Comment: America's vote holds lessons for our democracy

Behold America’s democracy. Canadians beware.

We can learn a thing or two as the melodrama unfolds ­— or unravels – below the border. We are surely a different political culture, but we are assuredly bound by similar democratic principles and electoral pressures.

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The anticipated Joe Biden landslide ended not with a bang, but a squeaker and a whimper. His tentative triumph (if it holds) should be sweet, but feels bittersweet.

Instead of Donald Trump’s long expected repudiation, validation was the outcome. Far from vanquished, Trumpism will not vanish anytime soon – because the candidate is not the cause of what ails his country, just a symptom.

It has never been more clear that Trump is not a fluke and Trumpism is not fringe.

He may be a political abomination, but he is no aberration, merely a reflection of America’s other half.

A fringe is four to 14 per cent of the electorate. But 40 or 44 per cent of the vote — where Trump has polled for the past four years — is far more than fringe.

And his provisional 48 per cent share of the popular vote is certainly not fringe territory, but awfully close to majority territory again — and too close for comfort the second time around. Hence the cautionary tale that, in Canada as in America, public opinion polling is problematic — polls can tip us off to early trends but not final trajectories, and can never be cause for complacency, for the results are never preordained.

Never mind percentages and predictions, it’s people who count: 68 million Americans voted to re-elect the president.

Yes, that’s double Canada’s population of adults and children.

More precisely it’s about four times the total of all eligible Canadians who voted for all parties in the last federal election.

What counts most is that the final U.S. vote was decided by the slimmest of margins in key battlegrounds. Every campaign reminds us that every vote counts.

The lesson for Canadians from the American election is that we need to find more and better ways to make elections accessible. Nostalgic as many are for lining up to vote in church basements or school gyms, that is the past and not the future.

The massive tidal wave of mail-in ballots in America reminds us that we need to raise our game if we want people to step onto the democratic playing field – not just in the middle of COVID-19, but post-pandemic.

That means more clarity on mailing procedures, advance voting, pop-up polling booths, campus voting, better voters’ lists (bring back door-to-door enumeration instead of relying on incomplete tax filings) and one day – when we’re good and ready – secure online voting from an app and a desktop.

The alternative is minority rule by an indefatigable core vote. Only an engaged majority can counter a motivated minority.

All these years later, Trump has been enabled and empowered by his base on a promise to Make America Great Again. Now, Canada and every great democracy must do more to empower the electorate, all of it, so that every vote counts in every election.

Trump’s presidency may be dying, but Trumpism lives on to fight another day. Nearly half of American voters judged him worthy of four more years, even as the embodiment of emoluments and transgressor of laws and norms.

In the aftermath, optimists like Biden will try to make the best of bad times. But for all the talk of healing, the wounds are congealing and the divisions are enduring.

Much of the melodrama in the final count stemmed from the flood of mail-in ballots, the result of cautious voters keen to avoid catching COVID-19 in election day lineups. If not for those powerful fears in mid-pandemic, this might have been a more routine campaign, with a much less motivated majority for Biden – and an election night triumph for Trump riding a strong economy.

Hence the biggest takeaway from the election that got away from him – and for all of us who believe in democracy everywhere, not least Canada: Every vote counts, every time.

It’s no longer good enough for us to count on rival politicians to get out the vote – their vote. We’ve got to get the vote to all voters – with more ballot boxes, more use of mailboxes, and every possible technique to make our democracy as good as it can be.

Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist for the Toronto Star.

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