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The Democracies of North America:

Comparing the Electoral Systems of Canada, Mexico, and the United States

The study of democracy is a fascinating one for any student of political science. It is an area that is intrinsically multifaceted and highly complex; moreover, one of its greatest challenges is finding appropriate “controls” to guide analysis. How does one compare the diverse, multivariate experiences of separate nations with unique histories?  In order to limit the scope of our current exploration, this analysis will focus on one fundamental aspect of the three democracies under consideration: the electoral systems through which each government reproduces itself.

As a country, Mexico has a relatively high degree of ethnic and linguistic diversity. Although, most Mexicans identify as mestizo, many identify with various indigenous groups or claim a strictly European heritage. There are no less than six indigenous groups that can boast 400,000 or more speakers; the Law of Linguistic Rights identifies 62 indigenous languages as having equal legitimacy with the more common Spanish. In order to accommodate this diversity, Mexico incorporates a degree of proportional representation (PR) in its largely majoritarian electoral system.

The Congress of Mexico is divided into two chambers, the Chamber of Deputies and the Chamber of Senators. The Chamber of Deputies consists of 500 seats, 200 of which are appointed by a system of proportional representation, and 300 of which are won by first-past-the-post mechanisms much like those employed in the U.S. and Canada.  In the Chamber of Senators, approximately ¼ of the seats are awarded based on proportional representation.

Canada, by contrast, employs an exclusively majoritarian electoral system.  Indeed, although its parliamentary system might cause one to think it is an outlier at first glance, the structure of its electoral apparatus bears striking resemblance to that of the United States. Both countries employ district-based, first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral systems. The success of this system in Canada indicates at least some degree of ideological homogeneity among constituents: as a general rule, majoritarian institutions promote governmental efficiency, but at the cost of elections with winner-take-all outcomes. Thus, as Lijphart argues, in homogenous nations the exclusion of Party B from power does not necessarily mean that voters' interests will not be reasonably well served by Party A.  It may not be “government by the people”, but it at least approximates “government for the people” (Lijphart, 1999).  The United States, however, is not quite so homogenous; it falls somewhere between Mexico and Canada with regard to politically salient ethnic or ideological diversity, and its majoritarian system does not enjoy quite the success that Canada’s does. Minority parties have recently felt compelled to engage in obstructionist tactics in order to ensure that their voices are heard, leading to gridlock.

Structure aside, another interesting electoral feature divides the North American nations: campaign finance laws.  In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Citizens United vs. the FEC, a landmark case in which protected independent political expenditures under the First Amendment, unleashing floodgates of unlimited corporate contributions.  In Harper v. Canada, by contrast, the Canadian Supreme Court limited independent expenditures to $150,000 nationally and $3,000 in a single district. Mexico employs a system in which campaigns are publically financed, with each major political party receiving approximately $24 million to run a three-month campaign. It also ensures equitable access to the media (Pastor, 2004). This, and other factors, led some commentators to declare that Mexico’s electoral system is “perhaps the most fraud-proof in the world” (Mascari, 2012).   

Thus, a surprising result appears: with regard to electoral systems, the United States—inarguably one of the most consolidated democracies on the planet—is having a bit more trouble than its neighbors, a conclusion Pastor describes as “most disturbing” for U.S. citizens. “The U.S. electoral system,” he continues, “is inarguably the weakest in North America” (Pastor, 2012).

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