Monday 25 April 2011

Election blackouts

I'd almost forgotten this fun bit of Canadian election law. If you live in Toronto, you'll get election results from ridings in the Eastern time zones as the polls close. But if you blog about them before the polls close in British Columbia, you're violating the election laws.
Realistically, Elections Canada cannot possibly enforce a nationwide ban on premature Tweeting or blogging or Facebooking of election results. It's the equivalent of King Canute commanding the sea to go back.

Nonetheless, John Enright, who speaks for Elections Canada, says his agency has no choice but to administer the law as written. Citizens are allowed to phone or text friends, or send private e-mails. But posting to a Facebook wall, to a webpage or to Twitter will be considered a violation.
You can phone or text friends (not transmitting to the public), but you can't Tweet to friends. What if you have a closed account so only "friends" can see your tweets? And what if you're not particularly discriminating about who your friends are? How many friends can you tell before your private conversations become public transmissions?

The law's worried that voters in the West either gain strategic advantage over those in the East if they can condition their voting on outcomes in the East or that voters in the western time zones are unduly affected by bandwagon effects. It's not crazy. It was always disheartening to turn on the TV in Manitoba to be told what government the Ontarians and Quebecois had foisted on the rest of us; it's unclear though that being told that in real time would have had substantial effect. It's conceivable that folks Ontario westward might have been more inclined to vote Reform in 1993 on seeing the complete decimation of the Tories in the Atlantic provinces and that a few ridings in the West where the Liberals or NDP came up through a split Tory/Reform vote would have had some Tories flipping to Reform.

But what evidence is out there from the States suggests there's little to worry about. America spans slightly fewer time zones and doesn't restrict election night broadcast of results from the East. At most, early poll results may depress turnout where the election is an unexpected landslide. The losses from that seem rather less than the intrusion on democratic speech imposed by broadcast restrictions. The strongest case I've heard made is that folks in the Florida panhandle in 2000 were put off by early incorrect reports that the rest of Florida was to be a landslide. But that only mattered because Florida was effectively a single district for purposes of the Electoral College; no Canadian electorate boundaries span time zones as best I'm aware. Maybe I've missed something on the two-minute lit search, but if there's no strong evidence from the US that folks in California are seriously affected by hearing how New York voted, it's hard to make the case for continued broadcast restrictions in Canada.

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