Today is election day in Canada (and to any of my fellow Canucks thinking of giving the ballot box a miss this time, maybe give Derek Miller a read).
Most of the discussion I’ve seen online has been relatively polite, even muted, with only a few lapses into Godwin’s Law territory. The same holds true, for the most part, for the campaigns; none of the relatively little mud being flung has stuck. (Arguably, that’s because the worst of it was thrown in the months leading up to it.)
But one place where passions have flared has been Canada’s law barring the publication of election results from one part of the country before the polls have closed in points west. In years gone by, that prohibition has been relevant only to the broadcast media. But in the social media era, suddenly anyone with a Twitter or Facebook account is subject to those same restrictions… and a lot of them don’t like it.
Elections Canada has said that tweeting election results from, say, St. John’s, Newfoundland before the polls close in Nanaimo, British Columbia would contravene Section 329 of the Canada Elections Act (a provision dating back to 1938). That would expose them to a fine of up to $25,000 — but not, as some overheated news reports have suggested, jail time. The only Internet user ever convicted under that law to date, a blogger, was fined $1,000.
All of this has caused a flurry of tweets under the hashtag #tweettheresults and pledges to challenge the law by tweeting early returns on Monday night. (Full disclosure: my wife Alexandra Samuel and our friend and colleague Darren Barefoot have created a site aggregating those tweets,TweetTheResults.ca.)
Supporters of the law (including the Supreme Court of Canada, in the case of the unfortunate aforementioned blogger) point out that there’s an important public policy reason for it: to ensure that people in all parts of the country vote on a level playing field. West Coast voters shouldn’t get discouraged when elections are already decided before they’ve had a chance to vote, and nor should they have more information about the likely composition of Parliament before deciding which party’s candidate to send there. And they suggest that tweeting the results before 7 p.m. Pacific Time is a pretty self-indulgent, frivolous thing to do.
I actually agree with the first point. But not the second.
Conversation about election results, in real-time, as they start coming in, is more than just kibbitzing about who should have won at Regionals in Glee. This is about a shared experience, discussed and hashed (and hash-tagged) over. We talk about those results and what they might mean to us because they matter… and to anyone who has become concerned over the decline in people’s trust of electoral politics over the last decade or two, that has to be an encouraging sign.
Instead of supporting the legitimacy of the vote and its outcome, banning them as a topic of discussion — at the very time when they’re most salient to people — can only undermine it.
And in a real-time world, saying you’re suspending freedom of expression for just a few hours doesn’t cut a lot of ice. Yes, of course we’re a long way from police officers busting down doors and demanding you step away from your Android with your hands above your head. But it would be a mistake to think that’s the only level of infringement that matters.
With that in mind, here’s the special Canadian 2011 Federal Election version of the cartoon: