Elections Canada misses social media boat as politicians jump on board

It’s being labeled as Canada’s Twitter election, as candidates from opposing parties flood the social media space with their virtual presence in preparation for the upcoming May 2 voting day.

Strangely enough, while the contenders are all racking up unprecedented page views on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, Elections Canada is visibly absent from the social media scene.

The non-partisan election administrating agency is keeping to the social networking sidelines and sticking with tried-and-true media tools to deliver information to Canadian citizens.

No social media for Elections Canada

“Elections Canada does not use social media at the moment. We disseminate information through print ads, radio, telephone calls, mailing and the Elections Canada Web site,” said Nathalie de Montigny, spokesperson for the agency.

The Elections Canada site does have “share buttons” for Twitter and Facebook at the bottom of the page and there is an Elections Canada entry in Wikipedia, although de Montigny said the entry was not posted by the agency.

De Montigny says Election Canada’s mandate is to provide Canadians with pertinent information about the election process “and it is important to us to use methods that are most widely used by the electorate.”

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She may have a point, many surveys indicate that majority of Canadians still get their news fix from traditional media, although these same channels have been scrambling to establish a credible social media presence in recent years.

It is reported, however, that Elections Canada hopes to test online voting within five years. The agency intends to conduct a electronic voting test run in a bi-election by 2013.

Markham‘s social media moves

The Elections Canada spokesperson said the agency is not currently studying the possibility of using social media in the near future. But, if it does ever need a case study on government use of social net tools in an election context, it can probably look to the town of Markham.

The Ontario city which is fast becoming a tech start-up hub for Toronto has used Internet voting since 2003 and recently received an award for a social media awareness campaign aimed at boosting citizen engagement in the municipality and last year’s municipal elections.

During the 2010 municipal elections at least 33 municipalities used Internet and telephone voting.

The town’s DIY Markham campaign was awarded Best Government Online Video in the recent Web Marketing Association’s 2011 Internet Advertising Competition.

The campaign, created by Toronto-based digital strategy firm Delvinia, focused on the use of humorous online videos – distributed through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – meant to engage votes and increase awareness about the delivery of municipal services and the importance of voting at the local level. DIY was part of the town’s larger “Your Vote Counts” campaign.

Adam Froman, Delvinia’s CEO, however, said the town’s use of social media differs in one crucial way from how many Canadian politicians use the technology. “The ground rules were: neither town or town officials or visitors to the site would use it as a political platform,” he said. “If you were found using it to campaign you would be booted from the site.”

Instead, Froman said DIY Markham posed the question to residents: How would they run the city and its services if given a chance?

Easy-to-share, tongue-in-cheek videos depicting a Markham where residents were responsible for services such as garbage removal, water treatment and fire services were posted on the site.

Social media still needs traditional media

Froman said the campaign received sizeable notice from residents considering the brief ramp-up period. The DIY Markham Facebook page received more than 3,300 views. Hundreds of residents clicked on the YouTube videos.

Of the 17,231 Markham residents that registered to vote electronically, 10,597 used the Internet to cast their ballots.

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Markham’s mayor Frank Scarpatti said the DIY Markham project helped the municipality connect with the voters.

“The project also laid the groundwork for greater potential outreach in the future,” he said. “It is key for us to make it easier for all residents to be part of our community and to participate in municipal elections. Overall, I continue to support Internet voting in Markham municipal elections.”

Town Clerk Kimberley Kitteringham said Markham’s agressive social media push is all part of it’s intention to connect with the city’s residents.

“We wanted to tap into the social media space because our population has a growing number of young tech savvy people,” she said.

With new subdivisions, town houses and condos popping out in the municipality and it’s reputation as a go to location for tech start-ups, Markham’s demographic now include a large number of people hooked into the Internet and social networks,Kitteringham said.

“If you want to talk to them, get them into the discussion and hear what they are saying, you need to be where they are,” she said.

Voter support for Internet voting appears to be growing in his city.

In Markham’s 2006 elections a Digital Voter Experience report indicated that:

  • 91 per cent of those who voted online would “very likely vote online in the future”
  • 88 per cent of online voters cited “convenience” as a primary driver for voting online
  • Markham saw online voting jump 48 per cent from 7,210 in 2003 to 10,639 in 2006 this brought overall voter turnout to 37.6 per cent (well above the typical 28 per cent for most municipal elections)

Online voting numbers from 2006 to the 2010 elections, however, were pretty much the same, said Kitteringham. She attributed this not to dissatisfaction with the system but rather to lack of interest.

“There were no burning local issues at that time and we have an incumbent mayor that is popular with the voters,” she said.

The social media campaign though, Froman said, brought up an important aspect of social media campaigns: despite being based on a connected environment, it still needs a traditional media push to encourage greater adoption.

To let Markham residents know about the DIY Markham campaign, the city posted ads about it on numerous local community newspapers.

There was wide awareness of it within the target community but not much outside Markham.

“We learned that we couldn’t rely on the Internet alone. We needed to use traditional channels as well,” said Froman. “To reach a wider audience we would also need to use the mainstream media.”

Nestor Arellano is a Senior Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and join the IT Business Facebook Page.

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