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Government Announces Plan to Drop Twitter Ban on Posting Early Election Results

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Friday January 13, 2012
Tim Uppal, the Minister of State for Democratic Reform, just announced via Twitter that the government plans to introduce legislation repealing sections of the Election Act that create a ban on communicating election results before all polls have closed across the country. The change reflects the reality of modern communications tools, which render such bans outdated and virtually impossible to enforce.

I served as an expert witness in the most recent challenge to the rules, launched last year by Bell Media and the CBC.  My conclusion:

In 2005, Internet communication tools such as instant messaging and email did not have widespread, instant broadcast capabilities such that a communication ban appeared feasible. 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.

Today's announcement recognizes those harms and rightly removes the restrictions. When the Supreme Court last examined the issue in 2007, Justice Rosalie Abella wrote the dissent (arguing that the evidence in favour of a ban did not justify the limit on freedom of expression). In support, she quoted a former Reform MP from 1996:

It is important to realize, and anybody who looks at the transcripts of the committee will see that no convincing evidence was provided to the committee that this is creating a serious problem in the functioning of our democracy. . . I asked the various witnesses whether there was any documented evidence or any serious academic study on whether knowing the results in other parts of the country had either of two effects: caused people not to vote or it caused them to vote differently than they would vote otherwise.  There is precious little evidence that either of these things are true.

The MP was Stephen Harper.
Comments (8)add comment

Crockett said:

...
@Geist "The change reflects the reality of modern communications tools, which render such bans outdated and virtually impossible to enforce."

Where have I heard that before ... possibly from the current government who said enforcement of the newly minted C-11 digital lock rules will not be forthcoming?

Logic in this case is being delivered with a scatter gun.
January 13, 2012

Dave said:

A solution in search of a problem...
The broadcast ban has always been a solution in search of a problem. There is no problem because the voting results are held exclusively by Elections Canada until Elections Canada chooses to release them.

Why not just keep refrain from releasing any results until all the polls have closed? Then we don't have to try to censor the Internet (impossible) and there's no risk of messing with electoral outcomes (undesirable).
January 13, 2012

Anon-K said:

@Dave
I was going to say the same thing. It isn't exactly like it is in the public interest that the results be broadcast as they come in... the public may be interested, but that is something else entirely.
January 13, 2012

Anon-K said:

As well
I am not so sure that Harper's statement when he was a Reform MP as still valid either. Given that there has been vote swapping, etc, organized on the Internet as a means not to vote someone in but rather to prevent someone from forming a majority, that would form evidence. How effective it was, on the other hand I don't know.
January 13, 2012

Mark said:

...
The problem with waiting until all polls have closed across Canada before EC releases *ANY* results is problematic because of the time zone differences between eastern and western Canada, which can be as much as 4 hours. Eastern Canada would have to wait until as late as 11 or 12 at night before they could see *ANY* of their regional election results, unless the polls in Western Canada were instead pushed to closed earlier to compensate, reducing the likelihood that people who work during the day in Western Canada will actually bother to vote, since they would need to explicitly take time off to do so, which they may not always reasonably be able to do... especially if they must take the time off unpaid. Where when the polls are open until 7 or 8PM, at least they can go and vote immediately after work without taking any time off.
January 13, 2012

Kibbee said:

Twitter didn't change anything
I don't see how twitter changed anything. We've be able to send election results across the country pretty easily for probably about 20 years on the internet. The same could have been done with something like IRC, or just put up a page on GeoCities. Twitter makes it a littler easier for everyone to listen in to one feed, or to find the location of the information, but I don't think it's a game changer. I understand not broadcasting the results on the news, but if somebody wants to find out the election results early, all they have to do is use the telephone to call up someone on the east coast
January 13, 2012

Christopher Mackay said:

...
@Mark, actually that would be as much as 4-and-a-half hours, unless Newfoundland & Labrador has changed their minds about Confederation again.
January 16, 2012

Robert M said:

...
I'd tend to agree with Dave. The main pressure to release election results as quickly as possible is driven by the media craving somthing to talk about on election night.
The public certainly would not be harmed if we all had to wait until the next morning to hear any results. Only the journalists who would have to find something else to talk about would suffer.
Besides, it is this push for rapid results that is propelling the drive for electronic voting machines. And frankly, those machines, with their lack of paper verification, are a bigger threat to democracy than anything to do with hearing early election results.
January 19, 2012

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