Nice Work If You Can Get It

I got a fascinating letter from a reader about a story that really adds to it. First, the story from the 28 September 2008 issue:

Politically Incorrect

Gerry Ritz, Canada’s Federal Agriculture Minister, has apologized for his gallows humor after a breakout of listeria, which has been traced to contaminated cut meats and cheeses. “This is like a death by a thousand cuts — or should I say cold cuts?” Ritz cracked during a conference call updating scientists and bureaucrats on the outbreak. When told of yet another death, this time on Prince Edward Island, he replied, “Please tell me it’s [opposition M.P.] Wayne Easter.” Ritz said his “couple of spur-of-moment offhand comments” were made during “a highly stressful time,” but admitted his jokes “were tasteless and completely inappropriate.” Easter has called for Ritz to resign. (Toronto Star) …But where is the outrage of Ritz trying to take the jobs of news commentators and late night comedians?


A Premium subscriber in Canada wrote to say that Easter isn’t just an opposition party M.P., he’s Ritz’s official critic. I wasn’t familiar with that concept, and asked him to explain. Magnus in B.C. did, and it’s so fascinating I’m reproducing it here.

In Canada, we have more parties than in the US — this upcoming election, we’ve actually got five MAJOR political parties, all of which are likely to get seats in our House of Commons. We have the Conservatives, a moderately right-wing party; the Liberals, a centrist party; the NDP, a left-wing party; the Bloq Quebecois, a separatist party; and the Green Party, a left-wing party. There are also numerous fringe parties. The party with the most seats names the Prime Minister, the leader of Canada. We’re having an election on October 14. Some call the elections in Canada “interesting”; others, a gong show.

You’ve no doubt noticed that if there are five parties, that means that there’s not always a party with the most seats. In that case, we end up with a “minority government”, where any bill passed must have the assent of at least two parties before it can be introduced. It makes for a less efficient, but more balanced, government. Before the election was called, the conservative party held a minority government. We use a “first past the post” election system, where the person with the most votes wins their riding. (That person can, and often does, have less than 50% of the popular vote.) The raw count from those ridings are used to determine the governing party in Canada directly, without the use of an Electoral College.

There are always opposition parties — the full title is “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”. As the title implies, their job is to oppose the government in anything they do, and their loyalty to the country is never in question. (I’ve heard that in some countries, questioning the President or the government can bring your loyalty or patriotism into question! What a quirky notion!)

In the governing party (the one who chooses the Prime Minister) Ministers are appointed. A Minister has a portfolio, which is their job while they’re the Minister. The Industry Minister is in charge of Canada’s Industry; the Agriculture Minister is in charge of Canada’s agriculture, and so forth. They are ultimately responsible for any problems that arise while they’re holding the portfolio. In the case of Gerry Ritz, he’s responsible for the tainted meat from Maple Leaf. The idea is that if they had enacted better laws, the problems would not have happened.

The opposition party/parties appoint(s) “Critics”. For _every party_ and every Minister, there is a Critic. In the case of Gerry Ritz, he’s got *three* Agriculture Critics watching his every move. It is their duty and privilege to make the Minister answer for any misfortunes, laws, or actions that happen during their term. In the extremely rare case where a party gets an overwhelming lead, they will invite the leaders of the opposition parties to sit in the House and appoint their own members as Critics. This happened once at the provincial level.

I’m not sure how this will work with another party elected. Perhaps there will be four critics. Nevertheless, the critics are an integral part of Canada’s political system. They make it extremely difficult for the government to get away with anything in secret.

This may be old news for those in a parliamentary system, but it’s completely different from the U.S., where the press — the “Fourth Estate” (or fourth branch of government) — is supposed to do that watchdog function. Sometimes it does it well, and other times …uh… less well.

It would be interesting to debate which method works better — you can post your comments below. The most amusing aspect of this to me: even though it was unknowing, I really was right on about the critic taking work from news people!

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33 Comments on “Nice Work If You Can Get It

  1. You could say that the comments by Ritz were real crackers.

    Uh, sorry. I just can’t pass up a really bad (and obvious) joke, which may or may not have already been made in a less blatant form in the article.

