By Steven E. Schier
If you want to get a good laugh out of Canadian university students, just show them a copy of a 2002 Minnesota general election ballot. Last fall I taught courses on American politics at York University in Toronto, and no subject so interested my students as the many singular features of our peculiar electoral system.
The more my students learned about American and Minnesotan electoral democracy, the less impressed they were. They tended to conclude that American elections are far too confusing to voters and are not well designed to help voters shape the future course of their government.
Consider my local 2002 Rice County ballot. It had 39 races -- for federal and state legislative offices, state constitutional offices, county offices, school board, city offices and 18 judicial elections.
My Canadian students wondered how any voter could negotiate those choices knowledgeably. I had to admit, voters cannot. I told them that I voted in only 21 of the 39 races, because I had no idea about the other 18. In 2000, the ballot gave me 26 choices and I only voted in nine, having no knowledge about the other 17.
My students found it odd that Minnesota would ask voters to make so many choices, when even a political science professor who makes his living studying elections could not vote knowledgeably in half or more of them.
Minnesota's judicial elections were a particular hoot to the Canadians. I explained that Minnesota puts state judges up for election but that traditionally state law had prevented candidates from campaigning for judicial office, essentially requiring voters to choose in ignorance. They questioned the wisdom of electing judges, which happens nowhere in Canada, and could not see the logic of elections without campaigns. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with them, recently declaring Minnesota's ban on judicial campaigns a violation of the free-speech rights of candidates.
My Canadian students -- as do citizens of most constitutional democracies -- think of politics as a team sport. The teams are political parties, and it is the voters' job to decide which party should direct the government. As in most other constitutional democracies, the ballot in Canadian national elections easily allows voters to pick a team.
In a national election, Canadians have one choice -- concerning who shall be their local representative in the national legislature. The ballot prominently lists the party affiliation of the legislative candidates. Voters usually choose among the five national parties that regularly win seats in the legislature. In their parliamentary system, the party that wins the majority of national legislative seats gains control of both the national legislative and executive branches. The same system operates in provincial elections. One good result: Voters select a clearly identifiable team to run government and can easily hold that team accountable at the next election.
In contrast, Minnesota elections are riots of individualism. Minnesota's ballot presents candidates' names much more prominently than the names of their parties. It makes straight-ticket voting an ordeal by requiring voters to follow the small print from office to office on the ballot to vote for candidates of the same party.
Why is Minnesota's ballot plagued by too many contests and an inadequate presentation of candidates' partisan affiliation? These are consequences of the Progressive reform movement of the early 20th century, a movement that is uniquely American.
The goal of the movement was to remove party corruption in government, but it went too far. Ballot reforms took appointment powers from partisan officials and made too many offices elective. Minnesota's ballot makes it hard for us to elect a single party as a governing team -- and we seldom do.
As one of my Canadian students wrote in her final essay: "[I]t is difficult to understand how Americans have gained better control of their government by casting long, complex ballots for individualistic candidates. The system asks too much of voters, and therefore actually weakens popular control of government. An ignorant vote provides no better control of government than no vote at all."
Gov.-elect Tim Pawlenty and the new Legislature should rethink Minnesota's ballot. Sometimes, less is more. Fewer choices might actually increase popular control of government. That is one lesson I learned in Canada.
Steven E. Schier is Congdon professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and political analyst for KSTP-TV (Ch. 5).