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Second fixed date provincial election
Mar 24, 2016

The fact that the writ for the Manitoba general election was dropped on March 16 was anti-climatic, since it was a matter of record that the election would be held on April 19 in compliance with Manitoba’s fixed election law. In fact, it was known months ago that this would be the election date.

Under Manitoba’s fixed election-date legislation, a general election is held every four years on the first Tuesday of October, following the October 2011 election. That would have put the next election at October 6, 2015, but under Section 49.1(3) of Manitoba’s Elections Act, if the election period conflicts with a federal election (the federal election date this year was also dictated by a fixed election law), the Manitoba vote gets pushed back to the third Tuesday of April in the following calendar year. In 2016, the third Tuesday is April 19.

While this year’s election is the second to be fought in the modern era under the terms of a fixed election law, a fixed election date is nothing new for Manitoba. Once the very first provincial election was held on December 27, 1870, the next two election dates were fixed for every four years in the same month: December 30, 1874, and December 18, 1878.

But after 1878 and with the evolution of a party system, provincial elections were called whenever deemed appropriate by the premier in power, although within the rules of the British parliamentary system elections were mandatory before the expiration of a five-year term.

It was after John Norquay took over the reins of government from Robert Davis that the party system became established in Manitoba politics, although Norquay termed himself non-partisan and candidates announced themselves as either Government or Opposition. Yet, it is commonly conceded among historians that Norquay and his followers were “Conservative” and the Opposition was “Liberal” in political leaning.

Just a year later, tradition was broken when an election was called for December 16, and the mythology of partisanship was dropped with the election fought along party lines.

At the time, the Manitoba Free Press declared it was the only time party politics became an election issue in Canada — “either Liberal or Conservative — and, we, therefore hope that the day is yet remote when it shall split our Local House.”

But the split was completed. When the next election was held on January 23, 1883, party battle lines had truly been drawn. “As the day of battle draws near the winnowing process is thinning the number of candidates down, and by the time the contest takes place, there will probably be an average of two candidates in each of the constituencies representing the issues that divide the two great political parties,” commented the Free Press.

Historians concede there was little to distinguish the political platforms of the two provincial parties — what was really at stake was the power to control the legislature and the purse strings of the province.

While the Free Press at the time argued that Manitobans were “unconstrained and unbiased by party split or party bigotry,” the era of party politics had arrived. And, it was party politics which ended Manitoba’s fixed election dates, as the ability to call elections became a powerful tool in the hands of incumbent premiers.

Yet, it was a weapon that former Manitoba Premier Gary Doer was willing to abandon in 2008. To the surprise of many, Doer announced the NDP government would introduce fixed election date legislation. While opposition parties, including the Conservatives under then Opposition Leader Hugh McFadyen, had for some time been calling for the similar legislation, Doer continually resisted the urge, saying he was against regular election dates in Manitoba.

The premier later had to admit he had flip-flopped on the issue, saying he realized it was a measure needed to get more people to the polls. Apparently, Chief Electoral Officer Richard Balasko played a role in convincing Doer that fixed election dates would translate into greater voter turnout. Elections Manitoba also wanted more time to enumerate voters and set up polling stations in remote northern communities. The first fixed election was held on October 4, 2011.

In the May 2007 election, only 58 per cent of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots, and in 2004 the number was just 54 per cent. In previous provincial elections, the percentage hovered around 70 per cent of eligible voters.

If a fixed election date was designed to improve voter turnout, it failed miserably. Of the 777,054 registered voters in 2011, 55.77 per cent, or 433,346, cast votes in the election, and was slightly lower than the 2007 election.

Fixed election dates are the norm in the United States, which is why Democrat and Republicans have been deciding on candidates for the U.S. presidency in a process that seems to drag on forever. Its very length underpins the one great problem with the system; that is, candidates are continually engaged in money-raising activities, although Republican candidate Donald Trump is able to use some of his own money in the form of a loan to fund his campaign. The loan has to be eventually paid off, but it gives him a high level of independence from the party machinary. He has also managed to raise $25.5 million from other sources. His funding formula makes it extremely difficult for the Republican establishment to put a brake on his candidacy, much too their chagrin. Ted Cruz, who is second in the race for Republican delegates, has raised over $55 million.

In the case of Hilliary Clinton, who is the front-runner on the Democratic side, she has raised over $130 million to win the party’s candidacy. Bernie Sanders, her remaining opponent, has raised over $96 million.

The American system is not a glowing endorsement for fixed election dates.

When visiting Washington, Canadian Premier Minister Justin Trudeau correctly pointed out that the Americans should have a conversation about their election financing system. U.S. presidential candidates raise billions in financing and court special interests, something Trudeau said Canada does not allow. During the last federal election in October, the entire amount for all parties and candidates allowed was $73.6 million, which won’t be enough for a single candidate to run a U.S. presidential campaign.

Under Manitoba’s rules, strict limits are also placed on election spending for both individual candidates and political parties.

Other provinces, such as Ontario, British Columbia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador have fixed election dates. In Alberta, fixed-election date legislation was shelved for fear unions would time strikes to coincide with elections.

While Manitoba and Canada have done extraordinarily well in the past governing under the parliamentary system inherited from Britain, the populist appeal of fixed date elections now holds sway across most of the nation.