    As for debating the merits of the two systems, I would have to defend our Canadian one. Partly because I’ve grown up with it, but also because I would rather have someone who is supposed to have a certain amount of knowledge on the subject as watchdog than some half-baked hack (uh, certain humour columnists excepted of course).

    Yes, I did use “Ritz cracked” in the story. No, I didn’t take offense: I’m a fully baked hack! -rc

  2. The Canadian parliamentary system like that in all ex British colonies and Dominions (even Zimbabwe!) try to follow the British Westminster model to some extent. Some countries like Australia and New Zealand have given up the ‘first past the post’ system and opted for some form of proportional representation. It doesn’t necessarily work any better that the Canadian or British system and is certainly more complex and confusing for the voter.

    But there is absolutely no doubt that this system keeps a government on its toes. I find that in the USA the press has been proving extremely negligent over the past 8 years in performing its proper function and has let GWB and RC get away with far too much. Perhaps that because so many of the newspaper ownership is tied up with the Elephant in power!

  3. I think that the critic (or in Australia, the Shadow minister) is an important role in Politics, not only do they still represent their electorate, but also they hold the government to account.

    From wiki: “It is the Shadow Cabinet’s responsibility to pass criticism on the current government and its respective legislation, as well as offering alternative policies.” Wiki Link

    The press on the other hand, should be reporting what has happened (or what has not), and only by using opinion/editorial pieces properly should they (and those invited to write them) be purporting a view.

  4. We have a similar system in Australia, but with 3 major and one minor party:

    Liberals – centerist conservatives
    National – rural centerist conservative
    Labor – centerist leftists
    Greens – leftist

    The Liberals and Nationals are in a permanent coalition, and there’s less difference between them than between the different factions in the Australian Labor Party.

    There’s also a handful of independents, less than half a dozen.

    We have preferential voting, which means that the candidate least odious to the electorate tends to win.

    The concept of “shadow ministers” is the same as in Canada, but the Lib/Nat coalition share theirs, and when in government, there will be some Lib and some Nat ministers in cabinet.

    We have a house of reps, and a senate, along US lines.

    There are two major differences though, and although minor, they are significant. The first is that party discipline is much stronger. “Crossing the floor” and voting with the other side, or even abstaining, will, more often than not, lead to expulsion from the party. This is the main source of the “independents”, who can usually be trusted to follow one or the other party line, but have special interests, such as anti-gambling.

    The second is that legislation is only allowed to have one purpose – no “earmarks”. No “A Bill to increase pensions to widows and orphans… and also give my cousin Vladimir a tax break, fund a perpetual-motion machine factory, and issue a commemorative stamp”.

    There’s still horse-trading, but it tends to cut out the worse excesses.

  5. I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know this — and thankful for the information. And yes, it does sound like a much better system than we have in the US, for the reasons stated. Please accept my humble gratitude for the civics lesson.

    Don’t feel bad, Robert — I didn’t know about the “critic” either. It was interesting indeed. -rc

  6. I must say that Magnus’ explanation of the Canadian political system is very accurate. However, I disagree with his characterization of the Green Party as a ‘left-wing’ party. So I would like to make some additional comments in order to assist those who would like to understand our political system a bit better.

    The Conservative Party was formed in 2003 by a merger between the Progressive Conservative Party (popularly known in Canada as the PC’s) and the Canadian Alliance Party. The Progressive Conservative Party was a fiscally conservative party but had a progressive view on social issues (as an example, a leader of the PC’s, John Diefenbaker, led the fight against the death penalty back in the 1960s). The Canadian Alliance Party was fiscally and socially conservative, more along the lines of the Republican Party in the US. It was formed from the Reform Party, which was based in Western Canada and was never able to capture the imagination of other Canadians.

    With these two parties fracturing the right-wing vote, the Liberals were able to govern unopposed for most of the 1990s and the early years of the new century. A movement then arose to tone-down some of the more rabidly right-wing members of the Canadian Alliance Party and merge with the PC’s. This finally happened in 2003 with the formation of the Conservative Party of Canada.

