At the time this article was
written Louis Lavoie was Director of Operations for Elections Canada
Elections are on the minds of
people in a great number of countries in 1988. Among the countries which have
held or are scheduled to hold elections this year are: Cameroon, Jamaica,
China, Kenya, Denmark, South Korea, Ecuador, Lebanon, El Salvador, Madagascar,
Equatorial Guinea, Malawi, Finland, Mexico France, Sweden, Iceland, the United
States, Iran, Venezuela, Israel, and Haiti. Other countries, including Canada,
may well have elections this year although there is still no fixed date for
elections in many parliamentary systems.
This article focuses on elections
in Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Despite differences in the political
institutions of the three countries a number of basic principles apply to all.
The right of a citizen to take part
in the decisions affecting public affairs in his country is recognised in all
three countries and in the main instruments related to human rights. For
example, paragraph 21(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted
unanimously by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, stipulates
that: "Every person has the right to take part in the direction of the
public affairs of his or her country, whether it be directly or through
representatives freely chosen."
The Declaration also recognises
that elections play an important role in the political process, as specified in
paragraph 21(3): "The will of the people is the foundation of the
authority of those who have public powers; this will must be expressed in
honest elections which must happen periodically, through universal suffrage and
secret vote or according to equivalent procedures insuring the freedom to
The term "honest" has been
added to this paragraph so as to insure that electors are not submitted to any
constraints or coercive measures in the exercise of the right to vote. A
"Democratic general election" ought to meet as fully as possible, the
following six criteria:
All the adult population of the country, or almost all, must have the
right to vote.
Elections must happen on a regular basis and at prescribed times or
No important group of the adult population must be deprived of its right
to vote or to form a political party and present candidates.
All seats must be part of the election.
The electoral campaigns must be run equitably, in the sense that no law,
no violence or intimidation will prevent candidates from expressing their views
and making their capabilities known or prevent electors from becoming aware of
what these candidates have to say.
The vote must be run freely and secretly. Votes are counted honestly and
fast. The candidates who receive the required number of votes by law are
elected and therefore represent their electorate until the end of their mandate
and a new election is held.
While sharing these main
principles, elections in the three countries, are conducted according to
different rules for questions such as the registration of electors, nomination
of candidates, procedures related to the counting of the votes and various
rules related to campaigns and election expenses. Mathematical formulae are
used to relate the number of votes to a number of seats but the rules are
different in each case. The refinement of electoral procedures is an ongoing
process and occasionally some aspects of one system can be adapted to another.
The following pages describe different features of elections in the three
Mexico is a federal republic of
thirty-one states and the federal district of Mexico where the capital city of
Mexico, is located. The constitution of 1917 guarantees the exercise of
individual and political rights to its citizens and, following the Mexican
revolution, it also proclaims the right to grievances by peasants and workers.
All persons born on the national
territory of Mexico are Mexicans (even if their parents are not), along with
all those born abroad from a father or a mother who is Mexican. The right to
vote is granted to Mexicans of both sexes when they reach the age of majority
which is 18.
Mexico has experienced since its
Revolution between 1910 and 1920 an extremely rapid demographic increase. The
country had a population of 12 million in 1920, and it is estimated that the
present total population is over 80 million, which means that in Mexico the
density of population is 41 persons per square kilometer. Although the rate of
population growth has been slowing down in recent years, and with further
improvement in the level of education, especially in the area of family
planning, the current projections would indicate that by the year 2000 the
country will have a population of over 120 million people.
Only one-third of the population
resides in rural areas, while 50 million Mexicans are in large cities and their
suburbs, mainly in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey. About 70% of the
population is less than 30 years old; youngsters looking for employment
continue to come into the large cities where the labour market is already
The president of the republic is
elected for six years through direct universal suffrage and is not eligible for
reelection. He governs, assisted by a cabinet appointed by him made up of 17
Secretaries of State (ministers) and one department head in charge of the
federal district of Mexico. The president is also assisted by many large state
organisations such as: Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the Federal Commission of
Electricity (FCE), the National Institute of Nuclear Investigation, the Mexican
Institute of Social Security, etc.
