Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Elections results blackouts in the age of new media

Paula Simons of the Edmonton Journal has an interesting column about the ban on the publication of election results before the polls close in British Columbia. Basically, it is illegal for national broadcasters to broadcast results to areas of the country that have not finished voting. In the Internet era, the distinction between broadcasters and average citizens is getting tricky to make and the prohibition on publication of results has been extended to the average citizen. This ban has been getting harder and harder to enforce in the last two decades. In the era of Twitter, Facebook, and smart phones, I'd argue it's now impossible. How are you going to stop people from posting their reaction to the election results on Facebook? Even if they didn't give detailed results, all it would take is a "I'm depressed about the election results" status update from my Liberal cousin in Halifax to know that things weren't going well for her party. Is Elections Canada really going to prosecute everyone who writes something like that?

There is a case for not having people know what the results are when they vote. If we want all Canadians to vote under the same conditions, we presumably don't want to advantage some with information that others don't have. If I am in British Columbia and I know things are close based on results in the rest of Canada, then I might vote differently than if I am sure my local results are likely not to have much of an impact on who will form a government. Furthermore, if voters know that the outcome of the election is already decided before they've voted, it may do even more to discourage voters to turn out.

A solution to this problem is complicated by the fact that Canada is big. Really big. Canada spans five and a half time zones. This makes having everyone stop voting at the same point in time difficult. If we stopped voting at 8PM Eastern time, that would mean the polls would close at 9:30 PM in Newfoundland and 5 PM in British Columbia. There was a move in this direction in the 1990s, when the voting hours were changed so that the polls close at the same point in time from Quebec through Alberta. But that's not enough.

Here's a simple solution if we as Canadians still want to prevent people from being influenced by results in other parts of the country. Keep the voting hours the way they are (or even return to having people vote from 8 AM to 8 PM). However, don't open the ballot boxes and start counting ballots until voters in British Columbia have finished voting. The media and average citizen could then broadcast, tweet, blog, update Facebook profiles to their hearts' content. It would mean a late night for election watchers in the eastern half of the country, but this seems to be a better solution than a law that has been overtaken by a new media environment.

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