    Under Stephen Harper, the Conservative Party received the most seats in the 2006 election. However, they did not have enough seats to form a majority and thus could be defeated if the opposition parties voted against them in votes known as “confidence votes” (ie they needed to have the confidence of a majority of the members in the House of Commons who were present for the vote).

    In August of this year, sensing disarray and a weak leader in their prime opposition party, the Liberal Party of Canada, Stephen Harper called an election, hoping to get a majority and be able to govern without having to be as careful about being defeated. I won’t get into the process — this is long enough already!

    So that is why we are currently having an election in Canada!

    My other quibble with Magnus’ description was that the Green party of Canada is “leftist”. I personally supported the Progressive Conservative Party for several decades and would never vote for a party that was left-wing. As I am socially liberal and fiscally conservative, I took great issue with the social conservatism of many members of the Conservative Party of Canada. So I did not vote for that party in the past two elections: I “parked” my vote by voting for the Green’s.

    Although the Greens are left-wing on environmental issues, under the leadership of Elizabeth May, the Green Party of Canada has become more centrist on non-environmental issues — and is even fiscally conservative on some issues. As an example, they support reducing income and payroll taxes while implementing a carbon tax to replace the government revenue that will be lost by those reductions. So I am no longer parking my vote: I have become a Green Party voter!

  7. Legislation for one purpose – what a great policy!

    I have often heard bits about the “coalition” system of other democratic governments, and wondered how it worked. Thanks for the responses.

    Of course, the listeria outbreak really has been a terrible, terrible thing, with incredible honesty and apologies expressed by the president of Maple Leaf Foods. It was absolutely stunning to me that Ritz thought that joking about it would be acceptable — just goes to show AGAIN that many politicians aren’t the brightest bulbs.

  8. It is interesting to note the differences. The idea of critic is longstanding and does keep the minister on his or her toes.

    Comparing this to the American system, we elect every member of the House of Commons (equivalent to the House of Representatives) at the same time, as opposed to half every two years. Magnus is correct in the voting mechanism — you vote for your riding’s representative who wins a seat in Parliment. The party with the most number of seats is the party in power and the leader of that party is the Prime Minister. This person is also elected in a specific riding too, in other words wins a seat in a riding just like everyone else.

    It does get a bit interesting in the choosing of a leader of a party. There are no primaries, but the party itself chooses it’s leader, usually throgh a internal voting system, and the exact method is set by the party itself. What is interesting is that a party leader may, in fact, lose an election, or be voted as leader by their party, and not have a seat in Parliment. This doesn’t happen very often, but is currently present in the Green party, where the leader does not have a seat. I am uncertain of the exact mechanism, but if the party in power’s leader does not have a seat, they can go on for a while in that state, but an election would be soon or the party would choose another leader.

    The timing of elections is, even now, quite different. If the house is in a minority government situation (party in power has the most seats of any party but less than half), a defeat of a major bill (such as the budget) or a motion of non-confidence can “bring the house down” and cause an election. It can also be called by the Prime Minister. In the past, elections must be held at least every five years, but again the timing was at the whim of the Prime Minister, so there was a lot of strategy in calling the election. Minority governments would desire a majority government so they don’t have to listen to their critics as closely).

    Recently, the house passed a bill stating that the election dates would be set every four years at a specific time, attempting to eliminate the party in power from setting up a great advantage (e.g. great tax cut announced and then call an election), however the party that introduced this bill essentially broke their own law that they pushed through the house, and called an election (it was due in 2009, we currently have an election on Oct 14th).

    There are of course, advantages to both, but one thing I feel is a good thing is our entire election, from the calling of it to voting day, is only a few weeks long. It was called at the beginning of September. Moving to fixed date would allow for the protracted 18 month furvor that we see in the US.

    We also have a senate. This is closer to the House of Lords in the UK, than the US. Members are appointed for life and vacancies are filled by the appointment by the Prime Minister at the time. It is suposed to be the “house of sober thought” and that members would not be constrained or tied to buying votes, but devotion of to duty and country would be the motivator. It’s legislative powers are less than the American senate, and of course, doesn’t quite live up to its ideal. Reform of the senate has been talked about for a number if years.