The Senate is composed of 64
members, two for each state and two for the federal district, all elected
through universal suffrage for six years. Senators can be reelected, but in no
case can they be elected for two consecutive mandates. Since 1977 and until the
last election in 1982, the chamber of deputies had a total of 400 members
elected every three years according to a system of universal suffrage combining
simple or relative majority with proportion representation.
The territory is divided into 300
electoral districts, one deputy being elected for each of these districts under
a simple majority system. Beside these deputies, there were 100 seats
attributed to minority parties, who receive at least l.5% of the national vote;
these deputies are elected from a regional list through a system of
proportional representation. The effect of this system was to reserve 100 seats
to the opposition.
Each state has its own Constitution
directed by a governor who is elected for six years through universal suffrage,
and not eligible for re-election. There is a Chamber of deputies (elected every
three years) and a Superior Court of Justice. The prerogatives of each state
are limited since the central body controls all financial matters. Each
municipality is administered by an "AYUNTAMIENTO" (Municipal Council)
elected through direct universal suffrage. The case of the federal district of
the city of Mexico is different; the head of the department of this district,
designated by the president of the republic, is assisted by a public servant
for each administrative subdivision of the city.
The "Partido Revolutionario
Institutional" (P.R.I.) founded by Calles, who was president from 1924 to
1928, dominates the political scene since the revolution and tries to bring
together the various interests. It is the party which is considered as being
the successor to the parties which were at the base of the revolutionary
movements in Mexico; this party is given much credit for raising the standard
of living conditions from where they were twenty years ago to these now
prevailing in Mexico.
When President Miguel de la Madrid
Hurtado succeeded Jose Lopez Portillo in 1982, he inherited an organisation
where there was a significant amount of corruption, and owing to the decrease
in the price of oil, the country was faced with the most serious economic
crisis in its history. De La Madrid promised to eliminate corruption and to
introduce important economic reforms. In 1988 observers report that there has
been some improvement in certain areas but the economic situation is still very
precarious and the population is deeply affected by increases in inflation. In
December 1986, under the initiative of President De La Madrid, the constituent
assembly made changes in the Constitution in order to bring about political and
electoral renewal. In July and August 1986 there were public hearings in the
city of Mexico in order to listen to political parties, political associations,
social organisations and interested parties. These consultations are at the
base of changes in electoral legislation which were in force for the recent
election. Here are a few of the changes in the new Mexican electoral
The number of deputies has been increased from 400 to 500; 200
additional seats (instead of 100) will be attributed on the basis of a
proportional representation system. This leaves 300 deputies elected by a
simple majority and 200 through proportional representation.
There were also changes in the composition and management of electoral
organisations. Polling day is now a Wednesday (which is a national holiday)
instead of a Sunday.
There was a new method for counting votes, which reduced the amount of
time between voting and the publication of official results. An impartial
electoral tribunal was created which will make inquiries and decide on
infractions and irregularities.
Mexican political tradition demands
that each PRI presidential candidate get more votes than his predecessor. So
Salinas aimed to surpass the 16,748,006 votes (out of a total of 32.6 million
votes cast) for Miguel de la Madrid in 1982.
Salinas de Gortari, 40, an
accountant and former minister responsible for planning and budgets in the
previous government was chosen by de la Madrid as the head of the PRI and
candidate to the presidency; his principal rivals were Manuel Clouthier, head
of the PAN which is the conservative party of the right and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas
of the National Democratic Party which is a coalition of socialists from the
The army and police were all in a
state of alert so as to ensure peace and order in the 55,000 polls across the
country. The sale of alcoholic beverages was made illegal on polling day and on
the day preceding polling day, which was made a legal holiday even though for
the first time the election was on a Wednesday instead of a Sunday.
As in the past, many unorthodox and
illegal practices such as the stuffing of ballot boxes were reported, but no
violence or protest meetings took place. Carlos Salinas finally won the
presidency with 50.3% of the votes as officially announced by the Federal
Electoral Commission. Cardenas received 31.12% and Clouthier 17.07%.
Both opposition parties contested
the election of Salinas claiming that the election was fraudulent. One can
conclude that this is simply part of the electoral tradition but most observers
believe that there will have to be important changes if the Mexican people are
to have confidence in their democratic institutions.
