Introduction by: Elizabeth Baisley
What is voting and what are elections? Why are these issues important to the study of Canadian Political Science?
Elections are typically moments of heightened political attention and political participation in Canada—and for good reason. After all, they play several important roles.
- Legitimation: Elections legitimize the power of winners and help power change hands peacefully. Although many in Canada take this for granted, it is still an important function of our elections.
- Information: Elections are opportunities to inform the public, especially about the bundles of issues advanced by each party. The media is important to this informational role of elections.
- Accountability: Elections are often considered important opportunities for accountability. In theory, at least, elections give elected officials added incentive to listen to voters and voters an opportunity to scrutinize their representatives’ actions. If voters are not happy, they can select an alternative under competitive elections.
- Composition of Government: During elections, citizens have an opportunity to select their representatives and shape the composition of government. This is important given ideological differences between Canadian parties.
- Descriptive Representation: Finally, elections play an important role in how groups in society are represented. Increasingly, the public and scholars pay attention to descriptive representation—or the extent to which representatives resemble those being represented in terms of descriptive characteristics (e.g., gender, race, etc.).
How have voting and elections usually been taught in Canadian Politics classrooms?
The topic of elections and voting is quite broad because, as Cochrane et al. (2020) note, “[t]he election campaign constitutes the arena in which political parties, the mass media, public opinion polls, and political participation all come together to play their most extensive and interconnected role” (315). Because the area is so broad and the actors so diverse, aspects of elections and voting are typically covered in different types of Canadian politics courses. At the introductory undergraduate level, many departments divide Canadian politics into an institutional course (for example, “Canadian Government”) and a course more focused on society and processes (for example, “Canadian Politics” or “Political Process and Behaviour in Canada”). Some departments combine both components into one course (for example, “Canadian Politics and Government”). Different aspects of elections and voting are covered in each type of course.
Institutional courses often cover (some of) what John Courtney (2010) calls six pillars of the electoral system: 1) the franchise, 2) voter registration, 3) electoral districting, 4) election management, 5) political finance and, 6) the voting system. Courses that provide a historical arc of Canadian politics typically spend more time on the first five pillars than those that do not. And there has been significant change in these aspects of the electoral system. Suffrage, for example, has expanded significantly beyond male British subjects of 21 years of age who meet a property qualification. Even courses that do not provide much history typically discuss electoral districting—or the drawing of boundaries for districts or ridings, which happens every ten years. Discussions of electoral districting typically outline the trade-off between drawing boundaries based on population size (that is, drawing districts that contain roughly equal numbers of people) versus communities of interest (that is, drawing districts that contain communities that understand themselves as such). Of the six pillars, however, the voting system usually receives the most attention. Most courses cover the effects of our single-member plurality electoral system (such as privileging parties with geographically concentrated support) and some alternatives, especially proportional representation and alternative voting.
Canadian politics courses focused on society and processes often address voting behaviour, the media, political communications, and political marketing. When it comes to voting behaviour, many describe the parties’ social bases of support (for example, urban voters being friendlier to the Liberals and the New Democratic Party and rural voters being more inclined to the Conservatives). When it comes to the media, political communications, and political marketing, many emphasize how new technologies have changed politics. For example, parties now have more sophisticated databases of potential voters and supporters, which have become key to campaigning.
How is this area changing?
During the past several years, many Canadian political scientists have tried to diversify Canadian politics courses. This includes, for example, efforts to mainstream gender in the teaching of Canadian politics, calls to improve how racial and immigrant minorities are included and discussed in textbooks, studies of the (lack of) Indigenous content on graduate reading lists, and resources to help instructors include more Indigenous content. While there have been some efforts to incorporate identity and diversity in the teaching of elections and voting, they remain relatively limited—at least in syllabi and textbooks. I recognize that syllabi and textbooks do not give a full sense of what is taught or how. They do not capture, for instance, examples used in lectures or questions posed in tutorials. Yet they remain my main glimpse into other instructors’ courses.
Based on syllabi and textbooks, however, the teaching of elections and voting has diversified in two main ways. First, some textbooks now address descriptive representation among candidates. This can include acknowledging that candidates and elected officials are not always the most representative of Canadians along many lines, including gender, age, race, Indigeneity, disability, and so on. Some textbooks discuss party efforts to increase candidate diversity, including through setting targets or using appointments.
Second, and relatedly, many now address the implications of different electoral systems for descriptive representation. Although the connection between electoral systems and descriptive representation is not straightforward, many textbooks introduce students to basic arguments about how descriptive representation could be improved under different electoral systems. Some textbooks argue, for example, that multi-member districts could improve women’s representation by providing opportunities for parties to nominate candidates of different genders in each riding. Others suggest that party list systems could improve the descriptive representation of a range of groups, including women, racialized people, and Indigenous people by allowing parties to put them higher on the list. There are also discussions about working within the current single-member plurality electoral system to improve representation by recruiting more women candidates, for example.
