All elections are good elections

California isn’t the only place that recently had an election many voters complained was useless.

Canada, the United States’ northern neighbor and largest trading partner, held a snap election late last month. The results are in — and almost nothing has changed. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party will remain in power, despite millions of campaign dollars spent in hopes of increasing his majority in the Canadian legislature.

Scott Moe, the conservative premier of Saskatchewan, lambasted the Sept. 20 election. He complained on Twitter that “it was the most pointless election in Canadian history.” Saskatchewan is a vast prairie province in western Canada. The province’s small population — representing only 3% of Canadians — has decidedly conservative politics. In fact, less than 10% of voters in the rural, oil-producing province support Trudeau.

Voters in Saskatchewan were understandably irritated when Trudeau announced a snap election on Aug. 15. Calling the election was a major gamble for the Prime Minister, who wanted to drum up further support for his Liberal Party in the wake of the post-pandemic economic recovery program he orchestrated. 

After polls closed on Sept. 20, it became apparent that the election changed virtually nothing from Canada’s previous federal election, last held in October 2019. Unlike the two party system in the United States, Canada has five political parties regularly elected to office. Trudeau’s Liberal Party captured a plurality of seats in the recent election (158 seats of 338), but fell short of securing the number of seats necessary to form a majority in the House of Commons, Canada’s lower legislative chamber.

While Trudeau didn’t lose anything in the election, he failed to secure the legislative majority for his party he had hoped for. This affirmation of the status quo was frustrating for many Canadians, many of whom were upset at the steep price tag of the election. At over $482 million, the election was the most expensive in Canadian history. Personal protective equipment for voters and poll workers alone cost over $40 million, not to mention the typical expenses taxpayers burden to print ballots, hire staff and rent facilities.

One week prior to the Canadian election, voters in California voiced similar concerns over the failed election to recall Governor Gavin Newsom. The election, which saw voters decisively reject the recall effort in a two-to-one vote, ended up costing Golden State taxpayers $276 million — not nearly as expensive as Canada’s, but no small price either. In fact, nearly 70% of likely California voters thought the recall election was a waste of money.

While this “waste-of-money” narrative is compelling, it is also a flawed oversimplification. Yes, the millions of dollars spent on these elections could have been spent on other issues. But is the foundation of democracy not itself a practical matter?

The time-honored ritual of a community coming together to elect their leaders, or vote to remove them, is the most sacred principle of democratic governance. As nationalism and authoritarianism continue to take root around the world, perhaps spending some money to reinforce the basic principles of our society is not a bad idea.

This is not to suggest that politicians should abuse their power and call elections on a whim (as many conservative Canadians have accused Trudeau of doing) or spend exorbitant amounts of money on the electoral process. But given the sheer number of voters in California and Canada, the big-dollar price tag really isn’t that unreasonable: Canada paid about $12 per resident to hold their recent election and Californians paid $7. A large chunk of this money went directly to local election offices, who used it to engage local economies and innovate new ways to safely vote during the pandemic. These improvements will benefit millions of voters in countless elections to come.

This money is not a waste,  it is an essential investment in our democracy. 

We should free ourselves from our tenacious grasp on partisanship and instead embrace the spirit of democracy. As soon as we give up on elections, we lose one of the most fundamental cornerstones of our society. 


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