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Canadians keep elections within reason

Amanda Villalobos looked out across the Niagara River last week at Buffalo’s skyline with a touch of wistfulness. She has been a Canadian citizen for decades, since a few years after she emigrated from her native Colombia, and still, there is much she admires about the United States.

The opportunity. The spirit. But this she does not envy: a seemingly endless presidential campaign season.

Canadians just wrapped up a historically long federal election that ousted Stephen Harper and will send Justin Trudeau to the prime minister’s office. Just how long did Canadians have to endure stump speeches and campaign ads? Eleven weeks.

Like many Canadians, Villalobos thought that was just long enough.

“You get tired of all the advertisements and all the politics,” said Villalobos, who was feeling a sense of relief that the election was over.

So was Mary Lou Allender, a retired customs broker in Fort Erie. “It’s long enough to listen to their stories over and over and over,” she said.

Tell us about it.

Would Allender care for an American-style election, where candidates begin testing the waters two years out? “Oh my gosh, no,” Allender said. “I don’t see what they could drag out that long.”

We could learn a thing or two from our Canadian friends.

We’ve turned the race for the presidency into what feels like a never-ending episode of “Survivor: Iowa.” It’s not just a test of endurance, but a contest of who can raise the most cash to get through perpetual primaries.

What has this lengthy election season gotten us? Gobs of spending.

You’d think our long campaign would get us deeper into issues, leave us with solid understandings of policies. Instead, it gives citizens more time to obsess over gaffes and politicians less time to think about actual governing.

By American standards, Canadian elections are swift and cheap.

“There’s no appetite for the permanent campaign that we see here,” said Munroe Eagles, professor of political science and director of Canadian studies at the University at Buffalo.

It’s not that Canadian elections are perfect. Their parliamentary system, which allows parties to force an election at any time, can be manipulated for political advantages. But the brevity means that it costs much less money.

“By shortening the election period, you focus attention on the political process in a much more concentrated way,” Eagles said. “Attention spans aren’t challenged.”

In Eagles’ view, even more important than shorter campaigns are strict regulations that the Canadian government puts on campaign contributions and spending. It’s virtually the polar opposite from the post-Citizens United world that has driven American campaign spending to insane highs.

“There’s a number of lessons Americans can take from the Canadian experience, but by far the most important one is really the advantages that follow from regulating the role of money in election campaigns,” Eagles said. “You don’t allow wealth and wealthy interests to drown out the message coming from less well-to-do social groups.”

Just imagine.

Is it really realistic that we’ll retrench any time soon from this endless election in which money is king? Probably not. But an American can dream.