  9. Your various writers previous to me have done a first class job of summarizing the Canadian Parliamentary System! (As well, they should be given kudos for their general comments on the Generic Parliamentary System!)

    I can say this, having a BA in Political Science. In fact, I could not have written a better description myself. Your friend Magnus MUST be a professor or something. This is perhaps the BEST of your blog series.

    A couple of notes:

    For a long time we have discussed getting a 3E Senate in Canada: Equal, Elected, Effective. We have yet to do it.

    Equal: Similar to the US, each Province would get so many members. Currently Senators are either replaces or added – Elevated it is called – at the entire whim of whatever Prime Minister has the honours of appointing them. Therefore, a PM has no responsibility or duty to see that all Provinces have an equal number of Senators. Because so many PM’s have come from Quebec, you can guess they are well represented!

    Elected: Many Canadians would like to vote for their senators, to have a say in who gets Elevated. Currently, we have absolutely no say as to whom, or why, or where they come from.

    Effective: The Senate, that House of Sober Second Thought, is all too often NOT that Sober…. It is thought that terms (say 8 – 10 years) would be preferable than being appointed until they choose to retire, or are forced to.

    Our Media does do some criticism as the US media does, but not to such an adversarial level. Oddly enough, some of the best criticism comes from our national broadcaster, the CBC. We have had a number or cheap to produce, but very educational and active, “public interest” TV and radio shows over the years. Marketplace, The Fifth Estate, W5, This Hour has 22 Minutes, and so on. Google CBC and CTV, the two biggest networks. These “news shows” done in a semi-documentary format, are investigative journalism at its best. (Sort of the Randy Cassinghams of Canada!)

    At any rate, You all deserve a hearty well done!

  10. I’m not sure the concept of “coalition government” would work well in the USA. I’m fairly sure that’s why we changed the original method of determining a Vice President (it was the second-place candidate!). And to quibble somewhat over the Canadian explanation, “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition” does not OPPOSE the government, but QUESTIONS the government’s policies and operations. An antagonism for sheer political gain is not the intention, as it seems to be all-too-often in a two-party (win-or-lose) system.

  11. The comments from John and Kurt from Canada are very insightful and educating to readers in other countries. However, I would like to politely point out an error in Kurt’s comment. He said, “[W]e elect every member of the House of Commons (equivalent to the House of Representatives) at the same time, as opposed to half every two years.” In fact, all members of the House of Representatives here in the U.S. are also elected at the same time every two years — it is the Senate that has staggered elections (one-third every two years).

  12. Unfortunately, it seems that elections in Canada aren’t as spectacular as they are in the US. Quite a few people are more interested in McCain/Obama than in Dion/Harper/Layton (blogs about US politics are way more popular, in the province of Quebec at least).

    I personally resisted the urge of watching the vice presidential debate instead of the English-language Canadian debate (Canada has both French and English as official languages, and leaders have to be bilingual – or look stupid trying).

  13. I read the first couple of comments and was about to add the points that John from Montreal made. But he got there before me and did it more eloquently.

    A: The Green Party is not left-wing, but has very thoughtful and extensive policies that are socially progressive, environmentally grounded and financially conservative.

    They also have not had a single member elected yet, though they came close in one Ontario riding, running against a long-time Conservative incumbent.

    B: The Conservative Party has its roots in Western Canadians far more right wing than the former Progressive Conservatives and I think it’s indicative of their core that they chose to drop “progressive” from their name. The current Canadian Prime Minister has his roots as a former leader of the National Citizen’s Coalition, a right wing privately funded group who seem to be roughly equivalent to American Libertarians. (Though, in my opinion, with less credibility and humanity.) Despite their claim of non-partisanship, the NCC currently display a disparaging banner putting down former (now dead) Prime Minister Trudeau and current Liberal leader Stephan Dion. The banner equates a Federal gov’t plan in the 70’s which spread the oil wealth of Alberta across the country with the Liberal proposal of today to have a tax on carbon emissions (balanced by a cut in personal income taxes).