Opportunities for further change?
Although there have been efforts to diversify the teaching of elections and voting, there remain even more opportunities to do so. To begin, we would gain a fuller understanding of elections by incorporating more Indigenous content. For example, although it is useful to discuss the right to vote being extended to various Indigenous peoples (for example, Inuit, registered Indians), we can also acknowledge why and how this type of inclusion can be fraught. As Cowie (2021) explains, those who argue that Indigenous peoples need to vote to be heard generally overlook how the Canadian state formed and “what ‘citizenship’ and enfranchisement mean for Indigenous Peoples.” Even if only Canadian federal, provincial, and/or municipal elections are covered, we can still discuss why many Indigenous people choose not to participate in Canadian elections but also why some do. Traditional topics like electoral reform can also include discussions about what the role of Indigenous peoples should be in discussions about electoral reform. When discussing political behaviour and electoral administration, it is also possible to discuss the electoral participation of Indigenous peoples. Of course, this will work best if Canadian government and politics courses include context on colonialism in other parts of the course as well. Moving beyond mainstreaming, it is possible to imagine expanding what is typically covered in elections and voting, including elections held within Indigenous communities and nations (e.g., band council elections, elections under self-government, etc.).
There are also opportunities to diversify content along other lines of difference within each of the pillars of the electoral system. When it comes to voting rights, for example, it can be useful to discuss ongoing debates about extending the federal vote to those under the age of 18 and non-citizens. This can help unsettle what are often taken as natural boundaries of voting rights, which is also useful for approaching history about the expansion of the franchise. Discussions of voter registration and electoral administration, for example, could expand even further beyond formal rules to discuss citizens’ practical experiences. Even though they have been relaxed, for example, identification requirements still pose emotional and administrative barriers for many transgender people. In addition, language and physical barriers still pose challenges to many linguistic minorities and people with disabilities. These challenges help highlight how extensive an undertaking elections are and practical challenges to exercising one’s right to vote. For electoral districting, we often discuss how the electoral map struggles to keep up with population growth in certain regions and that votes from rural areas tend to count more than those from urban areas. This is an opportunity, however, to also acknowledge how the electoral map influences the weight of votes of racialized Canadians.
Bear, André. 2021. “As an Indigenous Sovereigntist, I Will Vote in This Year’s Federal Election.” CBC News.
Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “Non-Citizen Voting Rights.”
CBC News. 2019. “Trans Voter May Not Cast Ballot after Elections Canada Mix-Up.”
Cochrane, Christopher, Kelly Blidook, and Rand Dyck. 2020. Canadian Politics: Critical Approaches. 9th edition. Toronto: Nelson.
Courtney, John. 2010. “Elections.” In Auditing Canadian Democracy, ed. William Cross. Vancouver: UBC Press, 118–42.
Cowie, Chadwick. 2021. “A Vote for Canada or Indigenous Nationhood? The Complexities of First Nations, Métis and Inuit Participation in Canadian Politics.” The Conversation.
CPSA Reconciliation Committee. 2022. “Indigenous Content Syllabus Materials: A Resource for Political Science Instructors in Canada.”
D’Amore, Rachael. 2019. “Despite Legal Change, Transgender Canadians Still Seeing ‘deadnames’ on Voter Cards.” Global News.
Deer, Ka’nhehsí:io. 2019. “Why Haudenosaunee Won’t Be Voting in the Federal Election This October.” CBC News.
Ladner, Kiera L., and Michael McCrossan. 2007. The Electoral Participation of Aboriginal People. Ottawa: Elections Canada.
Maloney, Ryan. 2021. “Young Canadians Launch Court Challenge to Lower Federal Voting Age from 18.” CBC News.
Pal, Michael, and Sujit Choudhry. 2007. “Is Every Ballot Equal? Visible-Minority Vote Dilution in Canada.” Ottawa: Institute for Research on Public Policy.
Tolley, Erin. 2020. “Hidden in Plain Sight: The Representation of Immigrants and Minorities in Political Science Textbooks.” International Journal of Canadian Studies 57: 47–70.
Tremblay, Manon, and Joanna Everitt, eds. 2020. The Palgrave Handbook of Gender, Sexuality, and Canadian Politics. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
Waabshkigaabo. 2021. “As an Anishinaabe Citizen, I Can’t Vote in Good Conscience in Federal Elections.” CBC News.
Wallace, Rebecca Audrey. 2022. “Beyond the ‘Add and Stir’ Approach: Indigenizing Comprehensive Exam Reading Lists in Canadian Political Science.” Canadian Journal of Political Science: 1–22.
Williams, Melissa. 2016. “There Can Be No Electoral Reform without Indigenous Input.” Globe and Mail.