For some Americans, Canada appears to be a liberal—albeit slightly cold—utopia. While at the national level U.S. politics has fallen into dysfunction at best and downright authoritarianism at worst, Canada seems unscathed. There is some truth to this view: Freedom House, a leading NGO that promotes liberal democracy, scores each country every year on its commitment to political rights and civil liberties; in 2020 Canada scored a stellar 98 out of 100, whereas the U.S. came in at a decidedly less impressive 86. With Donald Trump refusing to concede defeat in the 2020 election, America has struggled with one of the most basic democratic processes; in the last transfer of power in Canada in 2015, Stephen Harper, the outgoing Conservative Prime Minister, immediately congratulated his counterpart and promised to help with the transition. That action—nothing more than a basic acknowledgment of democratic principles and the truth—only seems remarkable in comparison to the United States. Some Canadians see themselves this way as well—an antidote to American craziness.
And yet, though their politics looks markedly different from that of the U.S., Canada continues to experience its fair share of political issues. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration has been repeatedly hampered by a series of corruption-tinged scandals, a 2019 government inquiry found that the country was complicit in an ongoing genocide of Native women, and the Bloc Québécois, a party that quietly but steadfastly promotes the secession of Quebec, won 32 out of 338 seats in the most recent parliament. So why has Canadian democracy remained so strong while America’s has floundered?
Commentators sometimes point to widening polarization as the main culprit behind American democracy’s slow decline, and few doubt that polarization has at the least helped spur that decline. However, mass-based political culture cannot by itself explain democratic erosion—we must also examine the actions of elites. To a large extent, substantial erosion requires an executive willing to push against the limits of their constitutional powers and to ignore democratic values. Donald Trump did not singlehandedly cause all of American democracy’s problems, but his administration has pushed democratic erosion to levels scarcely even considered previously; meanwhile, his counterparts in Canada have not done the same. We shouldn’t just thank Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper for being good democratic citizens, though. Instead, we should turn to the structures and institutions that elected them. In their book How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt posit that political parties have an obligation to act as a “gatekeeper” to prevent a would-be autocrat from rising to power. Perhaps Canadian parties did just that.
We have an aversion, however, to party elites acting as “gatekeepers” on the will of the people. Would it not be more anti-democratic for party insiders to simply pick a leader—and potential Prime Minister—amongst themselves? Canadian parties, luckily, have found a way for their voting system to act as a “gatekeeper” in-and-of itself: ranked-choice voting. The mechanism is simple: voters rank their choices, and if no candidate wins a majority of the first-place votes, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated and their votes transfer to the voter’s next-favorite candidate. The process repeats until some candidate wins a majority.
To see how this mechanism can act as a “gatekeeper,” imagine the following scenario. Six candidates enter an election; five of these candidates are moderates who evenly split 80% of the vote, while the sixth candidate is an extremist with a loyal base who wins 20% of the vote. However, every person who voted for any of the moderates vastly prefers all of the moderates to the extremist. Under a plurality system, the extremist wins by a small margin, but under ranked-choice voting, the vote moves to subsequent rounds, and one of the moderates ends up on top. Thus, instead of favoring extreme candidates who can win a bare plurality of the vote while more mainstream candidates split the rest, ranked-choice voting ensures that a victor has wide support.
Major Canadian parties—both the Liberals and the Conservatives—have been using this system to elect a leader (who traditionally becomes Prime Minister should their party win power). In the most recent party election amongst the Conservatives, the winner under ranked-choice voting actually differed from the one that would have been elected under a plurality system, though it’s worth nothing that in this case, these two particular candidates were “carbon copies” of each other. Even if it hasn’t yet visibly handed power to a moderate as opposed to a would-be authoritarian, the mere existence of ranked-choice voting may have tamed candidates; knowing that electoral incentives necessitated a broad-based coalition rather than an extremely loyal base, perhaps Canadian politicians have moderated themselves, accepting the slow and painful democratic process instead of trying to overthrow it.
What conclusions can we draw from this? For one, democratic erosion—even complete democratic breakdown—does not appear to be an inevitable outcome that stems only from long-term political forces barreling towards a cliff. Rather, it depends also on small details to the political process and the procedural constraints facing parties and individuals. Certainly, other factors have also aided Canadian democracy, but ranked-choice voting appears to have played a substantial role in its resilience. In that sense, American democracy may not be doomed. As always, however, there is a caveat. American voters have not jumped at the opportunity for ranked-choice voting; a 2020 Massachusetts initiative that promised to enact the voting method failed despite the support of prominent Democrats and an almost comically large fundraising advantage. However, if mainstream politicians and voters on both sides of the aisle can come to see its value, ranked-choice voting offers one of the most promising avenues to democratic restoration in the United States.
 McCoy, Jennifer, Tahmina Rahman and Murat Somer. 2018. “Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy: Common Patterns, Dynamics and Pernicious Consequences for Democratic Polities.” American Behavioral Scientist 62(1): pp. 16-42.
 Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.
This was a super interesting post! I constantly see comparisons between the US and Canada, but using the lens of rank choice voting shows tangible ways to bridge the two of them together. Additionally, going to school in Mass, seeing RCV lose on the ballot last month was kind of shocking, as it seemed like a way to protect and enhance the democratic system in the state. Not only does it serve to root out extremism, but also makes primary campaigns less contentious and negative. After all, if you can capture your opponent’s voters, you won’t treat them as an existential threat to democracy. In this way, it could work against the sensationalism and polarization we see today. The fact that it did not pass in Massachusetts, one of the most seemingly liberal states in the country, make me wonder: where can it pass? I agree with you that it needs to be an issue that comes to the forefront of both political parties, but again, this obviously brings roadblocks. Hopefully we can see ranked choice voting pop up on the ballot in more states, learning from the mistakes or shortcomings of Massachusetts.
This is a really great article! As someone who is Canadian and has a ton of Canadian family members, you can definitely feel the lack of polarization there. While there are still marked political differences in the citizens of the country, politics is a lot less common to talk about in Canada. In fact, many of my conversations with my Candian relatives are about American Politics, which they find much more interesting and bombastic than Canadian politics. I think there is also a notable difference in the size of the two populations. The vast range of people in America means it is much easier to find political extremes as they tend to be geographically oriented, for example more radical right wingers tend to live in rural southern areas. While this exists to some extent with Quebecoi people tending to be more traditionalist, it does not exist to the same extent as in American politics.
I also really like the way you framed rank choice voting as one of the ways that extreme politicians are not brought into the mainstream sphere. While it is very sad to see that America is not as warm to embrace the issue, we also have to look at how effective it would be here. Given that many radical members have found their way into the Republican Party, I think ranked choice voting may not alleviate polarization in the same way it does in Canada.