    They bear no resemblance to each other but the “National Energy program” of the ’70’s still sticks in the craw of Westerners. This approach to stirring up ghosts and boogymen, fear mongering at the grassroots, coffeeshop gossip level has apparently been lifted from Mr. Harper’s past at the NCC and translated into Republican style attack ads on Mr. Dion, starting in early 2007, 6 weeks after Dion’s election as Liberal leader, more than a year before an election was called. The attacks have mostly been personal and mean-spirited. Mr. Harper has also been adept at keeping (for the most part) his MPS quiet, since they have a reputation for racist and stupid comments, ignorant of fact. Even his cabinet ministers are strongly urged to clear public statements with the Prime Minister’s Office.

    I bring all this up because I think we may have, if Mr. Harper wins a majority position this time, what the US may at last soon get rid of. A right wing (I disagree that Canadian Conservatives are “moderate”, perhaps appearing so because they have been in a less powerful minority position) government that by its nature keeps the ‘governors’ from speaking out to the people they govern, and which presents fearmongering rhetoric rather than facts, is one that desperately needs strong opposition.

  14. I would add to Don’s quibble: the usage of “Critic” and “Opposition” may imply an antagonism that is not intended, and indeed I had never heard of “Critics” before in this context. Here in the UK (as, as was pointed out by David, in Australia), the Opposition member with responsibility for a particular activity is called the “Shadow” minister/secretary/whatever: they are responsible for shadowing the Government individual in question – closely following them and being aware of everything relevant they do. They are not supposed to oppose/criticise them unless they are wrong!

  15. Wow! Derek from Ontario certainly has a lot of vitriol stored up for a government that is not even his own. I am sure that it is very upsetting to Mr. Bush and his administration that he is not making our neighbors to the north happy. Perhaps if the socialists Obama and Biden get elected then the US government will be more to Derek’s taste. And that, of course, should always be our first priority; govern our country in such a way so as not to upset anyone else in the world. We can just reason with our enemies and all will be right. Pass the koolaid!

  16. Thank you very much to the previous posters who have done such an excellent job describing the Canadian and general parliamentary systems to us readers from the USA. A key difference that should be mentioned is that the system here in the USA has independent executive and legislative branches. You can argue about the advantages and disadvantages of each system, but this difference makes the concept of a Critic position a little harder to understand for us used to the other system.

    In a parliamentary system, each cabinet portfolio is given to someone who is already working in the government as an elected legislator of the leading party or coalition. Members of the opposition who are also already in the government as elected legislators are then available for the roles of shadows/critics.

    With an independent executive branch, the cabinet positions are appointed to people specifically “hired” by the President to do those jobs. Cabinet secretaries are not also working in the government as legislators. It would be interesting if the losing party in the presidential election could set up a shadow/critic cabinet, but to be fair it would have to be done by maintaining an organization to hire people specifically for those roles. In this way an independent executive makes the concept of a direct shadow/critic for cabinet positions extremely impractical if not impossible.

  17. If Paul in New York thinks that Obama and Biden are “socialists”, his brain would have probably exploded if he’d been call upon to vote in the last election I voted in.

    In the local government elections in New South Wales, Australia, the candidates in my ward represented the Labor Party, the Liberal Party, the Greens, and the Socialist Alliance.

    (OK the Liberal Party are actually a conservative party in Australia, but still, it reads well.)

    I’d say you need a few Socialist Alliance candidates in the USA to remind people like Paul that Socialism actually means something a little different to “rich people pay more tax than poor people”.

  18. One great addendum to the history of the Conservative party as created out of the combination of the Reform and Canadian Alliance Parties — initially they chose the name “Canadian Reform Alliance Party” — CRAP. I sh__, um, kid you not! Finally a little honesty in politics.

  19. Just wondering Randy, where is it written or proposed or whatever that the press is the fourth estate? They are self appointed and pretty bad at the job. The Founding Fathers never took the press into account and there is no accountability in the press. The situation has now gotten dangerously worse as bloggers present themselves as a source of “news”. Sadly much of this is wildly biased and untrue, but is taken for fact.

    There’s a fairly long history of the press being the “fourth estate”. Certainly you’ll agree that the government bears watching, and at least someone stepped up to the job (even if poorly) when our Constitution didn’t make provisions for a shadow government. -rc

  20. It’s not like we have “critics” _instead_of_ the press — we do have newspapers and television journalists, and they do occasionally do their job too.