The United States is a federal
republic with a constitution dating from 1787. Certain powers of a general
nature, belong to the national government, all other powers belong to the
governments of the 50 states which have a constitution modelled on the national
one; it is interesting to note that this question of residual powers is the
reverse in Canada.
The three divisions of the central
government are like those in all large democracies, the executive, the
legislative and the judiciary. The executive (President) and the legislative
are elected, while judges at the federal level are appointed by the president,
subject to the approval of the senate.
The executive is made up of the
president, cabinet ministers for various departments directed by Secretaries appointed
by the president, along with the heads of a certain number of state
corporations. The president is Head of State and also Head of Government; he
appoints the members of the Cabinet, the Ambassadors, the Principal
Administrators, the top military officers, and the judges of the Federal Court.
presidential elections take place
every 4 years, on the Tuesday which follows the first Monday of November. A
president cannot be elected for more than two consecutive mandates. If he dies
or resigns during his mandate, the vice-president replaces him.
Each state has a governor, most of
them elected for four years; the legislatures of each state are generally
bicameral, have their own constitution and judicial machinery. They have their
own electoral laws which are also used at Federal elections. The American
states have very broad powers principally in the area of the application of
laws, in the field of education, of public works, of commerce, of industry and
Article I of the Constitution of
the United States gives all legislative powers of the federal government to a
Congress composed of two houses, namely the Senate and the House of
The Constitution requires senators
to be at least 30 years old, United States citizens for at least nine years and
residents of the state in which they are elected. The members of the House of
Representatives must be at least 25 years old, American citizens for at least
seven years, and also reside in the state in which they are elected to Congress.
The states can impose supplementary conditions for eligibility to the Congress
but the Constitution gives each chamber the right to fix the qualifications of
Each state is entitled to two
senators regardless of its size or population; thus Rhode Island, the state
with the smallest area, 3,156 sq. km, has the same representation in the Senate
as Alaska which covers an area of 1,524,640 sq. km. Alaska with its population
of 534,000 has a representation equal to that of California with its population
of over 26 million.
The total umber of Representatives
is determined by Congress: that number is then apportioned proportionally
between states on the basis of population. Aside from the size of its
population, each state is guaranteed at least one representative in the House
of Representatives. At present, six states --u Alaska, Delaware, Nevada, North
Dakota, Wyoming and South Dakota, have only one representative. On the other
hand six states have more than 20 representatives, California has 45 and New
The Constitution calls for a
general enumeration (census) every ten years, and the redistribution of seats
in the House is made according to demographic changes: the last census was in
1980. According to the initial provisions of the constitution, the number of
representatives was to be one per thirty thousand of population. The first
chamber was composed of 65 members, and that number was increased to 106 after
the first census. If the formula of 1 for 30,000 had been kept intact, the
demographic increase would have brought the number to 7000 representatives.
Instead the formula was modified as years went along and today, the House is
composed of 435 members, approximately 1 for 520,000 of population based on the
The legislature of each state
divides their state into congressional districts which should be, as much as
possible, equal in population. Electors go to the polls to elect their
representatives in Congress, as well as Senators who are also elected every two
years. The difference in the election of Senators is that their mandate is for
six years with one third of them being elected every two years; this way two
thirds of the Senate is always present with some experience in legislation at
the national level.
Because Representatives are elected
every two years one can say that the life of a Congress is two years. The 20th
Amendment to the Constitution stipulates that Congress must meet in a regular
session on the 3rd of January each year unless it chose some other day.
The following table gives an
overview of the composition of the Congress of the United States.
Members for each
Voters of the
Representatives at Large, Voters of the entire state
Term of office
Filled by special
election or at next general election
Special election or
temporary appointment by state Governor until special or regular election
$89,500 a year
$89,500 a year
Starts Jan. 3 of
Starts Jan. 3 of
Vice President of
the United States
of each House
Initiates impeachment against
Elects a President if no
candidate has a majority of the electoral vote
Tries impeached officers
Confirms or rejects appointments
made by the President
Elects a Vice President if no
candidate has a majority of the electoral vote
Parties are at the basis of the
American political system. The Republican and Democratic Parties compete at all
levels of political life, whether it be for the position of municipal
councillor, mayor, governor, or member of congress, president or vice
president. The selection for all these positions takes place in two steps: the
first one, that of the designation of a candidate is made at the party level;
the second and the last one is made at the national level or locally according
to the position.
