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If America were Canada, the election would have been over long ago

Feeling fatigued about America’s long election process? Consider Canada.
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez

Right now, the United States is suffering from election fatigue as the presidential campaign drags into its 19th month. And, as a Canadian living in Washington, DC, it’s easy to feel smug about this.

In Canada, after all, the typical federal election campaign only runs for about 45 to 50 days. Up north, we don’t have to suffer through the same sort of slog.

Last year was an exception that just underscored the difference: In 2015, Canadians were outraged because the federal election campaign lasted a ridiculously long time — 78 entire days. But typically, it’s way less than that.

So just think about it: If America had an election cycle that looked more like Canada’s, the campaigning would have started around the end of September, and it’d be over before anyone knew it.

So why do American presidential campaigns last so long?

Trump on the campaign trail.
Colorado Springs Gazette / Contributor

One key reason campaigns drag on so long in the United States has to do with the creation of primary elections, established so the public could pick the presidential candidates rather than party elites. Over the years, as more states decided to hold primaries, the start of campaign season has creeped up earlier and earlier.

In contrast, Canada doesn’t have primaries. The party leaders are chosen well ahead of time by the party’s rank and file at leadership conventions. Arguably, the candidates in Canada also don’t need to go through the same intense public scrutiny.

These candidates "can’t just come out of thin air," explained Donald Abelson, chair of the department of political science at Western University. In other words, he added, "You can’t have a Donald Trump figure." To run for federal party leadership in Canada, you’ve got to be a party member. "You have to be a proven commodity, and work within the party system — not just pitching yourself as an outsider to shake things up."

You could debate whether Canada’s system is preferable from a democratic standpoint, but there’s no question that it’s quicker.

Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister.
(Chesnot/Getty Images)

Another reason the US campaign season drags on has to do with fixed election dates. America has presidential elections that run exactly every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November, a rule that’s enshrined in the Constitution. As soon as there’s a new president, the four-year clock starts counting down on the search for a successor.

Up north, things are a little more spontaneous. Canada also has fixed dates: A general election must be held on the third Monday of October in the fourth calendar year after the previous election. But the prime minister and governor general can still dissolve parliament and call an election at any time. That makes it tricky for candidates to hit the campaign trail months or years in advance when they don’t really know when the next election will be held.

One outcome of the protracted election season in the US is that it gives the world ample time to pay attention. "We’re obsessed," Abelson said. On a trip to Montreal recently, I thought I’d get a reprieve. Instead, nearly every conversation I found myself in turned to Trump and Clinton. I’ve heard about wall-to-wall US election coverage as far afield as India and Germany. So, just know you’re not the only ones who are tired of thinking about your election. Your foreign friends probably are, too.

Clarification: A previous version of this post stated that party leaders in Canada had to be members of parliament. Some parties now make allowances for non-elected officials who want to run for the leadership.

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