  21. All great systems, but voter apathy? LEADERSHIP BY POLLS!

    Our politicians say what the polls tell them voters want to hear OR just attack the opponents. What do they really stand for? Jean Chretien (liberal P.M.) promised to cancel the national Goods & Services tax. That liar’s long political career was just smoke and mirrors. Question the opposition’s character just before the election. Religious extremists? Anti-Immigration? Last minute, half-baked garbage that works. A sly fox that ate our chickens.

  22. Just a couple of notes about the current Canadian political parties. The Green party are basically small “c” conservative, or slightly right of centre. Their fiscal policies mirror the Conservatives, but they push harder for social programs. Also, the Liberals tend to be all over the map. They have a tradition of campaigning like the NDP and governing like Conservatives.

  23. I would agree that the Green Party is a moderately (Canadian) right of centre party. The previous leader of the Green was Jim Harris, a former Progressive Conservative.

    One thing that you may not realise is that we have many fringe parties in Canada, including the Communists, the Marxist-Leninists, the Canada Action Party, the Fringe Party and the Marijuana Party (to name some, not all). These parties all get funding from the government (aka the taxpayers) of $1.75/year for every vote they received in the previous election. The Marijuana Party gets about 60,000/year in funding.

    Lastly, one of our major political parties has one purpose, to create the independent country of Quebec…

  24. Hmm… Canada’s system is more different from Australia’s than I thought. But onto the subject at hand: In Australia, at least, the media’s role is to inform the people. It doesn’t really matter what our Shadow Ministers or Canada’s Critics say if it’s not reported.

    I see them having two main roles: First, they have the resources and experience (not to mention the motivation) to really investigate what the government is doing. The Shadow Minister has his own staff — if there’s a 2000-page report on the sugar cane industry it’s a bit much to expect a journalist to go through it looking for a possible discrepancy, especially considering there’re hundreds of these types of reports a year. However, it’s the shadow ministers job to know what’s in the report even if it’s nothing controversial, because the idea of being shadow minister is that if the government changes hands they’ll be minister…and they’d better be ready.

    That’s the second use they have, of course, showing that the opposition party has the ability to take over the government. In Australia if the lower house is close (the government has just a few more seats than the opposition, which happens a fair bit) it’s feasible that the government could change hands just with a couple of by-elections. (By elections are elections that aren’t in the general election cycle, and are held because a politician has left office early for some reason).

  25. So, if I’m understanding John in Calgary correctly by voting for a party you’re basically saying “I agree that C$1.75 [I’m presuming that he meant Canadian Dollars] of my annual tax will go to support the party I’m voting for.” Seems fair. According to Google C$1.75 is about $1.60 or about 90p for us Brits. 90p is about what you’d pay for a 500ml bottle of Coke or Fanta from a newsagents or convenience store in Birmingham (UK). Even if only half voters are tax payers so each tax payer is paying C$3.50/$3.20/1.80 pounds that’s still not a huge amount (a small coffee in Starbucks costs about that).

  26. Since we are talking about government systems, I was wondering if there was someone who could explain the US system? Here in Australia comedians have been making a living joking about the complexity of the US system, which I have to admit since what feels like the never ending US elections has confounded me more and more.

    And to Alexandre of Quebec Canada, I think the reason why people find the US elections so interesting is probably because it’s such a show. In Australia during an election year the vying party leaders go to schools, visit their electorates, meeting and greeting residents, make speeches and attend functions. Not exactly entertainment galore unlike from what I’ve seen of the US elections which is spectacle bonanza. With a media circus and celebrities and singers and concerts; glitz and glamour who wouldn’t be more interested in the USA elections?

  27. Keira,

    First, while the US has about ten organized political parties, only two really matter: the Democrats and the Republicans. Every once in a while we get a Green party member in Congress or a regional office, but for the most part no one cares about them.

    However, we don’t elect a party, we elect people. So the first thing we have to do is figure out who is going to be the candidate from the parties. About a year or so before the election, senior politicians (usually governors of states or senators) will explore the possibility or running. Depending on support, they will declare their candidacy.