The present methods of designating
candidates have improved and changed during the course of the history of the
United States, but in each case some aspects have remained unchanged. The most
ancient of all, which dates from the colonial years I what is referred to as
the "caucus". It is a meeting of party leaders during which they come
to an agreement as to which candidate they will present. As the nation was
growing and its political organisation was becoming more complex, the local
caucus started to delegate representatives to meet other representatives and
form groups, which would be larger, to make the final selection of candidates.
These meetings called "conventions" were the prototypes of the large
conventions at which are designated the candidates of parties to the
presidential elections. The third way of designating is through the method of
the "primaries". These are elections within a party, at the states
level; the aim of these elections is to allow electors to choose directly the
candidates for their party.
Every four years, the electoral
process reaches its peak when presidential elections happen. The candidates of
the parties are designated at state conventions which are held during the last
few months before the election; those who are chosen are generally required to
vote for a certain candidate at least for the first vote.
A partial list of the principal steps
towards the presidential elections of November 8, 1988, is listed below.
February 16, 1988
March 15 to 25
Michigan and New York
New Jersey Primaries
July 18 to 21
August 15 to 18
Convention (New Orleans)
Official start of
September 15 and October
11 and 27
January 20 1989
On November 8, if the turnout
remains what it was in previous elections about 50% of Americans over the age of
18 will go and vote for sheriffs, mayors, governors, senators, representatives
as well as the president. In some cases the elector may be asked to say
"yes" or "no" to a series of questions.
A special mechanism to elect a president
is peculiar to the American system. Although the names of candidates appear on
the ballots, technically the electors of each state do not actually vote
directly for the president and vice-president. Instead, they select a slate of
presidential electors, equal to the number of Senators and Representatives each
state has in Congress. The candidate having obtained the greatest number of
votes in each state wins all the electoral votes of that state.
The presidential electors of all 50
states and the District of Columbia -- a total of 538 persons -- comprise what
is known as the Electoral College. Under terms of the Constitution, the College
never meets as a body. Instead, the electors gather in the state capitals
shortly after the election and cast their votes for the candidate with the
largest number of popular votes. To be successful, a candidate for the
presidency must receive 270 votes. The Constitution stipulates that if no
candidate has a majority, the decision shall be made by the House of Representatives.
On November 8, Americans will
decide whether between George Bush, of the Republican Party or Michael Dukakis,
of the Democratic Party will become their president. The current
Vice-President, George Bush, after having eliminated rather quickly his five
rivals, had in his pocket the nomination at the National Republic Convention
convened for August in New Orleans. Michael Dukakis, governor of the state of
Massachusetts, practically unknown outside the borders of his own state a year
ago has had to work hard during the primaries; finally on June 7, during the
last round of the primaries he won enough votes to get his party's nomination
at their national convention in July at Atlanta.
It is not easy at first glance to
see a difference between these two characters equally reserved, prudent and
somewhat colourless on occasions; the resemblance does not stop there, even if
it has its limits. Both men are also pragmatists and not idealists. Somewhat
lacking in precise programs, both men present themselves, their individual
background and accomplishments as the best qualified to do the job. At the end
of August polls seem to favour Mr. Bush who appointed Senator Quayle from
Indiana as his running mate.
What remains to be seen is who, in
the next two months will best be able to convince the American electorate that
he will do the job that is expected at the head of what is one of the two most
powerful nations in the world.
Canada is a constitutional
monarchy, a federation with parliamentary institutions based on responsible
government. Further to the 1982 Constitutional Act, the Canadian Constitution
is now in Canada and the British Parliament has relinquished its authority as
it existed in the British statutes, including the possibility to amend the Canadian
In theory executive power belongs
to the Queen and her representative appointed on the recommendation of the
Prime Minister. In practice executive power belongs to the Prime Minister with
his cabinet, who are generally members elected to the House of Commons.
Canada, like Mexico and the United
States, has a bicameral legislature formed of a Senate whose members are
appointed, and a House of Commons whose members are elected. Constitutionally
speaking, the two Houses have generally the same powers, but in practice the
principal laws and initiatives originate with the Prime Minister, the Cabinet,
and the House of Commons.
