Addicted to novelty since 2001

Election blackouts in the social media era

Canada has a federal election next week. Please vote.

If you live in Eastern Canada, your vote may be counted before our polls out west close. The local media in Fredericton and Lavalle and Ottawa will report on the early returns.

Section 329 of Canada’s election laws will, in theory, prevent those results from drifting westward before 8:00 pm PST. Here it is:

No person shall transmit the result or purported result of the vote in an electoral district to the public in another electoral district before the close of all of the polling stations in that other electoral district.

The law is designed to prevent eastern results from influencing western voters. It made sense in an era of few communications channels, before the 24-hours news cycle, before TV and when there were only dozens of radio stations across the country. In 2011, in the age of the Internet, Canada has millions of broadcast channels. More than half the country has a Facebook account, and there are millions of Canadians on Twitter.

Section 329 has clearly become obsolete, unfeasible and unenforceable. We can’t ask 10 million easterners on social networks to keep secrets from five million westerners. It’s just not going to happen.

Tweeting the results

Alexandra Samuel and I were talking about this last week, and how Section 329 is a twentieth century law for a twenty-first century issue. We put our heads together, and came up with Tweet the Results (Alex did most of the work–she writes about it here).

It’s a small act of civil disobedience, demonstrating that Section 329 is untenable, and encouraging lawmakers to reform it. All the site does is aggregate tweets with the hash tag #tweetheresults. It replicates functionality that’s native to Twitter.

A good, bad or impractical law?

In response to our little site, some people have suggested that social media users “respect the spirit of the law”. I’m more interested in emphasizing the impracticality of Section 329 than debating its underlying ethics.

That said, the argument for it seems pretty philosophical. According to journalist Paula Simons, there’s no evidence that voting patterns would change. In 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada considered a case where a Vancouver blogger published election results from Atlantic Canada. In her dissent of the 5-4 decision which upheld the blogger’s conviction, Justice Rosalie Abella wrote:

“There is only speculative and unpersuasive evidence to support the government’s claim that the information imbalance is of sufficient harm to voter behaviour or perceptions of electoral unfairness that it outweighs any damage done to a fundamental and constitutionally protected right.”

It’s also worth noting that other big democracies–the US, Australia and Russia–have no such blackout rule in place.

Law professor Michael Geist points out that enforcing the law would require banning access to Facebook and Twitter on election night:

Given the current popularity of social media tools that did not exist at the time, a similar ban today is simply not possible without inflicting enormous harm to freedom of expression and public confidence in the election system.

Finally, there’s a simple solution to the results blackout: Elections Canada should simply delay publicizing any results anywhere in the country until polls have closed in British Columbia. Democracy can wait three hours.

I genuinely don’t care if anybody actually tweets or post to Facebook about election results on May 2. I do care about changing this silly law to one that works for this century.

What do you think? Are you going to stay off Twitter and Facebook on election night to avoid hearing the results?

7 Responses to “Election blackouts in the social media era”

  1. Carmen

    This year all polls open and close at the same time across the country, so it really doesn’t matter if NFLD reports their results when they have them, as the polls in BC will already be closed anyways. Elections Canada has gotten smarter and made sure that no matter your time zone, your polls open and close with the rest of the country. Unfortunately it makes this whole post moot for the 2011 federal election.

    Darren Reply:

    Hmm…that’s not true, according to Elections Canada’s website. Here’s a voting location in Newfoundland (it closes at 8:30pm) and here’s one in Vancouver (it closes at 7:00pm).

    Maybe Elections Canada has decided to split the difference and only give Eastern Canada an hour and a half extra opening time?

  2. Carmen

    I’m working the election and was told everything is going on at the same time. I’ll clarify at my second round of training this week.

  3. filmgoerjuan

    Given the 4.5 hour time difference between Newfoundland and B.C., I don’t see how they could synchronize poll closings across the country. Short of B.C. closing really early or Nfld. closing really late.

    That said, while the poll in Nfld. Darren references closes at 4:00pm Pacific time, it seems that polls in Quebec and Ontario close at 6:30pm Pacific, so there’s only a brief half hour difference between closings in the West and the majority of the Eastern results.

    I’m not sure I like what Elections Canada is doing. Both East and West get 12 hour blocks in which to vote; however, Easterners don’t have the opportunity to vote before work (polls open at 9:30am) and Westerners are being encouraged to vote before work (polls open at 7am) but there’s not a lot of time to vote after work. It’s a trade-off to achieve closer closing times, but hopefully won’t come at the expense of lowering voter turnout as it’s certainly not as convenient as having more generous opening hours.

    Darren Reply:

    Indeed. That solution seems less democratic than the blackout approach if you ask me.

  4. JohnB

    Did you know you can watch the votes being counted in federal elections? Just tell the poll clerk supervisor that you want to watch. You’ll get to pick one of the polls and you (unlike the scrutineers) cannot object during the vote counting.

    I mention this because a half-hour difference between the closing of polls at opposite sides of the country is nothing … it takes at least that long to get ready to count the ballots.

    I don’t understand why people want to tweet/whatever the results while the polls are still open in defiance of the law. To me, it’s like signalling that you’re turning … you do it even when there’s no traffic because obeying the law is the right thing to do.

    At the end of the day it comes to this: if it makes no difference to the outcome then why bother? If it does make a difference then obey the law.

    Darren Reply:

    There are some smart people–and I’m not necessarily among them–who have argued that Section 329 impacts a Canadian’s right to free speech. So, there could, in fact, be a downside to the law.

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