    During the year prior to the election, each of the states and territories will hold either an election or a caucus, depending on the state, to determine who the state backs in each party. These are the Primaries. So, for example, there will be an election in California to see whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or Bill Richardson will represent the Democratic Party for President. On the same day, Republicans in California will decide whether they want John McCain or Ron Paul to be their candidate. Generally these are closed votes, so if are a registered Green party member, you cannot vote for who will be the Democratic candidate.

    This is why last year and the early part of this year Obama campagined against Clinton and not against McCain.

    After each state decides, they send a certain number of delegates (determined by population) to the party convention. In some states, all of the delegates must vote for the majority candidate (60% of Democrats voted for Obama, 35% voted for Clinton – all delegates pledge to Obama). Some divide their delegates (Obama gets 60%, Clinton gets 35%). The Democratic Party also uses Superdelegates, who are key party members and elected officials, including governors, senators, and congressmembers. A winner is declared, and each party now has a candidate. At this time, the candidates also announce their vice presidential pick.

    Once each party has picked their candidates, the candidates campaign party vs. party until the election. This is why Obama is now campaigning against McCain.

    The elections are held in November. Each state considers its election separately. Many states are “known quantities.” In California and New York, for example, the Democratic candidate for President almost always wins. In Wyoming and Kansas, it’s almost always the Republican candidate.

    Now here’s where it gets tricky. Each state has a certain number of members in the electoral college. This number is the total number of senators (100, 2 per state), congressmembers (435 currently, based on state population), plus three members who represent the District of Columbia, which isn’t a state and therefore has neither senators nor congressmembers.

    For all but two of those states, all of the electoral college votes go to whomever won the state. For example, California has two senators and 53 congressmembers. If Obama beats McCain in California, he gets 55 votes in the electoral college. Kansas has two senators and four congressmembers. If McCain wins Kansas, he gets 6 votes in the electoral college. There are two states that split the vote (if a candidate gets x% of the vote, he gets x% of the electoral college votes). I think Maine is one, and I forget the other.

    The college meets, votes, and whomever gets the most electoral college votes wins. This is usually the person who got the most total votes, but not always. In 2000, Gore got more votes, but Bush got more electoral college votes.

    Wikipedia has a more in-depth explanation, along with some pro’s and con’s. The biggest pro is that it makes rural, less populated areas as important as urban, more populated areas. The biggest con is that some states are totally ignored. There is almost no campaigning done in California or New York, because these states are going to go Democratic. It doesn’t matter how many Republican votes are cast there; it will never go over the Democratic majority. Because of this, many Republicans don’t vote in those areas, and other races decided at the same time, such as state and municipal offices, often go to Democrats, even in Republican enclaves. Republicans, therefore, are underrepresented even locally. The same can be said to be true in Democratic Austin in Republican Texas.

  28. Another quibble, this time to what Hillel has said: in parliamentary democracies, the government (Her Majesty’s Government, in our case) consists of those members of the ruling party or parties who are members of (either house of) the legislature, not of the whole legislature. Do you use the word differently in the USA?

    In a similar vein, I should have said before that in the UK each minister/secretary/whatever only has one shadow: the one whom the Opposition appoints; the other parties (of which we have only one national (potentially a misleading term; I mean it in the sense that a North American would mean “federal”) of any size, but we also have many regional (mostly “nationalist” parties)) have mere “spokespersons” who will be referred to by their area of responsibility rather than by the title of the person they hope someday to replace. I think this is just the way it happened to develop, rather than an avoidance of a system with several “critics”; the UK had a two party system for much of its history.

    A more glaring difference between the two systems is that in the UK, as well as the Cabinet being effectively a committee of the legislature, our supreme court, the Law Lords, is likewise, and the courts have no power to overrule unconstitutional statues (in the UK, this is; no longer in Canada, apparently). Ironically, the best exposition of the rationale behind this that I’ve seen was, according to Wikipedia, made by the US Supreme Court: the omnipotence of parliament over the common law was absolute, even against common right and reason. The actual and practical security for English liberty against legislative tyranny was the power of a free public opinion represented by the commons. i.e. if our democracy actually works, we don’t need checks and balance between different branches.