There are 104 senators, appointed
by the prime minister, until the age of 75. Members of the House of Commons are
elected through universal suffrage for a maximum term of 5 years. A member of
the House of Commons represents the population of an electoral district where
he was elected; the districts are apportioned among provinces in relation to
their demographic makeup. Nevertheless, the smaller provinces historically have
had proportionate a larger number of districts than the more populous
The ten provinces have a great
amount of autonomy where political affairs are concerned. In each province, the
federal government appoints a Lieutenant Governor, who normally takes advice
from the provincial Executive Council responsible to a provincial legislature
whose members have been elected for a maximum period of 5 years. All provincial
legislatures have been unicameral for a number of years.
In Canada, as in most democratic
countries, the electoral system comprises the elements by which an election at
the national level is run. It is the law which controls the holding of
elections, the conditions for the exercise of the right to vote, of the
counting of the ballots, and the manner in which the results will affect the
composition of the House of Commons.
In a general way, everyone who is
18 years and over has the right to vote, if that person is a Canadian citizen and
if he or she ordinarily resides in Canada on the first day of the enumeration
and continues to reside there on the day of the election. There are very few
persons excluded and when they are, it generally relates to the position they
hold at a point in time.
All persons who have the right to
vote can also run for office. The law does not oblige a candidate to reside in
the electoral district where he or she is running, but very often Canadians
give their preference to candidates who live in the electoral district which
they wish to represent, or to which they have ties for one reason or another.
To become a candidate a person must
simply present a nomination paper with the signatures of at least twenty five
persons who are duly qualified in that particular electoral district. Moreover,
all candidates must make a deposit of $200.00; this amount is reimbursable if a
candidate obtains at least 15% of the valid votes cast. Since the coming into
force of regulations concerning election expenses, a candidate must also have a
chartered accountant, along with an official agent who I the only person
permitted to receive contributions or incur expenses in the name of a
Effective July 14 of this year
there are 295 electoral districts each of which returns one member to the House
of Commons. When districts are established great care is taken to insure that
the number of representatives from each province is proportional to their own
demographic situation in relation to the whole of Canada. It is equally imperative,
as required under the Constitution, to revise the boundaries of electoral
districts following each decennial census.
Immediately when the Chief
Electoral Officer receives the new population figures from a census, he must
compute the number of seats to be attributed to each province, according to a
formula established in the Constitution. An independent commission, presided by
a judge appointed by the chief justice of the province is then constituted in
each province, along with the commission in the Northwest Territories, to
determine the new boundaries of the electoral districts. The office of the
Chief Electoral Officer must supply administrative support along with technical
and professional help to the commissions.
There are two fundamental aspects
to the federal electoral system which one must remember: the principle of
representation in the House of Commons, that is to say the manner in which the
number of seats to the House of Commons is calculated and the way they are
distributed among each of the provinces and the territories; and secondly, the
way in which the boundaries of the electoral commission of the electoral
districts are established and periodically revised in order to reflect the
evolution of the representation in the House of Commons and the movement of the
population from one region to another within the country.
The history of Canada is one of
numerous compromises; the question of the representation of the provinces in
the House of Commons does not escape this tradition. Be that as it may, one can
say with certainty, even today, that the principle of representation according
to population is still the basis of the electoral system.
In June 1986, the Government tabled
a White Paper in which a series of electoral reforms were proposed which were
basically a detailed examination of the recommendations included in the reports
of the Chief Electoral Officer for 1984 and 1985. One of the principal objects
was the rewriting of the act so as to make it as understandable as possible. The
proposals contained in the White Paper corresponded to three main objectives;
widen the franchise by eliminating administrative and judicial obstacles;
modernise the management of elections by eliminating useless and expensive
procedures; and render more practical the exercise of the franchise.
One year after the tabling of the
White Paper referred to above, the Deputy Prime Minister and President of Privy
Council, Mr. Donald Mazankowski, presented a bill in which one can find the
majority of the recommendations contained in the White Paper of June 1986.
Here are a few of the proposals
included in Bill C-79:
Judges appointed by the Federal Government, along with mentally
handicapped people would in the future have the right to vote. The special
category of "temporary worker" would be abolished.
