flaw in my proposal. If someone resigned in the six months after the yearly issuing of the byelection writs in mid-September, a riding would go without representation for more than the six months than is currently permitted.
That’s not ideal, but the laws were recently re-written to allow for a vacancy to go unfilled if the next general election is scheduled to take place within nine months. So, the acceptable amount of time to go without representation is open for interpretation and the difference between nine and 12 months isn’t that great (especially as some of those months will necessarily be December and January when the House is rarely sitting).
In the end, the number of seats that could go without representation for that long wouldn’t be very big. If vacancies were evenly distributed across the calendar, it would be a minority of cases — and, as MPs adapt to the new rules, it would probably be a very small minority. For their own reputations and that of their parties, MPs might not want to resign immediately after the national byelection day and so leave their constituents in the lurch.
Get rid of the hijinks and oddities
If we’re weighing the pros and cons, on the latter side of the ledger there’s only the prospect of a lack of representation for more than six (or nine) months for a minority of seats. Fairness, transparency, predictability and, hopefully, higher turnout argue for making the change.
We don’t need to look back very far to find examples of how our current process produces bizarre situations.
Take the four byelections taking place today. The number should be five, but Calgary Heritage remained vacant longer because the Liberals wanted to avoid simultaneous provincial and federal campaigns in this Alberta riding. But Calgary Heritage has been vacant since the end of December. Only Winnipeg South Centre has been vacant for longer. Notre-Dame-de-Grâce–Westmount has only been vacant since early March. Does it make much sense that the good people of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce–Westmount get to choose their new MP before those in Calgary Heritage do, despite having gone without representation for less time? And a July 24 byelection will be super for turnout.
That’s a quirk of the calendar. But partisan games have been played with the setting of byelections as recently as last fall, when Alberta Premier Danielle Smith called a byelection in the riding of Brooks-Medicine Hat in order to get herself a (certain) seat in the legislature. What she didn’t do was call a byelection in the harder-to-win riding of Calgary-Elbow which had been vacant for months. Smith got into the legislature by calling one byelection, avoided a potentially embarrassing defeat early in her premiership by not calling another and Calgary-Elbow went without an MLA for nearly a year.
This isn’t how things should work.
Anchor byelections to the calendar, take away the government’s partisan advantage, increase engagement and make things more predictable for everyone.
And, most importantly, make it easier for me to plan my vacations.