    One other thing (I hope I’m not annoying people by cramming too much into one post): Alan, do you not think that the protection of Freedom of the Press in the First Amendment indicated that there was very early on an acknowledgment of its necessity as a watchdog of Government activity, given that the Constitution didn’t make any provision for political parties at all? I ask this as a genuine question – we all take it so much for granted that I’m not sure if I’m missing the original intention…

  29. In the US and the UK, voting appears to be optional, so varying voter turn out can be a problem.

    In Australia voting is more regarded as a responsibility than a right and attendance at a polling place is compulsory, hence our turn out is generally more than 90% (there are some exceptions which account for less than 100%), what is the situation in Canada?

  30. John, here in Canada, voting isn’t compulsory. In fact, our voter turnout ends up being similar to that of the USA. In the previous federal election, only ~14.8 million votes were cast, or a turnout of about 45%. That’s actually pretty average for us, from what I remember of previous elections.

    While I imagine that turnout in the US election may be somewhat higher this year, I rather expect ours to be about the same as previous years, as it’s not as highly charged as the American election.

  31. One thing I have to say – the reason the rest of the world seems so interested in the American Presidential elections (even if we didn’t understand any of it before all these comments) is that, like it or not, the American president seems to have a great deal of influence over the rest of the world.

    ‘We are going to war with Iraq – are the rest of you coming?’ kind of thing… (This is one of the issues that led to the downfall of the liberal party in the last election – in fact the prime minister didn’t even win his own seat, partly because they had been seen as pandering to Bush in sending our troops there in the first place, and his opposition promised to gradually withdraw all our troops – they weren’t the only reasons, but I am sure they really helped.)

    Seeing some interviews with ‘the man on the street’ in America, it seems that the rest of the world is MORE interested in your elections than a lot of you are. (I realise that they may not be truly representative, but even so…)

  32. To Lauren from Chicago:

    Thank you for a well laid out orientation to the Presidential election. As an addendum, you mentioned that “For all but two of those states, all of the electoral college votes go to whomever won the state.” Maine is indeed one, and Nebraska is the only other state that can split their electoral vote. Here is a little spiel from

    Maine and Nebraska both use an alternative method of distributing their electoral votes, called the Congressional District Method. Currently, these two states are the only two in the union that diverge from the traditional winner-take-all method of electoral vote allocation.

    With the district method, a state divides itself into a number of districts, allocating one of its state-wide electoral votes to each district. The winner of each district is awarded that district?s electoral vote, and the winner of the state-wide vote is then awarded the state?s remaining two electoral votes.

    This method has been used in Maine since 1972 and Nebraska since 1996, though since both states have adopted this modification, the statewide winners have consistently swept all of the state?s districts as well. Consequently, neither state has ever split its electoral votes.

    Although this method still fails to reach the full ideal of one-man one-vote, it has been proposed as a nationwide reform for the way in which Electoral votes are distributed.

    As an addendum to Ceryle… I agree that the US has a lot of influence on other countries, and that is exacerbated by the ethnocentrism of many US citizens (I too had no idea of the Canadian/Australian/British forms of “checks and balances” as was mentioned by Randy and Robert from NY), but this year may be especially interesting to others from outside the US borders because it will be historic, no matter which candidate wins the election (either the US elects their first black President, or the US elects their first female Vice President). BTW, not all Alaskans are voting for McCain/Palin (as if you didn’t know).

    Kiera, without going into a civic class, the US has three branches of government, Executive, Legislative and Judicial, which are supposed to keep each other in-check. Arguably, the Executive Branch (the President, and yes, VP Dick Chaney is part of that branch too, although he may think that he is part of the Legislative Branch) has the most power of the three. So when an US citizen speaks of “checks and balances” the balance part leans way over to the Executive side.

    Thank you, Randy for having this blog. It has been educational for me.

    Educational in part because of very helpful and interesting comments, Kevin — including yours. -rc

  33. “…this upcoming election, we’ve actually got five MAJOR political parties, all of which are likely to get seats in our House of Commons.”

    Wow, a representative government! Wouldn’t it be cool if the U.S. was a democracy, too?


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