Deputy Returning Officers would be appointed from a list supplied by the
candidate or representative of the party in power and the Poll Clerks would be
appointed from a list supplied by a candidate or representative from a party,
other than the governing party having obtained the largest number of votes at
the previous election in that electoral district;
Section 18 of the Act dealing with enumeration and the revision of the
electoral lists would be entirely rewritten in order to modify the system of
registration and to make the rules easier to understand. The principal
modifications would be the following:
except for areas which are isolated and designated by the Chief
Electoral Officer, in all other rural areas the enumerators would have to go
door to door as it is done now in urban areas;
the Returning Officer would be in charge of the revision of the urban
lists; two revisers would be appointed by the Returning Officer in each revisal
district, with one of the revisers being designated by the candidate
representing the party in power and the other by the candidate of a party other
than the party in power having obtained the greatest number of votes at the
proceeding election in that election district;
the urban revision would take place on the 14th 13th and 12th day,
preceding to election day, with a special session being held to add names only
on the 3rd day before polling day;
central polling places, the offices of the returning officers and the advance
polls would be located in buildings which have level access. All ordinary polls
should also have level access when it is possible and in cases where it is not
possible the returning officer must explain why he could not have a level
access for that poll.
The Special Voting Rules which at present govern voting by the electors
of the Armed Forces and of the Federal Public Service, along with their
defendants and other persons living with them outside of Canada (along with
veteran electors) would be reformulated in order to allow all Canadians living
outside Canada along with electors from the Forces to vote at all federal
elections and not only at general elections.
Mobile polls would visit small residences for incapacitated electors,
such as nursing homes in order to take the votes of those persons at
predetermined hours on polling day;
Voting by proxy would not be restricted to designated categories of
electors, but would be accessible to all persons having reason to believe that
they could not use any of the other voting opportunities including inmates in
penal institutions awaiting trial.
All new political parties would have to find signatures of 10,000
electors, aside from the 10 members presently required, before being able to be
all parties would have to register their local associations.
All candidates would have to produce a list of 100 electors on their
nomination paper (instead of 25 the way it is now) and a deposit of $500
(instead of $200 the way it is now). The deposits would be automatically
returned upon reception of the report of election expenses and receipts for
income tax not used. The candidate would have until five o'clock on nomination
day to officially withdraw his candidature.
The Bill also proposes a number of
other reforms: the sale of alcoholic beverages on polling day will be
permitted; the rules dealing with controverted elections would now be included
in the Canada Elections Act; the publication of results from one time zone to
another where the vote is still going on would not be considered as an
infraction anymore; an automatic judicial recount would become necessary if
there were a maximum of 35 votes (instead of 25 like it is now) between the
first and the second candidates.
Given the importance of the proposed
changes, the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer hopes that the final
modification will become law as soon as possible. In fact, these modifications
would have enormous repercussions on the preparations for the next election and
the program of training for all returning officers; in early July '88 the bill
was presented for second reading but not referred to Committee.
The government House leader, Mr.
Doug Lewis, explained that the government wanted to have legislation passed on
Free Trade and other bills already introduced and currently at the discussion
Elections at the federal level in
Canada are expected in the Fall of this year or in the Spring of '89; the
government has until the Fall of '89 to call an election. The three parties
represented in the House were almost equal in popularity according to current
polls at the time of writing and this makes for a most interesting and active
period ahead of us.
There exist a great number of
electoral systems and only a few lend themselves to generalisations. The
English world, for example, has followed traditions different than those of
continental Europe. Countries which were once colonies of Great Britain,
including Canada and the United States, have kept the great simplicity of the uninominal
majority voting system, often referred to as "first-past-the
post-system", while much of the rest of the democratic world seems to
prefer some kind of proportional system of representation.
One must remember that an electoral
system cannot be well understood unless considered along with the political
regime to which it is associated. Laws relating to the fairness of electoral
campaigns and the actual voting, the restriction imposed on political parties
and on candidates along with the question of responsibility, are all points
which have been resolved in different ways in various countries. Nor is it
possible for us to give magical answers to questions concerning the exact size
of the legislative body or the frequency of elections.